The Vita has, more than once, been said to cater to a “niche” audience. What that means changes depending on how one defines “niche,” but the popularity of titles like Hatsune Miku DIVA F 2nd in the West makes it clear that fans of the rhythm genre are a part of that audience, and they are among the many Vita owners that enjoy games from overseas. November’s Senran Kagura: Bon Appétit is a recent addition to this category. As a cooking-based spin-off of the relatively well-received and largely combat-oriented Senran Kagura: Shinovi Versus (the series’ first Vita game), it’s also a peculiar one. Is combining the rhythm genre with food preparation a recipe for success? Perhaps, but to rhythm fans unfamiliar with the Senran Kagura series, Bon Appétit’s presentation might be unappetizing.
Story- 5/10 Bon Appétit, like its predecessor, centers around all-female squads of teenage shinobi-in-training. These shinobi-in-training attend schools and receive instruction in order to become either “good” shinobi, employed by the Japanese government, or “evil” shinobi, who live outside of the law. Because Senran Kagura is an ecchi series (i.e. it contains subtle sexual themes but does not portray genitalia, distinguishing it from hentai’s more prominent themes and lack of censorship), the characters, their interactions with one another, and their approaches to the conflict between squads fluctuate between solemnity and ridiculousness. Here, each of the 22 playable characters, 12 of which are separate downloadable content, has an individual story (told through conversations with other characters and introspective textual portions) in which she competes in a series of five cooking battles in order to obtain a “Super Ninja Art Scroll” said to be able to grant her greatest wish, which can be anything from wanting to provide for one’s family to creating a harem, depending on the character. Some are more entertaining than others, but ultimately, they’re nothing special.
Gameplay- 6/10 Cooking battles have three rounds and are one-on-one matches. In each round, the player prepares a dish based around their opponent’s favorite food by pressing, holding, and mashing the directional and face buttons as indicated by colored icons that scroll from right to left across the bottom of the screen in two rows toward a shuriken icon. Above these rows, the player’s character and the opponent are shown making the dish. Depending on how close the colored icons are to the shuriken icon, players receive a ranking of either “bad,” “fine,” “great,” or “perfect.”
Getting anything other than “bad” creates or continues a combo, and combos of “perfect” ratings fill up a meter on the left side of the screen that, when full, allows players to perform a “Secret Ninja Art” by pressing the L button. This turns the rows gold and acts as a score multiplier that increases as long as the combo is not broken, and “perfect” ratings are earned. Maintaining a combo during the first two rounds fills up to half of a heart-shaped meter. If it is full by the third round, then a heart appears among the scrolling icons. Triggered by pressing any button, it briefly changes the background from the two characters cooking to close-up shots of the opponent’s body.
At the end of a round, the player’s dish is judged by the length of their longest combo and the types of ratings they received. They are then given a score between zero and 100 and a percentage score between -100 and 100. If the percentage score is less than 51, then an article of clothing becomes ripped. If it is higher, the opponent’s clothing becomes ripped. If the player wins all three rounds, then the opponent is stripped nude, and the player views the opponent’s “special,” which consists of the opponent posing on a plate on top of fruit, her body adorned with chocolate syrup and whipped cream (completing a character’s story allows the player to see that character’s “special”). This is only possible if the aforementioned heart meter is filled, and its corresponding icon is triggered. It is considered a “perfect victory” but is by no means required.
While there is nothing particularly bad about the gameplay in theory, in practice, it has significant problems. First, the result of the third round determines whether or not the player wins the cooking battle. If the player wins the first two rounds but loses the third, then the entire three rounds have to be repeated, which makes getting through songs (opponents’ theme songs), and thus characters’ individual stories, more frustrating at times than necessary, as it contradicts the “best two out of three” approach players expect. Second, there is a high difficulty curve for new players. There are three modes of difficulty, Easy, Normal, and Hard, but these only change the number of icons that appear during a song. The speed and relative complexity of each character’s song remain constant. That would normally not be a complaint, but in story mode and arcade mode (a series of five battles with no story), the first, fourth, and fifth opponents are determined by the player’s character, while the other two are randomized based on the difficulty selected. This means that a simple or slow song can be followed by a fast or complex song with no warning (unless the player has competed against that opponent before). Third, there are occasional drops in framerate during certain portions of certain songs, which can cause icons to be missed and potentially affect the result of a round.
This is alleviated somewhat by playing in free mode, where players can pick any character and have a cooking battle against any other. Since there is no tutorial, this mode is best used for practice. However, one cannot freely switch between modes. For example, if a player completes three out of five battles in a character’s story in story mode and then wants to play in arcade mode, they can’t start arcade mode without losing their progress in that story (so they would have to do those battles again).
Replay- 4/10 Beyond the three modes and difficulties, the game does not have much content appealing to people outside of Senran Kagura’s fanbase. Aside from the settings menu and a list of statistics, there is a dressing room that allows players to view and interact with character models (I won’t go into detail, but this interaction uses the touchscreen), customize their appearance by changing their hairstyles, clothing, lingerie, and accessories, all of which are unlocked by winning battles, and viewing their “specials” if they are unlocked, while the library allows players to view pictures, listen to the game’s music, and hear character voice clips. Downloading the additional characters doubles the game’s length and includes the soundtrack as a free download, but at the same price as the base game, they may not be worth it to everyone.
Graphics/Sound- 7/10 Graphically, the game is identical to Shinovi Versus, with the characters and backgrounds resembling an anime while being mostly smooth in texture (some lingerie pieces are pixelated when viewed from close-up) and sharp in color. The audio is Japanese only, though there are English subtitles in what few cutscenes there are. The soundtrack is decent but not particularly memorable, though a number of character themes include vocals by the voice actresses. It would be nice if all of the songs had vocals, though, since the majority of them are instrumental.
I do not know if Senran Kagura: Bon Appétit is the worst rhythm game on Vita, but I feel confident in saying it is not the best. People who are comfortable with ecchi games may like the humor and certain other aspects of the game, but that’s a niche within the niche audience to which the Vita supposedly caters. The rhythm component, while not boring to play, is not the most original aside from the visual distractions, and is marred by the fact that two-thirds of every song are technically meaningless. If the dressing room is counted as a mode along with story mode, arcade mode, and free mode, since it involves players doing things, then that means three-fourths of the game are technically meaningless, which is a shame.