Back in my day, if you wanted to spank it to some anime titties, you had to march uphill both ways through your parent’s AOL age filter to Newgrounds.com. Then, you had to wait for 45-minutes for a dress-up game with graphics drawn in Microsoft Paint to load, all while battling your way through pop-up windows about dick pills. These were the trials us cavemen of the prehistoric Internet Age underwent on our quest for the nut. Hunting down dirty flash games was a haunting afterschool ordeal, often thwarted by your parents coming home early and finding you’d frozen the computer yet again with another salvo of viruses.
These days, it’s easier than ever to find even the most specific erotic delights from the comfort of any device. If you want to catch an eyeful of Japan’s jiggliest import since their spin on cheesecake, all you need to do is turn on your Switch, go to Nintendo’s eShop and search for Senran Kagura: Reflexions. Make sure you get the spelling correct: “Reflexions” is a pun on “reflex” – short for “reflexology”, which is the game’s main focus. It is, after all, a video game about the art of massage.
Now you might say “a video game about the art of massage sounds like an excuse to manhandle anime titty”, and you would be correct. Most Westerners (like myself) will look at Reflexions and probably think it’s Japanese pornography – categorically, it’s very-softcore eroge – and I can’t even argue they’d be all that wrong. There are so many sub-levels of what is deemed ‘pornographic’ among Japanese media that, as a Western consumer, at some point, it’s easier to just call a spade a spade. Most of its sexually-charged elements are heavily implied, but not explicit. There are no depictions of genitals, fully unclothed breasts, or scenes involving sexual penetration. Hence, ‘very-softcore’ pornography isn’t wholly inaccurate, but it falls in that annoyingly interpretative space. Anyone who argues this game isn’t definitively porny, though, is really reaching and free to convince themselves otherwise.
My point is this: I’m reviewing this game for the Nintendo Switch. The Switch is sold as a mobile gaming system, but Reflexions is a game I would never, ever play in public. Nor in private, in all honesty, but curiosity got the best of me.
All of that is probably pretty apparent to anyone reading this review, especially those who like the series past installments. I, however, have never played a Senran Kagura game. I’ve heard of them, and I had a vague understanding of the kind of audience it’s marketed towards based on its art style. From my outsider’s perspective, it’s hard to see the characters and not immediately assume the games are intrinsically raunchy. The designs are more erotically-charged than the industry’s typical sex symbols. But still, Senran Kagura isn’t relegated to the Adult’s Only section of gaming where the real weirdo stuff hides. It seems like there’s genuinely more to explore. So, what lies beneath its haze of shoujo bubbles?
Full disclosure: I’m not really into eroge. Unlike Barenaked Ladies, anime babes don’t make me think the wrong thing. I grew up in the internet’s Wild West, where I learned how to find titillating images of naked people before learning how to ride a bicycle. But still, like most people who went through puberty in the Internet Age, I think Senran Kagura: Reflexions is sweetly tame (I mean, it ain’t no Lemon Party). The whole “this game is porn” thing is easy to get over if you’ve spent any amount of time ogling someone else’s body before. So let’s get it out of our system one last time: lol, tiddies.
In Senran Kagura: Reflexions, you take on the role of the disembodied pseudo-lover to Asuka, a young girl with a crippling addiction to hand massages. Having never played any previous Senran Kagura games, I initially thought Asuka was a generic stand-in female shape for Reflexion’s “Story Mode”, but I Googled her after googling her a bit and learned she’s made previous appearances in other Senran Kagura games. I played maybe half of Senran Kagura: Reflexions before doing this research, and I don’t think you really need to know much about her past lives to get the point of her role here. For those who want to know, she’s a ninja by trade, so it makes sense that she’s always a little sore. She’s an active girl, and possibly a stone-cold killer. That kind of dedication to cross-game lore makes Senran Kagura: Reflexions more than just your everyday ninja massage simulator.
All jokes aside, I can’t even hate on this story, because it doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t. Take it from someone who’s suffered through a host of pretentious, overwrought “narrative experiences” this summer: sometimes you just need to cut to the chase. Take one look, and you know what you’re getting. Nobody’s asking for depth here. The story isn’t even meant to be “good” or “bad”. To even expect any plot borders on memeable absurdity, but the game does indeed provide the most basic narrative building blocks for your relationship with Asuka. So thumbs up for going through the motions, XSEED.
Honestly, I’m cool with this. Because Senran Kagura: Reflexions really knows what it’s about: pleasing its audience… a very specifically needy audience. I’m not even talking about the suggestiveness that coats everything like a fine, lotioned glaze. Blatant eroticism aside, Senran Kagura: Reflexions pulls out all stops to pander to dating-sim fans – from its minigames to it’s beyond ridiculous dialogue to its distinctly Japanese cultural themes and, yes, it’s “plot”. I would imagine it checks off every box you need for a game like this, all while providing its own unique gameplay elements through its Reflexology minigames.
And if you like your anime features super over the top, get ready, cause you’re about to plumb the most real-ass depths of weeb depravity I’ve ever seen on a Nintendo console. Asuka lays on that “l-l-l-lewd!” stuff super thick. It’s costume options touch on all your favorite hyperspecific anime kinks. The roleplaying scenarios explore a number of classic tropes: Student, Tutor, Idol, … “Maybe Your Little Sister”… and uh, “Wrapped Up Like A Present, But Also Kinda Spiderman”. They can’t all be winners, but with so many options, who knows? It probably speaks to someone out there. Even as an outsider looking in, it’s easy to see just how much this game sells the very “best” and very “worst” of what the genre has to offer.
The player’s role is visualized through a set of disembodied hands meant to be an extension of their own physical touch. In all seriousness, this is an ingenious use of the Switch’s hardware. By way of the Joy-Con’s HD Rumble, each and every gentle caress, rolling vibration, and rubber-thighed slide responds in your hand with an uncanny realness. The entire game is built upon this functionality: every minigame in some way responds to the vibrations through the Joy-Con, ensuring that Senran Kagura: Reflexions’ experience is best played in docked mode, viewed on your TV. You know, a big TV. Where Asuka is closer in size to the player.
While it’s playable in handheld mode, the dynamic motion controls and variety in haptic feedback really shine when both hands are free to flail about. I am completely serious when I say it might actually be the best usage of HD Rumble I’ve seen in a Switch game yet. The game prompts you on a number of motions, all of which are used to “massage” Asuka. The better you perform, the more “reflexology” methods you unlock – including the tools and toys used to better work out all those kinks.
Perhaps it’s best to take you on a walkthrough of a typical afternoon spent with Asuka, to get a better idea of what gameplay in Senran Kagura: Reflexions actually entails. Upon entering “Story” mode, you’re greeted by our ninja heroine, where she asks you to gently hold her hands. She extends them toward the player and requests a massage, so you use the left and right Joy-Con to pinpoint the softest, squeeziest parts of her palms and fingers – through which you invoke a sort of tantric, emotional trance. Once you hit certain sweet spots (Asuka will tell you where, and the Joy-Con will respond with a hastening “heartbeat”) you will drift off into any number of daydream scenarios, in which Asuka returns to the screen in a new costume and your hands are given free range of her body. From there, she invites you for further massage – and no, not everything is touchable. Yes, I tried, like some kind of sick, sad monster – for the sake of this review, of course.
Through enough clicks of your Joy-Con trigger, with the cursor over whatever body part you feel like, well, feeling, Asuka invites you for a more focused, intense massage scenario: a Reflexology minigame that involves one of four methods, fixating on a single part of her body. In Senran Kagura: Reflexions, the default Reflexology technique involves beating the everliving shit out of her inner thighs, through gentle drum motions with both left and right Joy-Con. Do well enough, and you eventually unlock more “advanced tools”. One of them is a hairbrush, which you use to lightly massage her arms and shoulders. It neither looks nor feels very appealing, but I’m also not a Japanese schoolgirl with lice.
My favorite method – though the most difficult to get quite right, in terms of motion controls – is what I call the Horrific Ass-Roller. It looks like a back-scratcher with a nub-studded rolling pin on the end, that you use to vigorously work out knots in Asuka’s hamstrings. Of course, during these minigames, she’s posed with dramatic sensuality, for the sake of revealing as much of her underpants as possible. She is a ninja, so, I suppose I can suspend my disbelief in regards to her inhuman flexibility.
As for the last Reflexology method (the “Ultimate” method, no less) you get a vibrating massager with the head of a creepy doll attached to it, with which you jolt Asuka’s solar plexus until she looks like she wants to barf. Nothing out of the ordinary for an eroge game, I imagine. All of these scenarios come and go breezily, and always loop out of the ‘daydream’ and back into the classroom, where you repeat the process over and over, filling up a meter that displays your romantic progress. The reward for all of this is the game’s unlockables: costumes for Asuka, set pieces for her modeling mode, and background music from the game’s catalog of, admittedly, pretty fun music.
One thing I would like to note, knowing full well Senran Kagura: Reflexions is unrepentant in it’s approach to body objectification: Asuka always invites you to touch her, and you never once cross any physical boundary without getting a visual and verbal “okay” from the model. She can even be somewhat demanding with how often you touch her, as to play up the idea that she does, in fact, “want it” (she outright says so, in most cases). In no scenario do you delve into anything that could be characterized as an unwanted physical advance. Of course, the game is purposefully designed this way.
In every daydream, you are expressly asked by Asuka to massage her body and rarely do her reactions result in anything reflective of her own discomfort – save, perhaps, when you actively swing the Joy-Con to slap her breasts, whereupon she’ll cover herself up and ask you to stop teasing. But it’s always just “teasing”. That’s the kind of “innocence” Senran Kagura plays up. No matter how hard you swing your hands in the real world, their digital counterpart never goes so far as a light “lovetap”. You cannot abuse Asuka. The game’s bounds disallow any simulation of physical abuse, of any kind.
Importantly, the relationship between the player and Asuka is presented as one of gentle, consensual exploration, like new lovers inviting each other into their spheres of physical intimacy. It is a simulation that means to portray a healthy relationship, and does everything in its power to shield the player – and in most respects, Asuka – from any notion of emotional or physical pain.
I am not saying what is presented in Senran Kagura: Reflexions is a healthy portrayal of how we should view or treat romance. I’m not saying its portrayal justifies the kind of sexual objectification it exploits, nor do I want to make a statement on the politics of it all. What I will relay to you, as a dude just reviewing this game, is that any “wrong feelings” I had from playing with Asuka were from the disconnect between myself and the digital figure before me. No matter how much haptic feedback those Joy-Cons give, it always felt like one big gag… but I think that’s a little bit intentional.
Maybe it’s because I played Senran Kagura: Reflexions alongside my real life girlfriend (which was every bit as uncomfortable as you can imagine) who kept me grounded in reality, but most of the game’s entertainment value stems from seeing just how far these fantasies go. The developers straddle a line between complete fantasy scenarios and dialogue that gets so personally intimate (never forgetting the power of “I” and “we”) that Asuka often drags you into an emotional space that’s simultaneously “too real” and “absolutely absurd”. Obviously, taking one look at her tells you just how real she is, but the things she says are far more intimately manipulative than any visual stimulus in the game. Spoiler alert: there’s a LOT of build-up to hear her say “I love you”. You gotta really earn those three little words, by way of excessive thigh drumming.
In regards to that specific experience – of feeling like you have a loving girlfriend to take care of, and vice versa – Senran Kagura: Reflexions takes a page from its own gentle-touch playbook and rips it to shreds. It’s with a heavy hand that it imposes this sense of simulated passion. Asuka’s cloying affection, the sweet nothings she whimpers, and her constant stream of approval for your every action (even when you flub her massage minigames) almost feels like she’s holding your head into a bathtub of romance and won’t let you up for air. It’s up to you to figure out if that’s your thing or not.
Asuka is an avatar who is meant to invoke feelings that, I’m sure many people will assume, are unfortunately out of reach for some people, most of whom may turn to this game for a certain simulated experience. That said, I don’t think anyone playing Senran Kagura: Reflexions is under any illusion that Asuka is what a real girlfriend is like… and if they are, all I gotta say is: shit, dude.
I feel like anyone interested enough in this game to actually buy it just wants to enjoy a little cuteness… and, let’s not kid ourselves, something to help them get their rocks off. If you need this mix of visual stimuli and verbal comforting to get there, far be it from me to judge you for wanting to spend a little time with Asuka. These kinds of games are intrinsically steeped in a sort of moral grayness that doesn’t settle quite right with me, but that doesn’t mean those who do like them should be given a low-quality product. Looking at it from that perspective, I actually think Senran Kagura: Reflexions, is a very well-made video game. Not only does it utilize new technology in a fun, creative manner, but it is chock-full of rewarding unlockables, catchy music, and nicely designed models/backdrops.
On top of that, it’s got enough self-awareness to remind you that it’s just a game, not a girlfriend. Anyone concerned about the psychological ramifications of a digital plaything “girlfriend” should probably know that Reflexions is far-removed enough from reality to safely assume it’s players won’t try to replicate the in-game behavior or ideas. And if they do, I wouldn’t blame the game for encouraging it.
You can, of course, play the massage minigames with Asuka at any time, without worrying about exploring story portions, though it’s through the main game mode where you unlock new outfits and background music. There is also a surprisingly deep modeling mode, where you can position Asuka in a vast array of scenes, in any pose you desire. Every inch of her body can be manipulated, zoomed-in-on, flipped around, etc. It’s like Tony Hawk’s Create-A-Skater, except you don’t skate, you just kinda jiggle around. And the best part? On the Switch, you’re just one button away from saving those screenshots, and another click from uploading them straight to Facebook or Twitter – just in case your mom asks how your girlfriend’s doing!
Really, though, the amount of unlockable costumes, accessories, and clothing you can put Asuka in is staggering, as it probably should be for a game so focused on her looks. By the time you’re done swapping out and recoloring hair, picking out her undergarments, and layering on all sorts of fetishy eyepatches, you’ve got a totally different girl from Asuka – your very own, meticulously curated girlfriend experience. Interestingly, though, if you dive back into the main story, your “dressed-up” version reverts back to her default look. If there’s a way to make this not happen, I haven’t figured it out – but there are so many unlockables, it might just be buried deeper in than I’ve played.
To make a very niche game topical, let me finish with an analogy I think most people will get: Senran Kagura Reflexions is the Donald Trump of eroge. It is an unbridled firehose of everything its fans want to see and hear – totally shameless, and proud of the fact. It’s born from that strange place we’ve all come to face recently, where truth no longer seems to matter. But it was never about what girls really want, or how relationships really play out, or how the human thigh reacts to extensive senpai beatdowns. To the people who like this sort of thing, it’s about fantasies that are bigger and more amorphous than Asuka’s cup size.
Marvelous Entertainment used to have a hand in cult-classic games like Rune Factory, but now we get “Flying Out Enormous Breast Drama Hyper Battle” because that’s what people buy. As gamers, we cast our ballots with our money, and Senran Kagura: Reflexions is the consequence of our vote. Many people will probably reject or even revile this game. They’ll say “well, I didn’t want this”, but it doesn’t matter. It’s here, and it’s not here for them. Somewhere along the line, a silent majority called out for a ninja massage simulator, and their voice was heard. For a small, arguably disenfranchised group of gamers who remember the sweaty desperation of those afterschool porn hunts, this is nostalgia of the strangest order. This is a “reflexion” on days gone by. For them, it’s all about one goal, above all else: Massaging Anime Girls Affectionately.