I need a cold shower.
Oh, you and your filthy mind. Behave. But I can forgive you for jumping to conclusions, since Criminal Girls: Invite Only has an infamous reputation. This dungeon crawler was often seen as being too edgy for a Western release, seeing as its skill system encourages you to spank, electrocute and indulge in kinky foreplay with a collection of scantily-clad moe girls via some touchscreen minigames. The mind boggles, and NISA have finally brought the game over to British shores after some judicious editing and translation.
However, I don't need a cold shower to cool off, so to speak. I need it to stay awake. I expected Criminal Girls to be an embarrassing and kinky guilty pleasure, but the shocking reality is that it's criminally boring.
It shouldn't be. After accepting a new temp job in purgatory, you're tasked with leading a team of female reprobates up through a sprawling tower in order to find redemption. The characters are all arch moe archetypes to a fault, but they're arch enough to at least be vaguely interesting as they gradually reveal more about themselves over the 20-hour runtime. This might have been a decent foundation for a frisky little jaunt, but Criminal Girls falls down in the execution.
Its structure is painfully primitive. You'll explore a sprawling selection of boxy dungeon floors in search of the exit, fighting in random battles and finding the occasional treasure chest, for twenty or so hours. That's it. Any number of games make this setup work thanks to the strength of its systems and art design, but despite some visual cleanup and translated subtitles, Criminal Girls becomes an absolute slog after only a handful of hours in due to the tiny number of recycled enemies you'll meet on each floor, repetitive backgrounds and the fact that foes delight in blasting out status effects with abandon, forcing you back to the infirmary to lick... your wounds... more often than you'd like.
Some optional backtracking as the girls reveal basic fetch quests and the occasional non-puzzle notwithstanding, it's deeply dull if mechanically sound.
The combat could have tightened things up. Criminal Girls' turn-based battle system is unique in that you don't exactly have direct control over your commands, attacks and skills. Instead, each member of your party suggests using one of their unlocked abilities off their own bat, and you need to pick one that best fits the situation. It's an intriguing change of pace as you'll need to make the best of the situation and the commands at your disposal, carefully deciding which option to choose while swapping different party members in and out.
This can lead to some thrilling boss battles that require you to guard, heal and ration your limited mana, but the combat system also has a disastrous downside. Only one or two of your team can attack or use a skill each turn, while enemies all get a free hit, meaning that battles effectively last three or four times longer than they should! Even regular fights against recycled rank-and-file can become a chore as your party gradually takes turns to whittle down their HP, leaving you infuriated by the fact that you know the battle could be over in seconds if only you were allowed to use your best skills from the off. Or, you know, assign attacks and skills to everyone. It's another layer of artificial padding in a game that's already too sluggish for its own good.
Then we come to the skill system. There's one currency in Criminal Girls, CP, which can be used to purchase consumables and unlock new battle or field skills for your party. You'll be able to find and steal enough sundries to dedicate your CP solely to skills, but after a couple of tiers, the sheer amount of CP you'll need to advance your characters becomes utterly ridiculous. You'll need to spend an absolute age grinding and grinding and grinding away to keep your girls on the curve, especially since you'll eventually have eight characters all with their own skill trees to sink points into. Yet more padding and more time spent traipsing around the same corridors, fighting the same foes.
Eventually Criminal Girls picks up once you've unlocked a huge number of useful abilities and levelled up beyond the norm, but crucially, I can't recommend putting in the time to get there.
Now let's talk about the spanking.
Once you've decided to spend CP to advance a character's skill level, you're thrown into a touchscreen minigame in which you'll use a whip, prod or other kinky contrivance to purge your girls of wicked thoughts as pink fog gradually parts to reveal a vaguely erotic image. The idea of having to 'motivate' girls with 'edgeplay' and other forms of dubiously consentual acts will strike some as deeply distasteful, and rightly so.
I feel that I should probably be offended by this, but to be perfectly honest, I'm not. Criminal Girls is a shameless piece of guilty pleasure fanservice that wears its heart on its box sleeve, marketed directly to its niche audience with no deception. Plus, if I'm a fan of something, I like to be serviced.
What I am offended by, however, is that these minigames are incredibly boring on a mechanical level. You'll just spend thirty seconds poking and prodding at basic icons while looking at some pink fog. It's not interesting, it requires no thought or effort, and even more insultingly it adds yet another level of pointless busywork into an experience that's already full to the brim with pointless busywork!
Had Criminal Girls been better paced, plotted and streamlined, I might have enjoyed its embarrassing titilation or at least wrote it off as a guilty pleasure. But, at the end of the day, it feels like a desperate attempt to make a humdrum dungeon crawler seem more edgy and exciting than it really is.
- Mechanically solid and lengthy dungeon crawling
- Eyecatching redrawn art, relatively interesting characters
- Unique battle system is unpredictable...
- ...but also makes fights last far too long and turns combat into a chore
- Astonishingly grindy and repetitive, poorly paced, disrespects your time
- Deeply dull, even the ostensibly 'kinky' minigames
The Short Version: Despite the desperate efforts of its kinky spanking, erotic imagery and unpredictable battle system, Criminal Girls: Invite Only is a crashing bore. What could have been a a guilty pleasure is buried beneath a mountain of padding, sluggish pacing and grind, making for an experience that's dull rather than dirty.
4 - POOR: There's something wrong here. Games that attain a 4 might not be unplayable, but they will generally tend towards shameless mediocrity and a visible lack of development. Here we'll probably find rushed film tie-ins, skeletal games prepped for further monetisation, and copycat shovelware, devoid of charm, with only the hint of the trend it attempted to plagiarise saving it from damnation. That said, a sudden drop in price might just shift the balance enough to warrant a purchase if you're a fan of the franchise or genre.
Platform: PS Vita (reviewed)
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Publisher: NIS America