" In true Mugen Souls fashion, nothing quite goes according to plan, plenty of hijinks ensue, and several wacky curveballs are thrown the cast's way."
It looks like Compile Heart is learning from their past mistakes. The common complaint about their games is that they try to cram everything but the kitchen sink into their gameplay systems, making for a bunch of unnecessary mechanics that often work against each other. Less is often more, as they say. Parent company Idea Factory is starting to realize this through games like Hakuoki (their least complex but most enjoyable game) and Record of Agarest War 2 which, while still having a few too many extraneous elements and sharp difficulty spikes, was edited enough from the Idea Factory norm to be a surprisingly competent game.
Now we come to the Mugen Souls series. I enjoyed the original when I previewed it at E3 2012. I loved the game's goofiness, camp, and unabashed silliness, and the music was great too. Unfortunately, when I played the retail release, I was not thrilled by the aforementioned "too many conflicting mechanics creating a bumpy gameplay experience," especially since many mechanics were only explained once, there was no tutorial ledger to be found, and many of these mechanics relied too heavily upon randomness and dumb luck. There were also slews of character stats that, even toward the end, were a complete mystery to many players. Early reports surrounding Mugen Souls Z indicated that the game learned from its predecessor's mistakes and played more smoothly. Thankfully, after playing it, I can tell you that those claims hold true. Mugen Souls Z is a far more fluid and enjoyable experience than its predecessor and delivers more of its characteristic fanservicey anime schlock, but could still use a touch more polish to achieve potential greatness.
Mugen Souls Z is a direct sequel that takes place a few months after the first Mugen Souls game, but most of the backstory you need to know is explained in the game through exposition and a summary on G-Castle's notice board. Sure, as before, minor ancillary components were removed in the localization, but nothing that affects the game as a whole. In fact, unless you vehemently pointed at any omissions, I would have no clue of their existence. Basically, I consider this localization as Mugen Souls Z with a shave and a haircut. That being said, some references to characters and their personalities may be lost to those who didn't play or complete the first Mugen Souls game.
The story catches up with our favorite undisputed god the entire universe, Chou-Chou. Not satisfied with conquering the seven worlds in her solar system, Chou-Chou now has her sights set on conquering the 12 worlds in a new solar system. While Chou-Chou and company embark to infinity and beyond, we learn that each of the 12 worlds in this new solar system has an ultimate god associated with it; new protagonist Syrma being one of these gods. Having been sleeping in her coffin for so long, Syrma is finally released by Nao- the self-proclaimed hero of the 12 worlds. Much to Nao's chagrin, Syrma is totally ditzy and inexplicably drags around her magical coffin with her. While Nao scratches her head at this wacky new development, Chou-Chou descends upon them. Hijinks ensue when Chou-Chou tries to swipe Syrma's coffin. The coffin opens, sucks Chou-Chou in, robs her of her powers, and spits her back out in a squat "super-deformed" form. Chou-Chou, aggravated beyond belief, demands that Syrma and Nao help her find a way to restore her powers. Although reluctant, Syrma and Nao decide to go along with Chou-Chou's nonsense because G-Castle (Chou-Chou's ship) has a sweet bath house. In true Mugen Souls fashion, nothing quite goes according to plan, plenty of hijinks ensue, and several wacky curveballs are thrown the cast's way.
The storyline is a bit disjointed and sometimes doesn't make sense, but whenever I felt that way, a character would step in and express exactly what I was feeling. New characters in Mugen Souls Z not used to Chou-Chou and company's brand of buffoonery either embrace the chaos or get appropriately exasperated as Chou-Chou's motley crew turns the world(s) they know upside down. Protagonist Syrma is a lovably ditzy "ultimate god" whose cluelessness (and penchant for giving people pet names) provides a good foil for Chou-Chou's annoyance and matter-of-fact Nao's desire to get to the point and get stuff done. Given the over-the-top ridiculousness of this game's comedy troupe, you need a good "straight man," and Nao fills that role beautifully. In fact, I found her to be the most representative in-game voice of someone new to Mugen Souls. My only real issue with the characters is that between the returning characters and the new characters, the cast exponentially grows pretty quickly, and they generally don't develop beyond their one-dimensional tropes. Thankfully, during gameplay, all characters earn EXP regardless of whether they were used in battle.
As expected, Mugen Souls Z continues the series tradition of exaggerating and downright lampooning the various anime and JRPG tropes we all know. Characters that often represent the most annoying aspects of their particular trope? Check. Overly lengthy cutscenes that mock the trope of characters talking a lot but ultimately saying nothing? Sure thing. Middle-school level "giggle-giggle-snort-snort" sexual innuendo? In spades. Over the top voice acting in both languages? Hell yeah.
Let me expand a bit on the voice acting. The voice acting is excellent in both languages, though I preferred to play the game with English voices, which I almost never do when given a choice. All characters are voiced during cutscenes, often with hilarious results. Sure, some of the English voice acting may seem hammy or overacted, but it's intentional to make fun of various anime and JRPG tropes. For example, the voice actor for Belleria goes for broke with the "lost in translation" trope, where certain speech patterns that sound great in Japanese sound really awkward in English.
What's growing out of its predecessor's awkward phase is the gameplay. There are still a few sharp difficulty spikes that require grinding (this first became noticeable in Chapter 6), progression that gets repetitive after 20 hours, and a few ancillary mechanics and stats the game could do without, but the game progresses at such an improved pace that some of these niggles don't matter as much. The reduction of lulls in the game's progression and shortened load times make this lengthy game feel less cumbersome than its predecessor, and I was, therefore, more forgiving of some one-note jokes overstaying their welcome in this lengthy title. Seriously, this game is long. The main game can definitely last more than 40 hours, and I've heard of people going past the 60 hour mark with the post-game and side content.
Those new to Mugen Souls might be a little overwhelmed with all the mechanics, but will enjoy the challenge. Those who've played Mugen Souls before will fall right into this one and be glad for all the streamlined refinements, as gameplay is very close to the first game, what with Syrma being a vessel for Chou-Chou's powers of transformation. Basically, you land on a world, explore it, fight battles, talk to the world via ley lines
, convince the world to become yours one ley line at a time, uncover a hidden ruin, explore it, coerce its ley lines to join you, fight boss, lather, rinse, repeat. Every so often, a ship-to-ship battle like those in Skies of Arcadia occurs, and those are fun.
Normal battles are turn-based, except that before any command is selected, you can move your character around the battlefield for optimal strategic positioning. The first Mugen Souls game had the "Moe-Kill" system, wherein Chou-Chou could transform into one of seven archetypes and turn monsters into peons or items. Choosing a series of three "Moe-Kill" actions would either raise a monster's heart bar (to make it a peon), happy face bar (to make it an item), or rage bar, which enraged enemies and restored their HP when maxed out. This system was a complete crapshoot that depended on sheer dumb luck. Thankfully, the "Captivate" system in Mugen Souls Z improves on that, allowing you to see how Syrma's "Captivate" actions (referred to as fetish poses) will affect an enemy before using them. This makes it much smoother and easier to turn monsters into peons or items without having to rely on blind luck. However, you can't rely on this mechanic too much, because bosses are largely unaffected by "Captivate," so you'll need to trounce them the old fashioned way. Although Syrma does use Chou-Chou's powers in her own particular idiom, she is not a Chou-Chou clone and has some moves and powers unique to her. One of these is called "Coffin Effects." After Syrma has successfully made an enemy into a peon, her coffin can do one of 8 tasks such as heal the party, do massive damage akin to Chou-Chou's old "peon ball," enhance attacks, or create defensive shields.
Also refined are the effect crystals that can affect a portion of the battlefield. The crystals used to just come in one color, but now they are color coded to signify the kinds of effects they could produce, be they boosts or handicaps. Some crystals have restorative effects, some boost stats, some reduce stats, others create handicaps (e.g. linked attacks are unusable within that crystal's radius), and some can potentially turn every enemy on the battlefield into a peon. Exploiting these crystals can mean the difference between victory and defeat, particularly during later battles.
Outside of battle, the most notable addition to G-Castle (the party's home base and town hub) is the notice board. The notice board provides all manner of information, including previously-seen tutorial sequences. Considering how twiddly several gameplay mechanics are, having tutorial archives to refer back to is great. The general interface, though, remains practically unchanged from the first game. While usable, the menu interface could definitely be cleaner, more streamlined, and more ergonomic to use. It's classic Idea Factory/Compile Heart, obfuscating the simple with needless complexity. The analogy I like is "making the obvious sound profound." In addition, fonts are often small and therefore difficult to read. This is especially trying when accessing the automapper. Sure, it has a zoom function, but even maximum zoom is too far out for my purposes when I'm trying to read information from small fonts.
Aesthetically speaking, Mugen Souls Z looks like Mugen Souls, albeit a smidge glossier and with a smoother frame rate. Basically, it's Mugen Souls after it's taken a shower and is now fresh and clean. The music was the first game's strongest point, and I like the music even better here. Some pieces are carried over, others are rearranged, and there are plenty of new compositions. For example, the G-Castle theme takes cues from the prior game's music, but features a more involved composition. Combat is frequent, and the game has a few different battle themes. My favorite is the one that plays in ruins like Regulus or Gliese. The music itself is wacky hijinks anime music, and it works. The music may not be as epic as that of Yasunori Mitsuda or DragonForce, but such music would not work in Mugen Souls.
Mugen Souls Z represents a valiant effort and shows bounding improvements over its predecessor. It mostly fixed what was broken while keeping the good stuff, but it's still far from perfect. The game does its best to be accessible to new fans, but I still think it is best suited to the preexisting fanbase who already know and love several of the recurring characters. I'm glad I had the opportunity to play this game, and I'm glad to see that Compile Heart is getting better at game design. There's certainly still room for improvement, but Mugen Souls Z is a big step in the right direction.
NOTE: As of this writing, there have been numerous reports from players regarding a game-crashing bug when encountering certain enemies in Mugen Field (the optional bonus dungeon accessible through G-Castle). NIS America has been informed of this and is looking into it, but as of this writing, has not issued a patch yet.