Kandagawa Jet Girls

I have always greatly enjoy weird racing games. From well-known examples like kart racers to obscurer stuff like Slipstream or… Slipstream 5000. One of my favorite racing games from my childhood was Wave Race 64, so my curiosity was piqued when I spotted Kandagawa Jet Girls in a recent anime-themed sale.

Upfront, I should clarify that I have not seen the anime this game is based on. I didn’t even know this was a tie-in game until a friend pointed it out after I already beat the main storyline. I don’t feel like I missed out on any context by not watching the anime. In fact, considering its poor reception, it may have actually been beneficial to avoid the source material in this case.

The gist of the game is in its title. It stars various groups of girls that all love to race around on jet skis, competing against each other to win the renowned Kandagawa tournament. The main story deals with Rin and Misa. Rin is an energetic transfer student, filled with boundless enthusiasm and a drive to befriend damn near everybody she meets, whereas Misa is standoffish and anti-social. Rin more-or-less forces Misa to pick up jet ski racing again—a hobby she’d abandoned due to a traumatic experience—and together they become the new rising stars of the competition.

The characters are all wacky takes on famous anime tropes. This leaves them quite shallow, but amusing enough to carry a lighthearted racing game. It gives Kandagawa Jet Girls an aftertaste of parody, even when it seems to play its storytelling mostly straight.

Aside from Rin and Misa, there is also a team starring foreign otakus, a team of shrine maidens, an ojou-sama with her food-obsessed friend. There is also a gyaru team, who became my personal favorites. After the main story is completed you unlock bonus chapters for each of these teams, which provide them with at least a semblance of actual depth.

That this game ties-in with an anime does cause an awkward point in terms of customization. The characters look so simplistic that I assumed you could change up their look, but due to branding issues you can only make slight changes. You can recolor their hair and eyes, or have the characters wear somebody else’s outfit. It makes you wonder why they even bothered with customization at all.

Each chapter in the game stars a single race, preceded by brief visual novel segments in which the characters develop their friendships or just have some pre-race banter. These are generally inoffensive when it comes to their content, but the presentation does leave a lot to be desired. The 3D renders for each of the girls look fine while racing, but look awkward when just standing still. Combined with the over-reliance on the same few poses and the less-than-stellar voice acting, it’s not as good as it would have been with a more basic setup like 2D sprites.

So how are the races?

Ooooooooh boy… it’s complicated. The game’s controls are a mess of button inputs. WAD for movement, C go in reverse, V to shoot, F for items, Q for special, Space and Ctrl to adjust your jet’s nose, shift for boost, numerical keys for tricks… it’s a busy time on the left side of your keyboard, to say the least.

I do like the amount of stuff you can mess with because it feels like you’re actually operating a machine; it’s not as easy to master as the game’s casual appearance would suggest. With that said, the controls did need some more work.

Some features like adjusting the nose—where you balance between speed versus grip—are tactical decisions that you just don’t get the right feedback for. You can’t see the current adjustment anywhere and won’t notice how much grip you have until you make a turn and either overshoot or undershoot it. Likewise, timed inputs like doing tricks or firing weapons often won’t work, even when you press the right buttons. Dealing with a complicated control scheme is engaging, but also frustrating when it feels like the actions won’t come through for you when you need them most.

I should clarify the weapons & items a bit. Taking inspiration from Mario Kart: Double Dash, Kandagawa Jet Girls has one girl control the jet ski while another fires at opponents with a water-gun. Each group of racers has a shield you wear down by shooting at them, causing them to spin out when it finally breaks. With just the base gun (mapped to V) it takes a lot of concentrated fire to take down one opponent. Fortunately, you can pick up all kinds of items that damage enemy shields a lot faster, and which can also fire behind you.

It’s a novel idea, implemented poorly. It leads to a burst of action at the start of a race, but once you get ahead, it’s very likely you’ll stay ahead. I won every race in the main campaign with more than a 30 second lead, without ever upgrading my jet ski. The game is so easy that using these items is a rarity. In fact, using half the mechanics like nose adjustment, boosts, and jumps become fancy extras you mess with just for variety, as your lead expands regardless of your effort.

This only changes once you get into the post-game extra chapters, where rivals are suddenly a lot fiercer and use improved vehicles themselves. This was the height of the game for me, as suddenly all those mechanics became relevant and I had to fight hard for my victories. It made me wish the main campaign was at least half as challenging.

The combination of being too easy yet still quite complicated is already a bad mix, but Kandagawa Jet Girls mixes this with some unfortunate jank. Jumps magically adjust your angle when coming at them diagonally, physics frequently give out, acceleration sometimes stops for no reason. It’s not super bothersome, but it’s weird and at least slightly unacceptable from a premium racing game.

At a base price of 50 euros, Kandagawa Jet Girls is hopelessly overvalued. I won’t accuse it of being cheaply-made, as it is an ambitious game catering to a niché genre. With some more polish, a studier difficulty curve, and some tweaks to the presentation, this could’ve been a pretty amazing game. As it stands, however, it’s a charming but troubled title, whose main storyline doesn’t even clock in at 4 hours.

Judging by its average score on AniList, there aren’t any fans of the anime to recommend this game to. Instead, I’ll say that it’s worth getting at an extreme discount if you enjoy aquatic-themed racing games. Or, you know… girls in wetsuits.

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