You may or may not have heard of Criminal Girls: originally a 2010 PSP role-playing game that has now been updated slightly, given touch controls and slapped on the Vita with the subtitle of “Invite Only“. It has also somehow managed a western release this time around.
So what is it? Well, there are two types of people who seem to know about Criminal Girls: Invite Only, and when they discuss the western release, both take umbrage to the one part of the game that makes people sit up and notice it… In fact, if you too have heard of it, it is likely because of this one small aspect of the game.
Criminal Girls: Invite Only is a JRPG that follows the tribulations of seven (later nine) girls who have prematurely found themselves in the afterlife; Hell, if you want to be specific. The girls are now classed as delinquents, having fallen foul of the seven deadly sins; some more vaguely than others. The caveat here is that the girls haven’t entirely succumbed to their transgressions and now have this opportunity to redeem themselves by making their way through four trials, with the reward of rehabilitation meaning that their once-miscreant selves can return to the real world. The man (no female choice here I’m afraid) who will be tasked with leading these girls from delinquency and back to life is you. Your own appearance in Hell is something of a mystery that is somewhat explained during the story, but never given much weight despite the massive solid you are doing these girls (and I’m not entirely making a lewd joke with that one). Thankfully, each of the girls themselves gets a decent chunk of the story assigned to them, and while often falling into tried and tested anime tropes, is actually quite entertaining, and definitely enjoyable enough to warrant seeing how it turns out for each girl.
So how does a girl that has fallen off the rails make her way back to her old life? Mostly through dungeon crawling, fighting beasties in a turn-based battle system, levelling up, and learning new skills – more on the latter later!
You may have played a few dungeon-crawlers before, particularly if you’re a fan of RPGs! The systems are often fairly basic on the surface, while containing hidden depths that only those that persevere will uncover. Criminal Girls is no different, in fact, the general “crawling” aspect of the game is almost insulting simply. The game world is built up of several levels of Hell, each of which contain a few floors of their own. Your quest takes you upwards, out of cells, into a wood, through fire and through ice, and even around a school. It really is a good job that the levels each feature their own skin, as you’d never notice a difference based on the level design alone: Criminal Girls‘ floors are all simple mazes set across roughly the same spread of land. If we’re being brutally honest, the design is truly awful, and it’s painfully obvious that the guys in charge of setting quests had very little to work with when each goal of every quest and sub-quest forces you to traipse around the same corridors again and again. This aspect of the game takes up about 50% of the time you’ll spend in Hell. Maybe it really is just a good approximation of Hell, I don’t know, I’ve not been there (though there are some who say I will for playing this game). Fortunately, the deity in charge saw fit to break these woefully under-designed walks into short, easy to manage sections. You may well make a weary groan when a new objective sends you back across the same floor in the opposite direction for the fifth time in a row, but you’ll likely never be on each floor for more than half an hour, and in many ways the sense of progression through the underworld is one of the more compelling aspects of the game: you’re never really that far away from seeing what lies at the top of the next flight of steps. Okay, so it’s just more right angled corridors, but there is often some intriguing story to accompany it, and you’ll always know that it is never far until the next major plot point reveal.
During your treks through the samey floors, you’ll be drawn into many a fight with denizens of the depths. Judging by my maths throughout this review they’ll take up about 45% of your playtime. Fights are genuinely interesting in Criminal Girls: Invite Only. They’re one of the main reasons that I kept playing until I watched the platinum trophy pop up on my Vita. The system is turn-based, and mostly made up of static images. So far, so 1992. Bear with it though, and you’ll find a wealth of depth behind the random nature of the attacks on offer. Each girl has a particular set of skills (yes, in the case of Tomoe, those skills), and they fall generally into the jobs you expect to find in a role-player: fighter, mage, healer, thief… It may be tried and tested, but it does work. How this game differs is that it doesn’t give you an array of menus to work through, but rather has each girl shout a line that offers a hint as to the type of attack they’re going to make should you choose them to do your bidding. You might get a simple command that has one to four of the girls attack one after the other, a buff to one or more of the girls, a debuff to the enemy, or a powerful special skill. Battles become a careful act of balancing health and magic points, guarding, and going for maximum damage. Some characters work better in some situations than others, enough so that it is more than worth your time to experiment with all the girls (no, not that way! Not yet, anyway). You’ll find yourself eagerly anticipating the next round of each battle, just so you can see what options will come next. If you’re grinding you’ll pray to the role-playing gods that you see a sweet area-of-effect attack, perfect for taking out swathes of enemies in one fell swoop.
If there is one area in which the battle system frustrates, it lies within the buff/debuff system. In short, it works brilliantly for the enemy, and is somewhat functional for your party. Do you like paralyzing your foes? Give it a go, but don’t expect the effects to work when you really need it. Conversely, do you find yourself paralyzed? Well good luck making any sort of effective attack, as Criminal Girls really like to punish the player when they are on the receiving end of debilitating effects. Again, maybe it is a Hell thing, but if ever there was a moment when I came close to switching off the Vita in frustration, it came at a time when the enemy got cocky with the paralysis!
By and large though, if you like role playing, you’ll probably like the battle system. Progression through the levels is swift, and you’ll find your party becoming noticeably stronger floor by floor, while always having challenging opponents lined up right up until the ending (and secret endings).
So where do these attacks come from? I guess I’ve put it off long enough…
As alluded to at the beginning of this review, there is a reason why Criminal Girls: Invite Only is on the radars of the people that know of it: the “Motivation” minigames.
As I said, the girls of this game have a special set of skills, but they don’t necessarily know these skills right off the bat. In fact, none of the girls will even fight for you until you decide to try your hand at motivation, and a bat is probably what you’re going to need to get their attention. Motivation is a minigame that sees you interacting with the girls via the touch screen in a series of sexy scenarios.
Only, they’re not sexy at all. In fact, they’re just downright embarrassing. And the touch screen aspect of it all means that if you do happen to be playing in public you’ll be hunched over your Vita so awkwardly that your attempts to hide the screen become somehow more incriminating.
To grease the wheels, as it were, you’ll be provided with a whip so that you can slap the temptations out of each of the girls. Successfully completing a minigame will provide you with some arbitrary points that fill up a bar and unlock skills. The amount you score in each game barely matters, the games are so simple, brief, and altogether pointless that you may as well just sleepwalk through them anyway. Yes, close your eyes, for no matter how titillating whipping these well-endowed girls might seem on paper, you’ll not see anything through the pink mist that obscures your interactions, from the very first minigame to the last. Sure, the fog dissipates the more you persevere with the motivation, but all that does is reveal that the scenes behind the censor-curtain weren’t really all that risque to start with. The western edition makes a big deal of hiding the games, and the hiding makes it worse!
I’m not really sure who the motivation aspect of the game is supposed to appeal to really. For those after a bit of hanky panky, everything is covered up. For those who just want to unlock skills and move on, you’re never even really sure as to what you’re doing. Perhaps Nippon Ichi felt that censorship was the only way that Criminal Girls could justify a release on western shores (the game isn’t censored in Japan), but if you’re really after some softcore porn in a video game, then you may as well just
knob romance Cassandra in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Yes, the motivation minigames are embarrassing, and are often the focus of many a review of the game. This is actually the reason that I left this aspect of the game until the end of this piece. For all the disgust that whipping, shocking, oiling, tickling, and… just touching(?) stokes up, you’ll very likely spend less than an hour doing so between the first cutscene and the last – for reference, reaching 100% completion of the game took me a whisker over forty-five hours, so you’ll actually spend very little time indeed in the chamber with the girls.
Reading back over this review myself seems somewhat schizophrenic: I like it, I don’t like it, it’s fun, it’s embarrassing. 95% of Criminal Girls: Invite Only is an addictive trek through the well-worn world of dungeon crawling and battling. The story is fun, if fairly generic (and to see it all you have to complete it, like, nine times!), the maps are like Brio train tracks all made using the same twenty pieces, and the battle system manages to be one of kind despite looking like any number of turn-based systems. The game is almost (not quite) perfectly suited to portable gaming, being a role-player made up of many bite-size chunks. It’s basically a trashy anime in game form. If that description resounds well with you, then I think you’d be doing yourself a disservice by avoiding this game. Yeah, it gets scores like 10/100 from some sites because of the motivation side of things, but then again some people give vaccinations a similar review – you can only trust your own judgement with things like this (yep, I put the game on a pedestal much higher than it deserves there), and to form your own conclusions you should really try it yourself.
Hell, I platinum’d the game, and the only other games I’ve done the same for are Dark Souls and Dark Souls II. If I can be arsed to see a game through to the very bitter end, then it has to have something going for it.
Just so that nobody has any misconceptions about the game though, I’m going to finish (gross) with an image of the end-game motivation:
Just don’t play it on the train.
Verdict: Criminally Underrated.