There's Mai, and then there's everyone else.
I’ve had quite a run of fan service-heavy video games lately, ranging from Blade Strangers to Senran Kagura, but SNK Heroines: Tag Team Frenzy is arguably the most robust though maybe not the most ambitious. In this brave new world of accessible fighting games designed for filthy casuals like me, it’s another light on the horizon and I hope a bellwether of things to come.
While Blade Strangers utilized fan service as an aspect of its character, SNK Heroines positively bathes in it. The game’s only male character—a sandman named Kukri from King of Fighters XV—has kidnapped 14 women from previous games and trapped them in his “pocket dimension” where teams of two are forced to do battle to achieve…something. Kukri has given all the women three different outfits (two of which must be bought with in-game currency) that are either skimpy, ridiculous, or both. This pocket dimension also includes a gender-swapped version of series mainstay Terry Bogard because why not. To give you some idea of the degree of ogling SNK Heroines encourages, I note that Mai Shiranui’s default costume is a ridiculous bikini. You have to buy her loose-fitting red robe.
Like Blade Strangers, SNK Heroines aims to simplify the gameplay to near-Smash levels of accessibility: all of the attacks are based on a single button and a direction, even the special attacks and “finishing moves.” Most characters have relatively few attacks, but Luong (another KoFXV newcomer) has a ton that all branch off each other. The goal is to get your opponent into the red and then hit them with a “Dream Finish,” which ends the match. You can’t actually win without getting a Dream Finish, and if you perform a Dream Finish before your opponent is vulnerable to it, it will register as a normal attack (and will do a good amount of damage but won’t end the match).
This means that most battles have a certain amount of push-and-pull as you work to not just drain your opposing team’s health but also stamina. Items pop up during each round and have various effects, like causing a bomb or poison bottle to drop on your opponent or boost your team’s health or stamina. Good use of these items is often the key to victory as they can usually be deployed when you’re nowhere near your enemy.
The character roster is a little underwhelming, featuring 14 fighters pulled mostly from King of Fighters XV (I suspect they’re using the same character models). I’m not familiar with the majority of them, but of course fan service mascot Mai Shiranui is front and center. There are a few too many loli characters, which I’m never comfortable with in these sorts of games (sorry, Marie Rose). However, for the most part, everyone has a good set of attacks and feels balanced. I don’t like having to hold the L button down to block, though; as a gamer raised on “press back to block,” it’s a surprisingly difficult mental leap to make.
For single-player content, there’s a Story Mode in which you are encouraged to choose certain teams (check the Artwork section for suggestions) and then battle towards a final fight with Kukri. The cut scenes in between fights are equal parts of funny and weirdly voyeuristic. Kukri’s a creepy guy. The usual Training and Survival modes are here too. You’ll earn in-game currency for most single-player content, which can be used to buy costumes and a massive wealth of customization options, which is the other big part of SNK Heroines that is either deeply engaging or a giant waste of space depending on your point of view.
While characters cannot share primary costumes, they all share a huge array of hats, eyeglasses, contact colors, gloves, bracelets, anklets, hip decorations, and things you can attach to their backs (like angel wings or a turtle shell). All of these accessories come in a variety of colors. The idea is that you can customize your favorite heroine to your heart’s content, save that build, and then use it during (offline) multiplayer bouts. This is more fun in theory than in practice given the wealth of options and the fact that you have to buy (using in-game currency) 99% of it.
Once you’re done customizing your gal, you can pose her (poses cost money) in front of a variety of background images (which also cost money) although I’m not sure why you would. You can then take a photo of her all dolled up in your perfect pose that becomes your profile avatar. It’s possible something unlocks once you buy everything (your “purchased items” are tracked) but given how little you tend to make playing matches, I’m not particularly compelled to grind for all of it.
At least the game looks good. I find it looks better on my TV (whereas the opposite was true of Blade Strangers) where little details stand out better, and you can appreciate the animation more. You can count me among the folks not particularly impressed with SNK’s character models from King of Fighters XV and they haven’t really been changed here. Aside from Mai’s bra size, nothing really stands out—the game lacks a unifying art design (although I love the flourishes that accompany special attacks and Dream Finishes). The music is fine if forgettable. Are English dubs just too much to ask anymore? Oh, and guys, we have to talk about your menu icon (and box art). You need to change it because it’s terrible.
A WILD DAAN KOOPMAN APPEARS TO COVER THE ONLINE*
As far as the online play is concerned, SNK Heroines is a major letdown. The lobby system looks slick, but very quickly, it all turns sour. After 20 matches online, not one of them went well. This was the case both closer to home as well as internationally. The big problem is that matches immediately slow to a crawl, which results in faulty inputs as well as abnormal movements from the characters. Blocks might get ignored, special attacks have a higher chance of missing and movement is a joke. In addition, despite attempting the quick match play system multiple times, I was unable to find another player even once.
I also note that, at least when choosing your character(s) in online matches, your customized builds aren't actually selectable?
For what it's worth, SNK Heroines is a fun fighting game with (local) multiplayer options but, like so many fighting games, lacks a real single-player hook. I suspect your enjoyment of this game will depend on whether you have a stable roster of real-life friends because it seems like online play is currently borked. Maybe they can patch it? There are DLC characters coming down the pipe, so the roster will improve but there’s not a ton of reason to keep coming back for solo play.
*I've been stuck in a hospital room for the last eight days and of course the hospital WiFi is from the Bronze Age, so online multiplayer was not in the cards. Thanks to Daan for the assist!