Review: Criminal Girls: Invite Only (Sony Playstation Vita)

Criminal Girls: Invite Only
Genre: RPG/Dating Sim
Developer: Imageepoch
Publisher: Nippon Ichi
Release Date: 2/3/15

It’s hard to know what to really make of Criminal Girls: Invite Only. On a base level, it’s easy to dismiss it as a cheesecake game featuring vaguely offensive concepts, as a number of reviewers have already done on one level or another, and even in its first few hours the game seems to be more in love with its concept than anything else. Once you get past the introductory bits, however, the game has a certain odd charm to it that almost seems to be waging war against the mechanics, as it’s often easy to love and hate the game within the same short period of time. Even now, frankly, I’m still not sure what I think of it personally, aside from that it’s interesting as much as it’s anything else. Obviously, if you can’t get past the fact that the game has an… abnormal premise, or the fact that the game is censored from its Japanese release, then you’re probably not going to find much to like here. For those who are willing to approach the game with a little more of an open mind to the overall experience, there is actually some surprising depth here, along with some odd issues you wouldn’t expect. If nothing else, again, Criminal Girls is an interesting experience, and at times it’s an enjoyable one, but whether or not it’s a good one is a bit harder to pin down, for a few reasons.

You aren’t dead, but this is Hell

The core of the plot to Criminal Girls is as such: you’re playing as an unnamed (as in you can rename him) protagonist who hired on for a job without really understanding the requirements (which is apparently a thing in Japan, if this and Akiba’s Trip are any indication). The job, as it turns out, is that you’re brought to Hell to help rehabilitate a group of dead delinquent girls. The girls died from unspecified causes, but weren’t really that bad, so while they end up in Hell, they could theoretically be rehabilitated with enough effort. Such is your job, as it turns out; you’re tasked to get the girls to the top of the tower you find yourself in, which involves you rehabilitating the girls, and the girls in turn completing the challenges put before them based on your rehabilitation. For about the first third of the game, the girls are basically as they were in death; in other words, they’re generally awful people who act poorly and behave mostly like the characters in a terrible anime. They don’t get along, none of them like you or your punishments (not that they’re terribly easy to like), and if you turned off the game at that point, you’d be entirely forgiven for thinking the game is stupid and poorly written.

What’s weird, though, is that if you see the game through to the end, it actually kind of works.

The one major problem with the plot is that it takes entirely too long to really get going, though it does have a reason: everything stupid and annoying that happens in the beginning is foreshadowing for how the plot progresses in the second third of the game. When the game gets down to really bringing the characters together, explaining why they’re in Hell in the first place, and having them overcome that, that’s when the plot shines. It’s actually kind of surprising, honestly, because the plot probably would have worked in a game that isn’t based around the gimmick this is, because once you get past the initial Love Hina-esque stupidity of the plot and hit the real meat of the experience, everything makes sense, but you’re left wondering if the game didn’t spend too long building to it. Once you get to that point, though, the plot gels rather well, as it spends a good amount of time building up its big bads, explaining why everyone is in Hell, and helping the characters become something approaching actual people rather than just random cardboard cutouts of people. The final third of the plotline mostly is composed of extra dungeons and such, which are honestly just a fun way to further develop the characters and show how they’ve grown while also developing additional characters a bit further. This final third isn’t necessary, so to say, but it’s apparently added onto the Vita version, and honestly, it’s interesting, well-paced, and fun to go through such that it makes up for a lot. It’s a tough few hours to get to the point where the plot picks up, though, much like it was in Fairy Fencer F, but once you get there, it’s mostly worth it.

On the visual front, you can clearly tell that most of the production for Criminal Girls went into the punishment sequences. To be fair, the static artwork is very pretty, even if the girls tend to be half naked more often than not and exposed skin tends to be super shiny for odd reasons. The environments you traipse through also look interesting enough design-wise, and in all fairness, the punishment sequences are very well animated, to the point where character’s eyes follow your movements. However, combat is little more than static chibi characters performing switches between set pictures as they fight static enemies, along with some special effects when needed, which is a thing that got old in the fourth console generation, and the Vita should be able to handle more. Even some animated cutscenes would’ve been something, even if they were only here for the endings and intro. Aurally, the game only supports Japanese audio, which is fine, in that I don’t know if you’d really be able to find English voice actresses who’d be able to pull this game off well, but may put off some players. The background music is also pretty solid, and while you’re probably not going to find too much here that’d make digging up the soundtrack worthwhile, it’s overall fitting and fun to listen to without getting repetitive or boring. The audio effects are also generally fine; the combat effects are mostly fine, while the punishment effects sound… mostly like video game sound effects, honestly, which is fine enough. Also, the video and audio have seen censorship, for reference, which apparently involves adding pink fog to everything (if Japanese videos are to be believed), putting in strategic pink blobs at certain positions, and removing all punishment dialogue. This was done basically to avoid an AO rating, which, well, either you understand it, you don’t, or you don’t care, but it is what it is.

On dungeons and the need to crawl them

At its core, surprisingly enough, Criminal Girls is something akin to a traditional or dungeon-crawling style RPG. You control your characters from an overhead view as you maneuver them through the various floors of the Hell tower, and as you walk around, eventually you’re jumped straight into combat. For the most part, that’s it; while there are rest points on various floors (which we’ll touch on shortly), the game has little to do with NPC’s unless plot relevant, and the game is mostly about your party and killing Convicts, the monsters in the dungeon. Mechanically, what this means is that aside from moving your party around the game maps to find stairs to the next floor, treasure boxes or rest points, almost everything you’re going to do in-game consists of menu navigation, so traditional JRPG fans should find some joy in this structure. Most everything is done with the D-Pad/Analog stick and the X button, with the Circle button allowing you to back out from choices if needed. You can field up to four characters at one time in battle, and each has useful skills that can make them vital components of any team, as well, so it’s in your best interest to experiment as needed, as you’d expect. Also, in a nice touch, you’ll end up with more than four party members available at any time, and the game not only allows them to collect the full experience points from every battle, but also allows you to swap out one character per turn in combat with no negative penalties for doing so. From jump the mechanics seem reasonable enough, if nothing else, but that actually isn’t quite the case.

The first thing you should know is that the party will ultimately never do exactly what you want at your choosing. Instead, they will make a suggestion as to what they WANT to do at any given time, which you can’t change. On the plus side, you can pick the choices any of the four party members make, and if they all suck you can try subbing in someone else and see what happens. On the minus side, only that person gets to take their chosen action, like some kind of bizarre modern update of Miracle Warriors: Seal of the Dark Lord. It works a lot better than it sounds, though, largely because your party members will become better at working together as the game goes on. For one thing, as you level them up skill-wise, they’ll learn how to perform attack actions with up to the entire party at once, so everyone will attack more or less by (an undocumented) initiative order. For another, you’ll also find that the party can learn team attacks, which you can find in hidden treasure chests around the game world that will pop into view as you get close; they’re generally hidden in dead ends, so this isn’t as hard to find as you’d expect. Each character also fills in a particularly useful niche, both elementally, so characters will learn specific elemental skills to deal added damage, and functionally, so Ran will grow into your tank character, Alice will grow into your combat caster, and Shin will grow into a tactical leader who can direct other members to work with her. Best of all, in group attacks, only the initiator uses magic points, so if you can pull off these skills with the high MP characters it makes good use of your magic points overall. The characters also, eventually, learn unique field skills, allowing them to spot treasure chests on the map, call enemies to you or repel them for a while, heal outside of battle and so on, and every one is quite useful, though some are more so than others, especially in the late game.

Now, your party levels up in two ways, one conventional, and one that’s anything but. As they fight in battle the party earns experience points that bring them up normal levels, improving their stats across the board. However, because they’re basically delinquents, to teach them how to properly use their skills in battle, you have to motivate them, which is where the punishment concept comes in. You’ll also learn CM in battle (which the game doesn’t really title, so I just call it “Cash Money”), which can be used in two ways at the rest points you find. The rest points themselves act as your all-purpose functional hubs, allowing you to rest at no cost and save your game, but you can also access a shop here to buy goodies to use in battle. More importantly (to get to the point), you can also take on “Motivation” actions, which essentially amount to (in the beginning) punishing the sins out of the girls. You’ll find different tools to punish the girls, and by using the tools and spending the CM, the girls will learn new skills or get stat bonuses unique to them, which develops their roles in combat.

The “Motivation” gimmick is essentially a series of minigames, depending on the tool you’re using at the time, which require you to perform an action on the front and rear touch screen as needed. Each tool has four levels of Motivation, where the first two use only the front screen (and have low clear levels) while the last two use both screens (and have higher clear levels). Successfully completing the games well earns more experience than screwing them up, but in general you have to do really bad to not get a pretty good amount of experience no matter what. The games vary based on the tool, so when you’re spanking the girls you need only hold the spot on the screen, while electro-prodding them requires flicking a switch, and tickling them requires back-and-forth strokes to complete. For those who are into the more sexual aspects, the girls appear in progressively less and less clothing (and fog) as the minigames go as well, so later sessions are basically fairly risqué in addition to profitable. Once you’ve cleared a motivation tool, you can go back and use it again for free at any time if you’re inclined to do so for one reason or another, though it offers no benefit to do so. There are five tools in all, though the fifth one has some restrictions (and super high prices) associated with it, so it’ll take a good long while to get to and utilize effectively.

Victims of a Criminal

The main plotline can be completed in around thirty hours, give or take, but there’s a lot more to do with the game than just that. For one thing, each of the seven main characters has her own unique ending to unlock, which earns you a CG of the ending and a Trophy for doing so, so assuming you follow the game’s advice and save when it specifically warns you to, assuming your core level is high enough, you can spend a good amount of time on that activity itself. There are also two post-game sequences to go through. One is a separate storyline sequence that nets you two more characters to utilize in battle and Motivate (and they have field skills that boost EXP and CM earned, so huzzah), as well as another ending, while the other is a bonus dungeon you have to access via code that unlocks even more combat. There are also two galleries to poke around in; one that features various CG from the PSP game, as well as the ending CG’s you unlock, and another that lets you go through the motivation scenes without any activities or time limits, at whatever level of undress you wish, if that’s a thing you’re into. Overall, unlocking everything will probably take around sixty to seventy hours if you’re good, and fans will absolutely want to do so. Hell, I’m almost done with the game Trophy-wise and I’m not even trying, so it can’t be that bad, assuming you’re really into the game.

That said, well… okay, first off, the game depicts the girls in various states of undress being subjected to quasi-BDSM stuff, initially at their own objection, so that’s going to be a thing that colors your opinion of the game, even if it’s heavily toned down in the US release. If you’re opposed to this, the game isn’t for you. Outside of that, however, the game really has some mechanical quirks that make it a huge pain in the ass to deal with at times. For one thing, the game expects you to grind a good amount, especially in the late game; while you’ll have a general idea of what level you should be early on, because “when you’ve unlocked everyone’s skills,” is a fair metric, it’s harder to judge in the late game when everyone’s skills are maxed and you’re still getting smoked. This is further compounded by the fact that the vast majority of the late-game bosses, including the normal final boss, have a skill that will literally one-shot your entire party unless Ran throws up her Invincible Shield skill, which she doesn’t always do. In the very late game, you can buy items that prompt her to do so, at an exceptionally high cost, but it’s at least an option; if she doesn’t do it early on, you’re just reloading your last save and hoping the game doesn’t screw you the next go-round. Honestly, I don’t even know how you can beat the final boss of the main story in that state if Ran doesn’t have the invincibility shield on tap, but it turns out the game didn’t either, so the boss apparently does less damage if you pick someone else, which is… kind of weird, since there’s no guarantee Ran will throw up the shield in the first place.

On the technical front, even if you’re fine with mechanically requiring level grinding in a game released (in the US) in 2015, the game just gets repetitive because of it. If the game were a bit more lenient and required less mandatory grinding this wouldn’t be an issue, but as it stands it’s a thing you’ll have to deal with if you want to see everything the game has to offer. It doesn’t help that, because you can’t choose the skills the characters use, some battles take way longer than they need to, especially when enemies have incredibly long ten or twelve hit animations (and oh my God twelve hit attacks against invincibility shields take a good two minutes). It also doesn’t help that in the late-game, the “Attack” option is more or less one of the worst choices you can make, since most magic attacks do a great deal more damage, and are often incredibly cheap to cast. Finally, in an issue that seems to have no obvious cause, the Gallery the game offers simply stops updating after a certain point, no matter what you do, so you essentially can accomplish a set amount of things before it seems to just completely fail. There’s no obvious trigger, but if this is a thing for you, you’ll want to keep an eye out and try to avoid it… somehow.

To be honest, I’m five Trophies from completely clearing out the game, so clearly Criminal Girls: Invitation Only has something substantial to offer beyond the obvious sex appeal, but it’s still a very flawed experience, just one that happens to have some very good points underneath a lot of issues. The latter two thirds of the plot are outstanding, the gameplay takes a lot of risks mechanically and sometimes manages to be engaging in its concept, and there’s a lot of content to the game, which makes forgiving it for its issues easy enough, as what the game does offer is quality. However, the game is quite grind-heavy and features several bosses which use AOE one-shot spells that rely on a specific skill to survive which you might not see pop when you need it, the odd mechanics mean battles can take far longer than you’ll be okay with at times, the Attack option simply stops being useful after a while, and the Gallery seems, somehow, to be broken for no apparent reason. It also doesn’t help that the first third of the plot is goofy in a bad way (for good reasons) or that the visual aesthetics are outdated except in the Punishment scenes. Frankly, for those who grew up with grind-heavy games, don’t mind obvious sexuality in their games, can deal with a plot that starts out dumb, and are willing to give weird stuff a chance, honestly, there’s something almost lovable about Criminal Girls. In spite of its obvious and awkward sexuality and its grind-heavy gameplay, there’s an actual game in here that’s worth seeing; you just have to fight through a bit of annoyance and cleavage to get there.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Criminal Girls is an easy game to dismiss and a hard one to qualify, but if you can look past its quasi-pandering concept and awkward missteps, there’s actually something interesting beneath the surface, albeit something that should’ve been attached to better mechanics. The latter two-thirds of the plot are surprisingly expressive, the mechanics are at least conceptually interesting and occasionally show some signs of real brilliance, and there’s an extensive amount of content here that’s all generally enjoyable and well structured, if you’re amenable to what the game is doing. However, the first third of the plot (while sensible in context) is goofy and stupid on its own, the visuals are primitive outside of the Punishment sequences, the Gallery seems to be broken to one respect or another, and the game relies on its sex appeal a bit hard, which may be off-putting. Further, the actual game is grind-heavy and features several late-game bosses which use one-shot AOE skills that rely on specific tactics to counter, which is problematic since the game decides what attacks are available, which can be frustrating at best and lethal at worst, especially when normal Attack functions become underpowered eventually. It’s not hard to accept or work around the game’s flaws, honestly, and if you can there’s something really interesting here, something that probably didn’t need to rely on spankings and touch screen gimmickry to be sold. Even with that, though, Criminal Girls is enjoyable if you can ignore or accept its flaws, and while that may be an admittedly difficult task, the rewards might well be worth it.

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