Developer: Compile Heart/G-CREST
Publisher: Nippon Ichi
Release Date: 10/16/2012
Compile Heart tends to be a company whose games you either love or hate. Games like Astonisha Story, Cross Edge, and Record of Agarest War have reviews all over the place, from “What a terrible game” to “Best JRPG of the year.” I myself tend to have fun with the games, even if they aren’t keepers or games I’d nominate for an award at the end of the year. Look at Hyperdimension Neptunia. I platinum’ed the game, but it wasn’t a game I held on to for very long after that, and I didn’t bother with the sequel, because the original had a fun story but was pretty meh in the gameplay department (plus it didn’t help that both the beta version of the North American game that reviewers got and the Japanese original had some… interesting bugs). With that in mind, I agreed to review Mugen Souls several months ago because hey, I tend to like Compile Heart games. I even wrote a preview about the game back in late August
Unfortunately, after two months of playing it on and off, I’m still not enjoying it. At all. It’s just very dull, and I constantly have the feeling that it’s a second rate Frankenstein’s Monster – comprised of multiple things from other, better games and slammed together into one product. This is one case where the whole is not more than the sum of its parts. So what about Mugen Souls made this one of the least interesting games I’ve played this year? It’s time to find out.
Mugen Souls is a story about Chou-Chou, the self professed God of the Universe. She flies around in her giant battle ship known as G-Castle along with her subordinates, Altis (a demon who is reincarnated as an Angel as all her bad deeds turn out to be good ones) and Ryuto (willing slave and all-around pervert). Her goal? To conquer the universe, making everyone into her obedient peon. In fact, when she does use her special mind control whammy to make someone work for her, they often change into these strange bunny-esque creatures actually called Shampuru. There are many types of Shampuru, and they do everything from attack en masse as a giant ball to powering the mighty G-Castle itself. Why does Lady Chou-Chou want to conquer the known universe? Well, she just does. That’s really the answer of the game. She awakens with no memory or knowledge of who she is, she just sees the seven worlds and decides she wants them. That’s the plot hook of the game. No real depth or reasoning. The main character is pure ID. Like Sam from Sam and Max, but not as funny or developed.
That really is all there is to the story. Things are padded out with each chapter. Chou-Chou has to go to each of the worlds and conquer them, both figuratively by going through all the levels and literally by making the world itself her willing slave. There are bits of story involving supporting cast members, but it’s mostly just fluff told by static images that introduces the new characters you’ll be picking up by the end of the chapter. Even the Disgaea games, which are filled to the brim with hundreds of hours of combat, still have more of a story than Mugen Souls. The characters are two-dimensional at best, there’s no real character growth or development except towards the end of the game, and even then it feels forced and hackneyed. The game tries to be funny, but I don’t remember laughing a single time, and again, I usually have fun with Compile Heart games. I mean, the story was the best part of Hyperdimension Neptunia, but Mugen Souls constantly fell flat for me. I never grew to care about any of the characters, the going from world to world to make them my slaves grew boring very quickly and it just wasn’t well written. You could definitely tell the developers were going for a Disgaea feel, but the game lacked any of the charm that Nippon Ichi’s anti-hero SRPG franchise is filled with.
I wish I could say something positive about the story. I mean, I tend to love the games Nippon Ichi puts out, and I especially love video games with a sense of humour, but the characters and story of Mugen Souls failed to resonate with me in any way. Perhaps it would have been better in the original Japanese? After all, there were some edits made to the game to ensure it wouldn’t get an “AO” rating stateside, but I don’t think that’s really the case. I just think the game was like one of those bad late night comedies they used to air on “USA Up All Night” that bombed at the box office because they actually weren’t funny. I’m sure someone out there will find something to like about the characters, but when the guy that usually finds something to be positive about in JRPGs that everyone else pans (like Last Rebellion) just can’t, that’s a pretty bad sign.
Story Rating: Bad
I was equally unimpressed with the graphics here. The in-game battle visuals looked like something I’d find on my PS2. In fact, while playing it, part of me was like, “this looks like a prettier version of Eternal Eyes,” which was an obscure budget PSX title. There isn’t a lot of detail to the humanoids in the game. They all just look like generic super-deformed characters from a low budget (but brightly colored) anime, manga, video game, or web comic. The monsters fare a little better, but some of them are reused from previous games (both Compile Heart and Idea Factory) and again, there’s not a lot of detail to them. Same is true for the animation. Movements seems clipped. Whether it’s just bad coding or the frame rate is lower than usual, I can’t honestly tell. In the story scenes, dialogue is represented by a series of static images. Each character has several different images (or in the case of Chou-Chou, about three dozen). These are a little better, but all of the character designs, again, feel exceptionally generic. They don’t have a unique look or feel. Rather, it just seems like old NPC or supporting cast character designs that were left over from other games were thrown together for the visuals here. There’s nothing BAD about the character portraits mind you; it’s just they aren’t very striking, and they tend to fade from your memory quickly. I had to think hard to remember what a lot of them looked like while writing this, and I had been playing the game just a few hours before! Altis might be the most memorable, but only because she’s Flonne (in appearance) from Disgaea with a different hair color (green), skimpier clothing and one of each of her wings (fallen and original). Shirogane looks like a bad Akuma/Gouki wanna-be, Dees Vanguard looks like she belongs in <>Hyperdimension Neptunia, and so on and so forth. Everything just looks like there wasn’t a lot of effort put into the art direction of the game. Everything about the art style screams “generic anime/manga characters ahoy!” This, coupled with the in-game graphics, where there is little detail given to attacks, character or monster designs, and level backgrounds, and you can’t help feeling that Mugen Souls was meant to either be a budget release or a late PS2 game that was brought up to high definition visuals instead. Either way, this is another area where the game strongly disappointed me.
Graphics Rating: Poor
I really liked the music in Mugen Souls. It was quite catchy and I even caught my wife humming along with some of the tunes while playing (and even after). Each of the tracks you’ll find in the game are a lot of fun to listen to, even when you’re just meandering through a battlefield trying to find another location to turn into a peon or are grinding in the mugen field.
The voice acting, however, leaves something to be desired. Although I’ve heard many of these actors before, and they usually do a good job, it honestly sounded like the cast was just phoning it in for Mugen Souls. Nearly every character (except Ryuto) is dry, monotone and uninspired. It was as if I was playing a game where all the voice talent went to the Ben Stein School of Acting. I was thoroughly unimpressed with the voice acting quality here, which is a real surprise considering that most Nippon Ichi games are well done when localized into English, and because the actors that I recognized usually do a MUCH better job than this. So thumbs up for the soundtrack but a thumbs down for the voice acting. Call it a push here.
Sound Rating: Mediocre
4. Control and Gameplay
Mugen Souls is a very deep SRPG with a lot of different things to do, and thus keep a gamer busy for a very long time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do any of those things very well, and the end result is a spectacular mess than sometimes involves more minute monitoring than an RTS game. I also hated that, even with the 1546 MB data install, the game still goes through extremely long loading times for me. I shudder to think how it would fare without that.
So let’s talk about all you do in the game. Nearly the entire experience is wandering around various maps and getting into combat. Each world is divided into multiple sections, and each section has their own map. As Chou-Chou, you’ll wander around the map finding objects to pick up, events to trigger and enemies to fight. Triggering a battle is similar to a lot of turn based RPGs in which enemies will be wandering around the map. If you hit them before they see you, you get the advantage, if they hit you from behind, they get the advantage, and if it’s a head on collision, things are equal. The problem is that, unlike a lot of games that use this style of triggering combat instead of random battles, the enemies infinitely respawn, meaning you never can just relax and enjoy the visuals or explore heartily. I hate that. There’s a reason why so many games that have infinite respawns (like Evil Dead; Hail to the King) are panned by critics and gamers alike. Of course, I understand why this was done. This is heavily (I’d say knock-off if Nippon Ichi wasn’t the ones publishing this) inspired by Disgaea, so GRINDING is how everything gets done here. Except grinding is only necessary in the post story content or optional wackiness. Making never ending grinding part of the core story is a BAD IDEA. Grinding is only fun or even tolerable when it’s an option.
Combat itself is all over the place. It’s a mix of the gridless combat system from games like Phantom Brave and Makai Kingdom, trying to convert enemies to your side ala La Pucelle or Megaten titles. It’s also very random and dull. Combat consists of choosing a move for each character as his or her turn comes up. That’s fine. The problem is if characters can have a linked attack (special regular attack when two or more of your characters are next to each other in initiative order). The problem is that you HAVE to have a linked attack if this is possible, meaning there is no way to attack unless you want to use a “skill” (think magic) or an item. Worse yet, the attack you get via a link is completely random, and I’ve seen some where the damage is less than the regular attack I would have wanted to use. This is a terrible design idea, but not as bad as the “you can’t directly heal yourself” issue that the first Hyperdimension Neptunia had. You also will see the same few attacks repeatedly, to the point where you are completely bored by them. Unfortunately, you have to wait a few seconds to skip through the animation. Trust me, you will get bored with these quickly.
Weirder yet is that after combat, you don’t get any Hit Points or Skill Points back. That’s fine, lots of games do that, but you also don’t get any back when you level up either. That’s less common, but still acceptable. I mean, if I get better at playing a video game, any broken limbs I have won’t instantly heal themselves, right? What is odd is that you can only fully heal up, outside of items, when you leave the map and go back to G-Castle. Otherwise you are reliant on items or healing spells… which you can only get more of by going to G-Castle. Very, very odd, and I know a lot of gamers aren’t going to enjoy that.
Chou-Chou is a bit different, as she is the only character that can recruit enemy monsters and turn them into loyal Shampuru. On her turn, she can use a “Moe Kill” in addition to her regular move. Chou-Chou will pick have three choices on action or dialogue to make, and each of these choices will have several options. The choices made, combined with which of Chou-Chou’s eight forms she is in, the compatibility of the creature she is trying to peon-ize and its temperament, determines which of three meters on the creature get raised. When the pink one fills, it becomes a Shampuru. If the Yellow one fills, it becomes money and items. If the blue one fills, it gets pissed off and more powerful. You can also try to peon-ize the large and small crystals that litter a battlefield for the same effect. The problem is you can’t always transform in a battle, and there are so many variables that it becomes a chore instead of fun, like recruiting demons in a Persona game. I don’t know how Compile Heart and G-CREST managed to turn enemy recruitment from something fun into a laborious chore that you have to micro-manage, but dubious congratulations are in order.
This is about ninety percent of the game, with the other five percent being the occasional story bit, four percent being purchasing things in G-castle and equipping your characters, and the last one percent being when you engage in a G-Castle Battle (usually at the very start of a chapter). Here, your battleship takes on another giant star cruiser. Ryuto gives you a hint as to what the enemy is going to do on their turn, and your goal is to counter that move. Basically it’s Rock/Paper/Scissors in space. These battles aren’t very interesting, but as you collect more Shampuru, you do get to see more options open up.
One thing I really dislike is that, when on a overworld map, you can only save in select spots. Honestly, no one likes it when games do that, especially when checkpoints that allow you to save are so far and few between. This is a role-playing game after all, and you should be able to save, or at least make a quick-save, anywhere. The entire concept of limited save points came about due to technology issues and we’re definitely past that. It’s even more frustrating when you’re in the Mugen Field (think Item World from Disgaea. ) and there’s no way to get out until you’ve cleared ten levels or died. At least in other games that have a nigh-endless labyrinth of combat, you have an item to end battles or get out of the location. Not so here. What if you have to go somewhere or do something else? You can’t just leave your PS3 on for hours. This is a stupid design decision, and I can’t believe in 2012 I have to still say, “This game hurts itself by having only select areas where you can save outside of G-Castle.”
Basically, Mugen Souls has a wealth of good ideas obviously inspired by a plethora of other, better games, but it fails to implement any of them very well. The end result is a very boring grind fest where you’re constantly killing endless respawning enemies that are as bland as they look. I just couldn’t get into this at all. More power to you if you can, but there was absolutely nothing I liked about combat, and so many things I’d have changed or tweaked before releasing this game to the general public.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Bad
If you’re able to get into this game, unlike myself, you’ll find a lot to bring you back. You can create new playable characters, fuse characters together to make a new one, grind, grind and grind some more to reach levels unheard of outside a Nippon Ichi developed SRPG (this is only published by them), and more. Still, where you’ll be spending the bulk of your time in this game is with the Mugen Field. This is similar to the Item World of Disgaea, where you’ll be clearing out room after room of generic enemies. However, after every tenth level, you’ll have the ability to upgrade and improve all your characters. You can raise your level cap, find new skills, raise the power level of old skills and so much more. Pretty much every bit of character stat advancement is going to have to take place in here, so be prepared to actually spend more time in the Mugen Field than doing the main story. If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, you’re not alone. I prefer to play RPGS for the story. However, for those who love grinding and min/maxing, this is right up your alley. Even if you do somehow max out your main party of four, you can always make new characters or level up the supporting cast you obtain by going through story mode.
So while the game is lacking in most aspects, Mugen Souls does provide a ton of replay value for those able to get into it.
Replayability Rating: Good
I like an RPG that challenges me. Something like Bloodbane from Valkyrie Profile, where it is beatable but you can’t just randomly choose your actions and hope to win. You have to have a mind for tactics and strategy. Unfortunately, Mugen Souls is not one of those games. You can easily tear through the game with little more than picking various actions from the menu and watching your team win with ease. In the Mugen Field, things can be a bit tougher, but all you really need is someone with a strong long range weapon and the ability to send your toughest opponent flying via the “blast off” ability. They’ll have to spend their turn making their way back too. It doesn’t matter how strong an opponent is if they are always out of range, so you can spend your time leisurely picking them off. There’s just no challenge here. If there was, it might make up for the bland characters and forgettable generic enemies. Instead, the lack of any AI or need for tactics just continued to make this game exceptionally boring for me.
Balance Rating: Bad
Well, as we’ve already seen throughout this review, much of Mugen Souls is cobbled together from other, better games. Combat system? Mostly Phantom Brave and Makai Kingdom. Story? Feels like a discarded Disgaea plot. Chou-Chou’s peon power? I’ve encountered it many a time in Megaten titles, along with everything from La Pucelle on down. The characters? Extremely generic and often meant as an homage/tribute/parody of other, more famous characters or tropes. Mugen Field? A hodge podge of similar things, like the Item World. Even the G-Castle battles have been done before in other games.
No, Mugen Souls is about as lacking in originality and innovation as it gets. There’s nothing here that other companies, including Compile Heart themselves, haven’t done before AND done better. I’m sorry, but again, this feels more like an indie budget RPG that I’d find on BigFishGames.com than a full budget console release. It’s just that painful.
Originality Rating: Worthless
Again, I really tried to like Mugen Souls. I spent two months playing this on and off in hopes it was just me in a bad mood or that maybe the game just had a slow, dull start to it. However, the first three chapters had me wanting to never pick up this game again because it was that dull and derivative, but I trudged on, optimistic as always. Honestly though, Nippon Ichi hasn’t put out a game this uninteresting to me since they broke with Hitmaker. The game isn’t horrible by any means. It wasn’t like I was playing Thor: God of Thunder all over again. It just wasn’t very good OR very interesting. I didn’t care for the characters, I didn’t care for the combat engine, I didn’t care for the story. This was just not an appealing game to me by any stretch of the imagination. That usually doesn’t happen with a Nippon Ichi published game, but man I couldn’t wait to be done with this. I willingly moved on to a LICENSED platformer over this, and if you’ve ever read me for any length of time, you know I hate the entire platforming genre, and as licensed platformers are generally a guarantee of horribleness, that should tell you something about my time with Mugen Souls. Worse yet, I enjoyed the platformer more than this.
Addictiveness Rating: Dreadful
9. Appeal Factor
Generally, if a game has a great story but terrible gameplay (Rule of Rose, anyone?), it can find a loyal audience. If it has great gameplay but a crappy story, the same too holds true. Hell, even if it’s a bad game with a notable brand name, it can find an audience because people are loyal to that franchise. Unfortunately Mugen Souls doesn’t have any of these. That doesn’t mean it won’t find an audience; as a member of the Nippon Ichi faithful, I can tell you a lot of people will pick up this game simply because they published it. People in need of a new JRPG might also be willing to overlook the things I considered flaws here. Heck, those things I considered flaws might even be positives to some gamers. So I have no doubt Mugen Souls will find an audience, even if it is a small one.
The problem is that both the diehard JRPG and Nippon Ichi faithful alike more than likely know about the edits made to this game in order to protect it from getting an “AO” rating. Now, most of them won’t care and will just be happy this actually made it stateside, even if it’s not very good. The others, however, will be on message boards or Twitter with cries of “CENSORSHIP” and foaming at the mouth that Nippon Ichi and Sony have somehow sold them out because they aren’t getting the game exactly as it was released in Japan – even though they more than likely don’t read/write/speak Japanese. That’s fine. They have a right to their opinion, but that fractures the already small audience that would be interested in this game even more. If you look at Nippon Ichi’s website, with less than a week to go before the game’s release, they still have about fifty percent of the Limited Edition plus Figure Set in stock, and roughly the same amount of the regular Limited Edition. That’s a good sign that people aren’t all that interested in this game, and those that are… might be disappointed in what they are getting. Like me, you see.
Honestly, even though this game is getting a thumb’s down for me, I hope it does find an audience. Nippon Ichi takes chances with bringing over JRPGs most other companies would never think of, and that at least is worthy of acclaim, even if this particular game ISN’T.
Appeal Factor: Below Average
Mugen Souls isn’t a very good game, and that happens sometimes. Even when there is a long and strong relationship between a development team and a publisher… a not so good game squeezes its way through the cracks. This is one of those times. Like I said at the beginning, I tend to like Compile Heart titles and trust in Nippon Ichi to bring over some quality JRPGs. No company’s track record is perfect though. Again, just because this game was not for me, I can see aspects of it that I’ve liked, and even loved, in other games. At the end of the day, Mugen Souls spent too much time trying to copy things from other, better games and just not doing a good job of it. The end result was a less than stellar affair I can’t personally recommend, but if someone reading this did enjoy it, I’m glad it found an audience and would love to hear what made it both enjoyable and memorable to you.
Miscellaneous Rating: Mediocre
Control and Gameplay: Bad
Appeal Factor: Below Average
FINAL SCORE: Poor Game!
Short Attention Span Summary
Mugen Souls is a JRPG that tries really hard to emulate a lot of other, better games. It apes everything from Phantom Brave to Megaten, but the problem is that it simply does a second rate job of, well… everything. From a lackluster story to shallow and forgettable characters, Mugen Souls was just very dull and boring. The battles are plentiful thanks to endlessly respawning enemies, but they are filled with forgettable nameless adversaries that lack any AI or challenge. Mugen Souls isn’t a terrible game by any stretch of the imagination; it’s just a very lackluster title in all respects.