In my time reviewing games, I have played more than a few titles involving scantily clad anime ladies in absurdly compromising situations. From Gal*Gun to Senran Kagura, nary a smutty anime game has been published on consoles in the last few years without coming under my scrutinous gaze. Valkyrie Drive: Bhikkhuni, the latest entry in the quickly growing fan service-focused game market is, in most ways, just like those that came before it. Beneath a forgettable story is a game full of endearing character cliche’s and deceptively deep gameplay, making for an enjoyable, if overly familiar time to anyone familiar with games like Senran Kagura or Onechanbara.
More than anything, I keep coming back to games like this because of how bat shit bonkers their story components can get, and Valkyrie Drive does not disappoint. The main conceit of the story revolves around a virus that has infected teenage girls in a futuristic, fictionalized Japan. The infected girls come in two varieties: Extars and Liberators. Extars, when sexually aroused, can enter into something called “Drive” with Liberators, which then turns them (a person) into a weapon (not a person) for the Liberators to use in battle. It’s all pretty standard, off-the-wall ecchi genre fodder, serving as little more than a thin excuse to have a game where two girls can touch each other, and then fight robots wielding each other as swords, spears, and other assorted weaponry…but it works. The story starts with twin sisters Rinka and Ranka, who each have the power to transform into either Liberator or Extar, and are sent to the island of Bhikkhuni for training, in order to better grasp their powers. Naturally, they are joined by several classmates, each of whom are playable across the main ~15 hour campaign. I have to give props to Valkyrie Drive for one thing; it does character development right. Where series like Senran Kagura are happy stuffing as many characters as possible into the narrative to suffice for a lack of development, Valkyrie Drive instead focuses on a select few characters as they change through their experiences. Friendships and rivalries are made and settled, and by the end of the game I felt like I had really been on a journey with these characters, even if the proceedings were a bit by the numbers for the genre. If you have any familiarity with the dramatic tendencies of anime, you probably won’t be surprised by any of the plot twists. Still, a solid localization does its job well, making Valkyrie Drive an enjoyable journey.
By now, standard hack n’ slash gameplay does nothing for me. It’s one of the reasons I actually enjoy the Senran Kagura series’ brand of mid-air gameplay, adding a more tactical layer to the mundane formula of Koei’s Musou games to make something simple yet engaging. Valkyrie Drive takes a similar combat system, and blows it out with a variety of mid-air maneuvers that require precise timing to execute. It’s a demanding system, simple to pick up but hard to master, even after several hours of play. Each character also plays drastically differently from one another, thanks to a variety of weapons such as bows, swords, and spears. However, Valkyrie Drive does itself a disservice with its enemy designs, which do nothing to necessitate such a deep combat system. In game design, there is a theory called Dominant Strategy, which states that the quickest route to winning is the one players will most often take. In Valkyrie Drive, that strategy is to simply hammer on the light and heavy attack buttons, paying no mind to the deeper combos and launchers that players have access to. It’s a questionable choice, especially given the variety of enemies. A more intelligent brand of brawler, such as DmC: Devil May Cry might create specific enemies or attacks that can only be dealt with using some of the more advanced tools in a players arsenal. Valkyrie Drive isn’t quite that smart, even if it’s generally satisfying in spite of this lost gameplay potential.
In previous reviews like Criminal Girls 2 or Gal*Gun: Double Peace, I have often glossed over the sexuality of these games, regarding them as little more than footnotes to the characters, gameplay, and story. But Valkyrie Drive has made me question the validity of this approach. Like any art, each element of a game deserves to be properly discussed, especially in a review, and hollow anime smut isn’t exempt. While the story isn’t without its small merits, the sexual aspects of the game are sure to raise the eyebrows of anyone unfamiliar with the genre. If it were a AAA multi-platform game from a publisher such as Bethesda or Ubisoft, the internet would be aflame with calls for boycotting. But a Playstation Vita exclusive from an up-and-coming British publisher is all but guaranteed to fly under the radar of anyone who might find the content objectionable.
It would be culturally inept to simply write off Valkyrie Drive as typical Japanese smut without taking a closer look at the themes surrounding its erotic intentions. As bombastic as its action can get, or as endearing as its characters can be, it is still a game about teenage girls with preposterously large breasts who fondle each other, and turn one another into objects to carry into battle. As there is technically no nudity and all of the characters are technically of legal age for consenting sexual activity in the US, taking issue with the use of these characters for titillation is up to individual discretion. But turning each other into weapons is the most literal use of objectification I have ever seen, across the many, many games and anime I have played in this same vein. On its face, this is absolutely deplorable, and nothing more than an excuse to watch digital girls come close to getting it on. That’s one way to view it. Yet I can’t help but debate with myself if that’s actually the case. While there is certainly no point aside from sexualization to this element of the game (an easy fix would be to just give the girls weapons from the outset), the story humanizes these characters in such a way that calling them poorly thought out would be ridiculous. There is so much time spent on exposition in this game, that I’m almost positive almost half of my playtime was spent scrolling through the visual novel-style cutscenes.
But is this kind of objectification acceptable? Certainly not in the real world, where movements have fought for decades to have women taken seriously, regarded as equals to men. But in a fictional world of anime girls? I don’t think there’s much harm. The impetus lies in the audience being able to discern what is and isn’t acceptable from their entertainment. These games are clearly not for children, so we have to trust in the adults who buy them to not treat the women in their life like objects because of a video game, something that no stable-minded adult should have a problem with. As for the question of whether this kind of entertainment should exist, I firmly believe that if there is an audience for it, it should, within moral boundaries. Some might not agree, and that’s ok. They don’t have to buy the game, and can go on with their lives pretending it doesn’t exist.
I myself am far beyond a time in my life where these kinds of games were played for cheap erotic thrills. In truth, I find them mostly hilarious. Partially because of their over-the-top premises, and partly because these premises are often knowingly played for comedic effect, with a copious serving of fanservice on the side. Valkyrie Drive: Bhikkhuni is no different. Its gameplay is satisfying and deep, its story is solid, and its sexuality practically bludgeons you over the head. If that’s your thing, then I’m not going to yuck your yum. But if the idea of a game centered around the concepts of objectifying young women bothers you, your time is certainly better spent elsewhere.