Is Burst Re:Newal Too Faithful?

When is a game remake too faithful?

I’ve been playing through Senran Kagura Burst Re:Newal, a PS4 (and PC) remake of a several-year-old 3DS game. The action has been adapted from a 2.5D sidescrolling brawler to a full 3D one, with many tweaks and improvements to the combat and of course the graphics. The story structure and content are identical, which makes it a weird nostalgic mind trip to actually play. That’s mostly a good thing. But despite featuring easily the best combat the series has ever had, it still has one of the worst boss fights I’ve ever seen.

Late-game spoilers follow, but nothing I’d expect to ruin the game for anyone.

The story in Burst is split into the Hanzo and Hebijo sides, providing different perspectives on events happening at the same time. Hanzo was written first and is expected to be played first, and I’ve replayed that one in Re:Newal but not yet replayed the Hebijo one.

The entire story builds toward a showdown between Hanzo and Hebijo, and in particular an all-out final battle between their respective class leaders Asuka and Homura. It’s foreshadowed and carefully loaded with emotional significance from early on, making it feel increasingly tragic yet inevitable as the game continues. Once you reach the fight, it feels like the arrival of a fated hour. Asuka is itching to prove herself by winning a battle that she regrets having to fight but recognizes as the unavoidable culmination of everything that’s come before, and if the narrative hooks have worked and the player is invested in the story and characters, they share these complicated emotions.

The fight happens, and it’s properly climactic. The atmosphere is dialed up to eleven and the player is tested on the fighting skills they’ve been practicing in every mission leading up to this point. It’s a solid final boss fight, and victory is cathartic because of how well the fight has been built up to. Asuka wins (in the Hanzo version of the story) and the story has a satisfying conclusion.

Unfortunately, the game keeps going.

Out of GODDAMN NOWHERE, a giant demon named Orochi appears, apparently somehow summoned by Homura’s rage and pain? Or something? Very little explanation is provided and there has been absolutely zero foreshadowing or any discussion of demons at all in the entire Hanzo story up to this point. (I think when they later added the Hebijo story, they actually explained it? I can’t remember if the context was provided there or in later games. I’ll find out soon when I replay the Hebijo story in Re:Newal.) Orochi is very much what TVTropes calls a “Giant Space Flea from Nowhere,” a non-sequitur of a boss with no connection to the established world or plot. This would be disappointing even if it didn’t come immediately after (and thus deflate the satisfaction of) a boss that was extremely well integrated into the plot.

It’s also a terrible fight mechanically. The whole game has trained you to fight human shinobi, with an emphasis on reading telegraphs to properly dodge or parry attacks and set up combos. The final battle against Homura serves as a proper final exam of these skills, requiring you to execute them consistently and well. But Orochi is not a human shinobi; it’s a giant demon. Most of your skills are now useless. Most of Orochi’s attacks can’t be blocked or parried (and even the ones that technically can don’t allow setting up combos in the same way). The result feels nothing like the rest of the fights in the game - instead, it’s a generic action game set-piece boss fight. Learn the boss’s attack loop, avoid the attacks, get in hits when you can. As the end of a game about dueling shinobi, it’s dull. And it’s made duller by being four phases long with significant health bars in each phase, totally different attacks patterns to learn in each phase, some of which can essentially one-shot you if you’re unlucky (sweeping attacks tend not to knock you out of the way, but drag you forward with them and hit several times), and death meaning a full restart from the first phase.

I got to the final phase on my first try, but that phase has the deadliest attacks and I didn’t learn all their telegraphs and how best to avoid them before I died - which sent me back to the beginning of the first phase, meaning it was a few minutes before I got to take another look. Ultimately it took me something like five attempts, during which all the tension was destroyed because the first three phases had been reduced to Simon Says and even the final phase was defeated not because I sufficiently refined my skills but because I finally understood the telegraphs and the appropriate responses.

(And then technically the final blow is delivered not by the player but by Asuka in a brief cutscene. This barely registered since I was just happy the fight was over, but it adds to the long list of crimes against boss fight design committed here.)

If this were a new game, it’d be obvious to me that it would be a strong improvement to just remove Orochi. I felt so much better about the game after the Homura fight than I did after the Orochi fight. And indeed I think the designers learned that lesson and no Senran Kagura game ever pulled a stunt like this again (even the Hebijo story in Burst avoids it).

But this is a remake, which makes things murkier. Orochi was in the original Burst and had most of these problems then as well (and the remainder are unsurprising results of updating the fight to a properly-epic set piece on a modern console). As much of a non-sequitur as Orochi’s appearance was at first, it got woven into the plot in significant ways later on and can’t easily be removed. If you’re dedicated to creating a faithful remake - which the rest of the game is - and don’t want to radically change Orochi or the game’s systems or make Orochi nonsensically easy (from a plot perspective) to beat, I don’t really know how you fix this.

My instinct would be to relax some of these constraints, particularly given Senran Kagura’s consistent flexibility in regards to its own canon. But it’s not an obvious call, and I don’t really fault Burst Re:Newal for making a different decision.