Title: Criminal Girls: Invite Only
Publisher: NIS America
Platforms: PS Vita, Playstation TV
Release Date: February 3, 2015
A copy of the game was provided for the purposes of this review.
The first day on the job can be brutal. Most jobs aren’t quite this tough, though. You’re in Hell. Literally. No. You’re not dead, man. You’re just in a sort of slumber. Now dust yourself off and report for duty. First impressions are a big deal and, well, the delinquents in your charge aren’t too impressed. They’re all insubordinate in some form or fashion though a few are much more vocal than the others. Your mission is to forge these lost souls into beings worthy of redemption. They will fight you at every turn, but as their warden and caretaker it is paramount that you motivate them in any way possible. If it requires whips, cattle prods, and the like, then so be it. These girls will have to make up for their past transgressions if they ever want to escape eternal damnation in the bowels of the Underworld.
Criminal Girls: Invite Only serves as North America’s first introduction to the dungeon-crawling JRPG originally released in Japan only on the Playstation Portable system. It was a surprise to see NIS America doing the dirty work of localizing it for a release outside of Japan. Text only it seems as, well, there seems to be quite a stigma attached to this one, folks.
Here’s the thing. This game is, at its core, a very streamlined and honest-to-goodness old school dungeon crawl that features lots of grinding. It is simple, but don’t take that to be some sort of a derogatory term here. The big problem is these Criminal Girls aren’t keen on following orders. This is where most players will either turn away or keep going based on personal preference. Players will have to “Motivate” these girls into fighting for them. Good thing that Soft Whip was just laying on the ground, huh?
This is that one where you whip girls right?
Streamlined dungeon crawling is well and good but light BDSM play mixed in? You’re either in or you’re out at this point. If you’re in then know this. The localized version never shows any nudity and, in fact, a rather silly pink fog shrouds most of the “Motivation” sequences until later on. The original Japanese audio was stripped out during these sequences as well. It can only be assumed that, well, a lot of moaning and/or enthusiastic audio is heard during these sequences. Even then, the fog remains in certain areas so as not to push the limit of ESRB ratings too far. This was a deliberate decision on NIS America’s part to keep the core gameplay experience intact while staying within the boundaries of what was and wasn’t socially allowed here in the West. The game is already niche enough and an Adults Only rating would not help matters on sales. There could be an argument made that an alteration of the game’s presentation as such actually goes against the ethos of delivering a product as true to the original as possible, but honestly the game making its way out of Japan was miracle enough.
The slightly altered presentation doesn’t really do much to diminish the quality of the game though it is strange to have a Motivation/Punish sequence with only the sound of the implements used. The 2.5D approach during these segments is well done and ultimately showcases some great art even if it might be too risqué for some. The rest of the game features solid artwork and 2D work that shines despite sprites and a level design holdover from the PSP days.
Surprise! There’s an actual game inside!
The main attraction is, without a doubt, the Motivation of girls. It not only serves as a hook for the target audience, but it serves a very important gameplay purpose as well. Grinding out levels for money and stat gains is well and good but no character progression will occur until certain milestones are hit via Motivation Time. Character skills and attacks are all unlocked via this mechanic thus enforcing that revisiting the Infirmary to spend some time with the delinquent ladies has to happen often. The actual gameplay involved in the Motivation bits involves making use of both the front and back touchpads on the Vita to slather oil, tickle with feathers, or engage in edge play with an electric baton. There are all sorts of activities that will whip that team of criminals into fighting shape.
The rest of the game tends to be overshadowed by the mechanic and, for the most part rightly so, but if one digs just a bit deeper there are some interesting parts to the story. Each of the girls encountered throughout represents one of the seven Deadly Sins. Kisaragi’s insistence on asking the player how much their belt costs or how much status matters work in contrast to the fury of Ran. She absolutely hates men and begrudgingly accepts orders after a while. Sako just wants to find her sister and cannot talk about anything else while Alice seems distant and a bit on the creepy side. The rest of the cast rounds out with each girl playing their role to represent Sin and an archetype along the Wheel of Fantasy Class Tropes. Ran serves as the tank with her sword and shield while Sako is the damage dealer. Kisaragi can do a bit of everything and Alice plays the black mage.
It is here where the streamlined approach of Criminal Girls: Invite Only kicks in and, thankfully, delivers a compelling crawl up from the layers of Hell to Purgatory and beyond. Each encounter presents a series of choices and (depending on the motivation of the girls and player luck) differing options can be presented. Ran might be able to cast a Guard spell on everyone while Alice might be able to pull out a high damage Ice spell. Sako might just offer a single attack, but Kisaragi? She offers a dual strike that involves both her and Ran. Which choice is the best? More often than not the game allows for the best choice to be made at any given time depending on the encounter. I only hit a few snags during the 35 hours or so it took to complete the game. It is one that is best played in short bursts as opposed to long play sessions which just so happened to gel well with my current time available for JRPGs these days. I miss those lazy days of mainlining Final Fantasy or Disgaea, pizza, and far too much soda or energy drinks.
The money to purchase items or invest into Motivation comes a bit slow in the beginning but once the end of the game is nigh players will be swimming in so much dough there will be nowhere near enough things to spend it on. Once certain abilities reach Level 4 and Level 5 and character potentials are unlocked to the fullest, you’ll be barnstorming your way through Hell. There are some surprisingly tough and nerve-wracking boss battles sprinkled throughout with a few curb stomp moments tossed in just to reinforce the point that you aren’t quite motivated enough yet to beat the game.
So there’s a story besides spanking criminal girls?
The combat only helps to unfurl the girls’ personalities and their past misdeeds. Their standoffish ways eventually lead to understanding and, ultimately, a request. Each of them asks the player to seek out a Macguffin of some sort to help. These personal quests along with the character exploration done throughout the game serve to weave an interesting backstory for each and every girl fighting their way out of Hell. This progression and narrative make the game worth playing long after the titillation of the Motivation sequences have worn off.
A word to the wise and the game will also remind players of this: once the end is close at hand be sure to make multiple save files if you want to see all the endings. There is no NewGame functionality in Criminal Girls: Invite Only so be prepared as there are seven different endings to take in plus post-dungeon content to work through if you so choose. The endings all lead to the post-game content where one last scenario can be entered into and another “ending” can be unlocked.
It is easy to dismiss Criminal Girls: Invite Only for its heavy reliance on “Motivation” as a main game mechanic and I won’t blame a player for turning away if it offended their sensibilities. If, however, you sticks around to see the game through you’ll be greeted to a delightfully streamlined dungeon crawl that features fantastic character art, unique battle, and leveling mechanics along with exploration of the nature of sin and why these girls were chosen for the Redemption Program. Come for the sexy and stay for the story.