"At times, I felt like chapter nine's subtitle should have been 'Kobayashi Chou-Chou.'"
Hooray for controversy! Yes, Mugen Souls is another game that was marketed as being "sexy." Yes, they edited the game due to some "sensitive" content. And yet, having deliberately avoided most coverage of the title prior to having played it, I'd need to search the web to tell you what's missing. I wonder if that means the censored content wasn't really necessary in the first place, if they did a great job on the censorship, or if the game just had so much stuff packed in and so little explanation of that stuff that I completely passed over some of what it had to offer. I bet it was D) all of the above. Yeah, that sounds right.
In Mugen Souls, you are Chou-Chou, a self-proclaimed "undisputed goddess" who has decided to conquer all seven of the worlds she knows to exist. At the game's outset, she has only two companions: her spaceship's pilot and an angel who swears that she's a demon who has fallen out of grace because every evil thing she tries to do somehow ends up being a good deed. Clearly, this game has the same sense of humor that gamers are used to in NIS America's offerings.
Chou-Chou's plan to conquer the worlds is fairly straightforward compared to most. She'll travel to each world, meet its designated Hero and Demon Lord, defeat them, and convince them to become her peons. In her opinion, this is sufficient simply because she says it is... and it does seem to work out that way, so I guess it is
sufficient after all. Of course, the Heroes and Demon Lords aren't the only ones who oppose her plan – there's also a mysterious opponent whose true nature is only revealed in the game's final chapters.
Although the sexy gameplay mechanics have been removed for the US release, they are definitely still present in the plot. You see, Chou-Chou can transform at will between eight different physical forms, each of which has her own (highly exaggerated) personality. Most of the forms are extremely easy to understand, with names like "Sadist," "Masochist," "Hyper," and "Ditz," but there are one or two that are a little more difficult to pin down until they come into play in the story, including "Terse." Her method for convincing the Heroes and Demon Lords to become her peons is to figure out which of those personalities they would find sexually irresistible, then change into that form and talk them into submission. This seems to work equally well with members of both genders, although no real question ever arises as to whether the ladies are bisexual, "just experimenting," or just easily swayed.
Despite her eight forms, Chou-Chou is the most two-dimensional character in the game, although the game's "pervy" comic relief boy, who'll flirt (unsuccessfully) with anything in a skirt, gives her some competition. Each of her personalities embodies the characteristic after which it is named, and nothing else. Having seen the game through to its conclusion, I'll give the writers the benefit of the doubt and assume that it's by design, since that two-dimensional nature makes sense in context. In fact, I quite enjoyed Mugen Souls' story, even though many of the plot twists were about as unforeseen as the nose on your face. The localization team did a great job too – the characters each have their own unique speech patterns, and the most formal of them even required me to pull out the dictionary on one occasion.
In terms of gameplay, Mugen Souls is very complex, and yet it offers no in-game help system to explain its mechanics. For example, I've got a team of characters who are all between level 100 and level 175, and I still couldn't tell you what all of their stats mean. I assume that since certain types of guns boost a character's AGI and TEC stats, those are things that make that kind of gun hit harder, but I have no idea what (if any) other impacts those two stats have. That's not to say that the game is confusing to the point of frustration, but it does mean that your main recourse when things get tough is to just grind for some more XP and win by outleveling your opponents.
The good news is that making your way through the game is pretty straightforward. Each world has three "continents," each of which contains one map. As Chou-Chou, you make your way from one end of the map to the other, fighting enemies along the way. Enemies are visible on the map, and touching them starts a battle. Battles are turn-based, but not grid-based. Instead, characters have a move radius, and they can move anywhere within that circle, then attack any enemy in range. If two of your characters are fairly close to each other, they'll team up and increase their attack power (without sacrificing any turns). The battle system generally works well, and there were plenty of cases where I relished the time that a turn-based system gave me to ponder my next move and work out a strategy that would allow me to destroy my enemies or save my team when their lives were hanging by a thread. That said, there are a couple of gameplay elements that impacted Mugen Souls' score negatively, and they therefore bear mentioning, even though they don't turn the game into something awful – just into something less than it could have been.
When it's Chou-Chou's turn in battle, she can try to turn the enemies into her peons. Each enemy is labeled as one of Chou-Chou's eight types and as being in a particular mood, the latter of which is represented only by a smiley face with one of several expressions which you must interpret for yourself. You're given three sets of words to choose from, including things like "smile," "kind," and "crybaby," and depending on the relationship between Chou-Chou's current type and the enemy's type, as well as how well you picked your words, the enemy might become friendlier or more antagonistic toward her. When they get friendly enough, they turn into peons and disappear. When they get angry enough, their health bar refills and they get an attack boost.
The problem is that the relationships between types, words, and moods can be extremely difficult and unpredictable to figure out. Changing Chou-Chou to be the same type as an enemy may make them happy, or it may make them mad. Picking "smile" may actually make a smirking enemy hate you... the list goes on. And since her persuasion affects any enemies within her attack radius, things get exponentially more complex when she's near multiple enemies, all of whom have their own type and mood.
Given the confusing nature of this gameplay mechanic, you might be tempted to skip it altogether and simply kill everyone you come across, but you can't do that. For one thing, Chou-Chou's got a meter that goes up with every enemy the team kills on the current visit to a continent and down with every one she turns into a peon. If the meter gets high enough, your team dies. For another thing, whenever she turns an enemy into a peon, either your team gets healed up by a substantial amount, or any enemies in Chou-Chou's immediate vicinity get damaged by roughly the same amount. Whether to heal or hurt is your choice, and they're too useful to ignore entirely. I got the hang of it, but even at the end of the game, there were cases where I couldn't accurately predict what was going to happen. I bring all of this up because it's an example of the recurring theme in almost every poor design choice in Mugen Souls: complication. If this mechanic had been a notch or two simpler to follow, it could have been more fun and satisfying, but still challenging.
Speaking of challenges, my second complaint relates to the steep late-game difficulty spike. Each battlefield in the game includes a large crystal and several small crystals, each of which have some effect on the battle, from increasing damage taken to restoring some SP every turn. The small crystals only impact their immediate vicinity, but the large crystal affects the whole field. The crystals' affects don't usually make a huge difference in your strategy, except to make you decide not to leave someone standing near a nasty crystal. However, as the game reaches its finale, the crystals' effects suddenly turn very nasty. There are definitely some challenging battles throughout the game, but the final two chapters are a whole different ballgame.
Chapter nine (of ten) is essentially a string of boss battles and cutscenes, between some (but not all) of which you are given a break to heal up. In each of those fights, the large crystal has effects that require you to completely rethink your battle plan... by handicapping you in brutal ways. Examples include disabling Chou-Chou's strongest attack, disabling everyone's strongest attacks, and cutting every player character's HP by huge amounts every turn, all while putting you up against enemies who can kill most of your team in just one turn even though you've got them out-leveled 95 to 65 and are wearing the best defensive equipment available. And of course, should you manage to survive, the game then throws you directly into another boss battle without giving you time to heal up. At times, I felt like chapter nine's subtitle should have been "Kobayashi Chou-Chou
." Rethinking my strategy was sometimes enough, but not always – there's no strategy in the world that can win out in a battle where you don't get to pick your starting positions and the enemy kills all of your party members before your first turn. I eventually decided to just start grinding and see if being 100 levels higher than my enemies would do the trick, and that should never be necessary. (In fact, 50 or so was all I really needed, but still, that's not right.)
Mugen Souls' graphics have a very cartoonish style, in and out of battle, with character portraits that appear during dialogue. However, those portraits are a bit above the usual standards – their lips move and their chests move with breath while the characters talk. It's a small thing, but details like that show that the developers put in the effort to polish the game. The game's worlds each have a distinct look and feel, even if some of them (such as the ice and fire worlds) fall squarely within video game trope territory. The only visual aspect that I don't really care for is that the in-battle character models are all very childish and have essentially the same body, even though their portrait bodies are very different from one another.
And yet, although the graphics are good, the game's sound has to take the crown as its best and most consistent element. Each world features its own set of music that fits in well with the world's theme, and all of that music is great. The background tracks communicate the proper mood as the battle's tension ramps up and down. I don't buy many game soundtracks, but I'd buy this one. The voice acting is also quite good except for one character, and I'd put the blame for her problems on the director rather than the actress.
Sadly, the high quality of the music stands in sharp contrast to the low quality of the controls. In some respects, the controls simply highlight the same issue seen in the gameplay, that of being overly complex. Every button does something, and I found myself pressing the wrong one at times even in the final chapters. This is a minor annoyance, however, compared to the issues with the menu. Even things that are common to almost every RPG aren't as straightforward as they normally are. For example, when buying items, you have no way to see if the store's offerings are better than what your characters are already using. When you're equipping said items, a button press takes you from one character to... some other, random character, without regard for the order in which you've placed them in your party. The menus get the job done in the end, so the game's not actually "broken." They just force you to spend a lot more time with them than you really should have to.
In addition, the camera gets frustrating at times. If you happen to step too close to a wall, it jumps right over your head and goes completely out of focus. If this happened in battle, it wouldn't be too bad, since Mugen Souls is a turn-based game, and you've got all the time you need to adjust the camera. Unfortunately, it only happens outside of battle, and if you're trying to hurry through a tight area to avoid a fight, you can find yourself in deep trouble.
As befits a review, I've aired my complaints here, but it bears repeating that I had fun with Mugen Souls. It's a good game, but not an amazing one, mostly because it's more complicated than it needs to be. And since I got to play it prior to its release, I couldn't rely on the internet for help. The gameplay was censored for US release, but there are still "sexy" visuals and comments. If you (or those who might see you playing the game) are offended by that, you might want to skip this game. However, if that's not a problem for you, Mugen Souls has plenty going for it.