Review: SNK Heroines: Tag Team Frenzy’s “fetishism explosion” is full of polarizing choices

The appeal of a fighting game can be all sorts of things. It can be about mechanical complexity, gorgeous animation, intense matches, speed or big combos, as well as any number of other aspects of the game. The importance of the appeal, though, is that the rest of the game builds around it, and that it’s indelibly defined by this one particular selling point. The game is its appeal.

SNK Heroines: Tag Team Frenzy certainly isn’t an exception, but its chosen appeal is… something.

A tag-team fighter from the team behind King of Fighters, SNK Heroines features just over a dozen women fighters from SNK properties battling using some systems that are peculiar for what’s otherwise a fairly traditional entry in the genre. The scheme, presumably made in an attempt to make the game more accessible, simplifies button inputs for combos so that they’re easier to pull off and that execution is secondary to reading the opponent.

An easy-to-play fighter is a promising idea, but the other overlaid systems really conflict with that goal.

An easy-to-play fighter is a promising idea, but the other overlaid systems really conflict with that goal. Strewn about the map are item balls to break, giving you various bonuses to throw or use. They’re not a simple button press, either: you’re expected to use the stick to throw things in different directions, often relative to the screen and not your character in an exercise in mental gymnastics. There’s a bit you can do to deny the opponent access to these without retreating, but generally you’re hoping they get something less useful or retreating yourself and chucking items at each other for a bit.

Also complicating matters is the way you win a match. Rather than simply knocking out an opponent, you have to beat them down to a low meter level, then pull off a finishing move before they’re able to recover or swap characters. It’s nice to try new things in a three-decade-old genre, but this change feels arbitrary and doesn’t make you adjust your tactics that much. It does encourage saving up your meter to use on a finisher instead of cool special moves, but instead of making for a fight of fundamentals, it means you’re relying more on items for anything flashy.

In terms of feature set, SNK Heroines is a bit thin. It has a short story mode, versus play, “survival” play with consecutive matches and an online setup largely borrowed from King of Fighters XIV. The online play is about what you’d expect from that, then, with a lobby setup, one-on-one matchmaking and netcode that holds up in about 90% of matches and just totally falls apart the rest of the time. It feels like more may have been intended; there are even customizable button shortcuts to get to menu options, which would have been helpful if the menu had many options.

So that’s the base of the game. It has its quirks, and maybe some of them you’ll like, but it’s a game built on the tech of The King of Fighters and that brings with it a certain degree of mechanical competence. Now… let’s talk about that appeal.

SNK Heroines is a game about being a creep. That’s not our opinion! That’s canon. In the story, a creep abducts a bunch of women, forces them to wear outfits that they explicitly express discomfort wearing and makes them fight each other so that somehow he can absorb their energy and… basically abduct every woman and force them to do these things. The women call him a creep and he generally agrees with the sentiment, and then you spend a bunch of cutscenes from the point of view of that creep, spying on the women as they explicitly express discomfort.

The costumes are a whole thing, and we’re not experts in the subject, but we feel safe saying that both the base costumes and the included alternative ones are sketchy and there’s very little you can do about that. You can get each character’s original appearance (though in this context it’s fairly clear how exploitative some of those designs are, too), but even then, you’re not escaping their SNK Heroines look throughout the menus and art and fights. Customization was heavily touted in the game’s marketing, but it’s really limited: you can choose one of four color schemes for a costume and tack on accessories like glasses and cat tails.

SNK Heroines is a game about being a creep. That’s not our opinion! That’s canon.

When we talked to him earlier this year, producer Yasuyuki Oda said the character designs “aimed for a balance of cute and sexy.” Gals’ Fighters, the Neo Geo Pocket Color release and this game’s spiritual predecessor, certainly grounded its appeal in its cute characters, and — hey — it’s okay to be sexy, too. But these characters aren’t trying to be either of these things! They’re kidnapping victims forced into what the antagonist aptly calls a “fetishism explosion.”

SNK Heroines: Tag Team Frenzy has its moments. Terry Bogard dropping arcade machines on people is fun. Hearing some cool SNK remixes while doing screen-filling specials can be a decent time. But at its core, it’s a game that builds half of its systems around being accessible and the other half around being so into fighting games that you’re bored of the fundamentals of how they work, and it’s coated with a setting and aesthetic that alienates most of the group that’d still be interested in that sort of mix.

Score: 4/10
Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: September 7, 2018
Developer: SNK / Abstraction
Platform(s): Switch, PS4
Questions? Check out our review guide.
A review copy was provided by the publisher or developer for this review.

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