Criminal Girls: Invite Only
An astonishingly weird JRPG where you “motivate” a posse of scantily-clad girls while leading them out of Hell? Sign me up! The crux of the story of Criminal Girls: Invite Only (PS Vita) is to lead a MC tasked with “reforming” a group of delinquent, Hell-bound girls and save them from damnation in order to give them a second chance at life. The game is colourful, sexy, and has a great soundtrack; if only the storyline didn’t fall so flat.
The backdrop artwork and character design is snappy and haunting (they are in Hell, after all). Each of the girls has a unique style and personality (although one-dimensional at times), which makes for a memorable ride, if nothing else. I enjoy the experience of an all-female cast (minus the male MC) and genuinely have a difficult time sticking to a static party of four because each character is so much fun to play in battle. The battle system is a little basic, however, as it relies on the girls “suggesting” moves they want to perform and having the player choose from the four options provided. This minimizes customizability and control of battle scenarios, which can be a bit tedious and frustrating at times, especially when all the girls want to use support magic and you just want to kick some monster butt. The randomness of the battle system isn’t totally merciless, though, and the girls do tend to suggest healing and attack combos when they are needed most. The structure of the turn-based combat is also very forgiving: it allows one character swap per turn, one item use, and also the attack or support skill you select from the party’s suggested options. This offers some control to the player, who otherwise can begin to feel like a fifth wheel when the battle music starts to play.
Outside of battle, the player can participate in a variety of mini-games to teach the girls new skills and combos. The games involve whipping or tickling the girls into submission while a suggestive image becomes ever-clearer behind a dissipating veil of pink fog. It’s this highly sexualized mini-game that has commenters all a-flutter, with some deeming it exploitative and others whining that NISA (the publisher of the game in North America) has included too much censorship of the original content. Personally, the bit of censorship that I noticed doesn’t bother me much (most prominently the girls’ panty areas remain shrouded in heavier pink fog than the Japanese developers intended and the title of the “punishment” game is changed to the “motivation” game). Also, the sexual content isn’t particularly shocking if you are familiar at all with common JRPG aesthetics. If anything, the game is just more honest about its sexual tropes instead of pretending like it’s totally “practical” for women to fight in skin-tight suits or mini-skirts and thongs. The game is so over-the-top that it is downright parodic of its own genre and style.
What does bother me about the mini-games is that the mechanics require the use of both the front and back touch screen on the PS Vita simultaneously, which makes it somewhat awkward to hold the machine while trying to play. They are also painfully simplistic and redundant, although that seems to fall in line with the atmosphere of the game overall. The battle scenes are stagnant, with minimal movement or animation, and the storyline is basically nonexistent until the player reaches the schoolhouse level (the “fourth challenge”). The dungeons and side-quests involve a tiring amount of retracing your steps and dialogue so flat and uninteresting that I skip chunks of it when I can. Specifically, I’m thinking of the whole first half of the ice level (the “Frost block”), where a series of “illusions” and convoluted riddles separate and reunite your team seemingly at random. Unfortunately, it adds very little to the story and takes up far too much gameplay time.
What really gets to me is that the game immediately gives you seven Hell-bound delinquent girls who died prematurely and does not even try to capitalize on the rich storytelling potential that this allows for until near the end of the game. Instead, the game fills space with typical, quirky dialogue filled with boob jokes and spiels about friendship. What wasted potential. Even when you hit the schoolhouse level and shit starts to get real, the storylines offered are not particularly compelling, although some girls’ are better than others. What really gets to me is that we never find out how any of the girls died, which in my opinion is far more interesting than backstories of illicit text messages and sibling rivalries. As a dedicated JRPG fan, I wouldn’t dissuade a fellow enthusiast from giving Criminal Girls a try, but I would suggest that it’s a game you borrow instead of buy.
Pros/ Great character and background design
Cons/ Slow, repetitive storyline
Tedious side-quest structure
Overly simplistic battle system
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