"In my mind, the game doesn't just push the boundaries of decency, it spits on them. "
I am a hypocrite. I'm loath to admit that, but Criminal Girls 2: Party Favors made me face my shame. It's no secret that I'm quick to bemoan games with vulgar dialogue, puerile sexual innuendos, and content that demeans and degrades women. Yet in that same breath, I'll say that if a game is going to be smutty, then it had better bring the filth and make me squirm, cringe, and feel like a putrid slimeball for playing it. Criminal Girls 2: Party Favors most certainly did that. The simple fact that I had to take a deep breath and steel myself every time I booted the game up made my experience with it noteworthy, if not entirely pleasant.
In my mind, the game doesn't just push the boundaries of decency, it spits on them. Yes, it could be argued that there are plenty of degenerate eroge (Japanese "erotic games") whose depravity sinks lower than the rotting feces in Satan's toilet, but Criminal Girls is more of a "how depraved can we get in a more content-restrictive mainstream gaming medium?" type of game. I'm actually surprised by how much this game got away with, and I'm no stranger to the obscene. For example, I'm an avid listener of extreme metal bands like Cannibal Corpse, whose material has been banned in multiple countries due to their transgressive lyrics and grotesque visual imagery.
It should be noted that some alterations were made to the Western release of Criminal Girls 2 to soften its veneer. For example, some portraits of girls who were originally bound and gagged are now unfettered, thus making the S&M (which stands for the "sadism and masochism" sexual fetish) style encounters at least appear a little more consensual. The S&M style mini-games to build character stats are called "Motivation" rather than "Punishment" to take the edge off of what is basically a male dominance power fantasy. The script omits any references to the seven playable girls' ages, though only a couple of them look like they're 18 or older. The others look like they're anywhere between 12-17 and some of them act childish as well. As can be rightfully inferred, these alterations and concessions did not make me feel any better for essentially Stockholm Syndrome-ing these girls into submission, and I often felt guilty of doing things that would rightfully get me arrested.
So why does Criminal Girls 2: Party Favors have you going Fifty Shades of Grey
on a harem of subversive anime tropes over a 20-30 hour play time? Well, in that lovely place on the brink of Hell, you are a newly, and forcibly, appointed taskmaster with seven maladjusted girls under your jurisdiction to rehabilitate, one of whom is not even on your roster. These girls all died before committing their most heinous crimes, so they still have a small shot at redemption. The journey of redemption consists of an arduous trek through a foreboding, labyrinthine tower filled to the brim with perilous obstacles and nefarious hellions to test even the hardiest resolve. Along the way, these reluctant girls will need a little S&M style discipline to keep them on the straight and narrow path. As silly as the premise sounds, I will admit that there are some decent story beats, moments of genuinely heartfelt character development where the protagonists and antagonists become sympathetic characters, and the one of many endings I received was uplifting. Unfortunately, that "good stuff" does not appear until the endgame portion, and the average person is likely to have lost their patience, or possibly their lunch, before then.
The game is essentially a fixed-layout dungeon crawl where save points operate as campsite hubs where you can heal, buy items, and play the Motivation mini-games to and build up characters' stats, powers, abilities, and responsiveness in battle. There is also a quick save feature to accommodate gaming on the go. Another accommodation is the choice of two difficulty levels: Casual and Normal. Casual is easier than Normal, but both run into the same problem: every boss in the game requires grinding to defeat. Even in the early going, I was rolling along at a good clip and fighting every random encounter I came across (and the encounter rate is somewhat high), thinking I'd be leveled enough for the boss. Boy, was I wrong.
Boss encounters are largely battles of attrition, because bosses have exceptionally high HP and fortified defenses. Later bosses, especially the final boss, also possess incredibly cheap and debilitating movesets that are nigh impossible to counter. Boss battles are not fun at all as a result. The latter boss battles are especially draining, because I feel like no amount of RPG skill could counter the sheer amount of blind luck needed to win, especially with the odds stacked so vehemently against me.
The grinding is made even worse because enemies offer paltry EXP and CM. CM are used to both purchase items and enact Motivation sequences to build character skillsets. Even in the game's latter portions, I never had enough CM, because late-game items and Motivation were pricey. I also felt like I could never build levels quickly enough, but at least all characters gain EXP regardless of whether they are in the active battle party.
Battles themselves are turn-based with a twist. There is no traditional "attack, magic, item" menu, but instead the four girls in your battle party suggest the actions they want to do and you choose one. This makes battles seem a little more like a simple card game where you have to strategize based on the cards you're dealt. And depending on how well you've built up the girls' stats and skillsets outside of combat, they may not always suggest the most prudent actions. In addition, the suggestions come in the form of commentary reflecting each girl's temperament. While these are witty, they don't always explain what the specific skill being used is. A new feature to this game is called "Coach," where you can scold, praise, sympathize or worry for the girls from the sidelines to give them temporary stat boosts. Certain coaching actions are more effective on some girls than others, adding a strategic element to who you include in your battle party. I rather enjoyed the somewhat spontaneous nature of the battles and felt like they had personality.
Dungeon exploration is as basic as it gets. You and your party simply walk around, look for treasure, and fight monsters. There are no puzzles or anything to break up that tedium. There is one dungeon that could have been a fun and interactive puzzle dungeon, like in Lufia 2 or Wild ARMs, except that you don't get to see the puzzles or try your hand at solving them. The puzzles are simply mentioned by the characters during cutscene dialogue and then solved automatically for plot purposes. The lack of dynamic dungeon elements and the need for grinding makes overall progression feel monotonous. The game offers several character-specific sidequests that, while optional, are worth doing because they provide terrific rewards like reduced MP consumption. Unfortunately, those sidequests require extensive backtracking and make the already tedious progression feel even more laborious.
Outside of battle and exploration are the aforementioned Motivation mini-games to build girls' stats and skillsets. Some, like swiping the Vita's touch screen to vigorously scrub soap bubbles off the girls, seem innocuous enough, but other mini-games involve abuse like spanking them or zapping them with electric shocks. These mini-games are clumsy to play, get mind-numbingly repetitive, and almost feel like an afterthought. For those who aren't big on touch-screen mechanics, there is an option to play these mini-games using the buttons and analog nubs. The option to select Motivation input is on the title screen, but I would have preferred that it be in the camp menu to more easily switch preferences as desired. I tried both methods for each mini-game, and while the touch screen controls are generally better, all control pretty awkwardly, especially during phases when you have to hold the Vita vertically.
Earlier, I mentioned some of the concessions put into place to make these encounters seem consensual, such as the removal of bounds and gags in some character portraits. Other concessions, however, made things worse for me. In the Japanese version of the game, Motivation scenes are accompanied by the girls' vocalizations (often of dissent) when they're getting smacked about. In the US version, they're dead silent. The lack of audible voices actually disturbed me even more. See, if there are vocalizations of dissent, at least I can rationalize that the person is conscious, has some fight in them, and some means to verbally refuse and/or resist being violated. The silence made me feel like I was perversely date-raping catatonic girls.
While my gut reaction to these Motivation sessions was to shout, "This is NOT okay!!" and shut off my Vita in disgust, a more sinister part of me started thinking about all the insufferable anime and RPG characters I'd encountered over the decades. I've repeatedly cursed, "Ugh, I REALLY want to smack this detestable character upside the head!" more times than I dare to count. Criminal Girls 2's gameplay mechanics allowed me to act upon those draconian urges, but I learned that even the most vicious inner monster residing in the dark recesses of my soul despises the idea of physically abusing even the most annoying anime or RPG characters. And honestly, the characters in Criminal Girls 2 grew on me throughout the game — by the end, I was rather fond of them. They did not deserve the torture I was forced to heap upon them.
Because I grew up with 2D sprite based graphics, I like the cutesy and uniquely Japanese "chibi" style graphics shown during exploration and battle. The color palette is vivid and dungeon environments are nicely drawn, even if the rooms mostly look the same. I like the originality of the off-kilter enemy sprites with their very angular designs. Given how we're used to seeing roundness in organic beings, the angular lines and shapes of enemies enhance that feeling of "this place is not right."
During Motivation sequences, the full-screen portraits of the girls in suggestive positions have more believable proportions than their chibi sprite counterparts, insofar as you can call physical traits like asteroid-sized breasts and perfectly spherical buttocks believable. And for better or worse, these portraits jiggle suggestively when interacted with. I can't say the portrait art's subject matter appealed to me, but the skill of the artist is paramount in both design and execution. From what I understand, the localization team worked with the game's original artists to make the little touches of modesty in this version's character portraits appear seamless and eliminate the need for any blatant censorship.
In a game whose elements would disagree with the average person, the pleasant music is like an oasis. The synth-based tunes are not the most memorable, but they have a surprisingly bouncy sense of style that befit a schlocky anime filled with melodrama and wacky hijinks. Listening to this game with headphones or earbuds is best, since the music has a lot of subtleties that I would not have heard otherwise. For example, without earbuds, I would not have heard some of the cool basslines in the slower pieces.
Dialogue scenes are accompanied by Japanese voice acting (there is no English voice track) and voice performances are on par with any Japanese-voiced anime-style video game. The only vocal performance that fell flat was the phoned-in singing by the game's voice actresses on the opening vocal song. This is really too bad because outside of the listless singing, I rather enjoyed the song with its catchy Halloween synth-pop vibe.
It's difficult for me to recommend Criminal Girls 2: Party Favors for two reasons. One: as far as RPGs go, there are far more robust RPGs available that offer more satisfying questing experiences. Two: with regard to "sexytime" games, there are plenty of dedicated eroge (translated in English to boot) out there to more deeply fulfill any extreme fetish desires you may have. That being said, this sleazy game certainly had a visceral effect on me and actually had me contemplating the contradictory aspects of myself. However, this experience taught me that my inner monster decidedly prefers the taste of Cannibal Corpse to Criminal Girls.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.