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Senran Kagura Peach Bawl

The latest Senran Kagura game, Senran Kagura Peach Ball, is a light-hearted comedic out-of-genre spin-off (it’s a pinball game where you have to restore the girls who’ve accidentally been partially transformed into animals by putting them on a pinball table and smacking them with the ball). So was Senran Kagura Bon Appétit! (Hanzō gets hungry and offers a wish-granting ninja scroll as reward for a cooking competition played as a rhythm game) so comparisons are inevitable.

Both games have the standard Senran Kagura trappings like the dressing room but none of the standard brawling - there’s only the out-of-genre gameplay which is solid but not spectacular. You have to enjoy both that genre and the Senran Kagura brand of fanservice and humor to enjoy the game. I like rhythm games and not pinball; I liked Bon Appétit! and didn’t get into Peach Ball. But Peach Ball actually left me outright sad and I think it’s because of the health of the franchise now versus when Bon Appétit! came out.

Recent Senran Kagura games have felt a bit slim for their price tag, and the comparison between Peach Ball and Bon Appétit! puts that in sharp relief - the more recent game has less content and does less to develop its characters.

Bon Appétit! has all twenty-two girls who were established by that point in the series, each with a unique theme song and set of themed dishes to cook which are the game’s levels. Story mode has a short campaign for each of the twenty-two girls based on why they want to win the competition (and in most cases, what they’d use the ninja scroll to wish for).

Peach Ball has only five characters - the same ones from Reflexions. (Plus Haruka to frame the plot.) The five girls each get… a unique animal transformation costume. And the game’s levels consist of only two similar pinball tables.

But more than that, Bon Appétit! came at a time when Senran Kagura was in a position of strength. It was right after Shinovi Versus had come out - a game which advanced and expanded the series’s story and world, and which was the first to get a physical release in the US. Bon Appétit! thus felt like a fun extra bonus for a healthy franchise (the cross-buy DLC with Shinovi Versus helped that even more). It was okay that it didn’t advance the story; there was good reason to have confidence that would happen in the mainline games. It was just a fun way to spend more time with the characters and see them in a different light - and whichever one was your favorite, she was in there.

Peach Ball came out with Senran Kagura in a much iffier position. The past few games have been in a narrative stasis with no real progress in plot or character development, and though many of them add more girls their worlds have been feeling smaller. The next game, 7even, is supposed to finally move things forward, but has run into problems mid-development with changes in what platforms are willing to publish and studio director Kenichiro Takaki announcing his departure. It’s hard to know what to expect, and that makes it harder to view Peach Ball as an extra bonus to a healthy franchise. It’s barely even a way to spend more time with your favorite characters - it’s only got a fraction of the cast and shines hardly any new light on them. It’s a reminder of what threatens to become the new normal: unambitious, exploitative games with shallow characters and absurd plots that provide titillation and middling gameplay without a foundation of moral and emotional depth.