Developer: Compile Heart
"LOVE MEEEEEEE," Mugen Souls Z seems to scream. "I'm quirky and cute and colourful and moe as hell and there are huge robots and tentacles and sometimes the girls flash their knickers. What more do you want?!!"
I could have just described any Compile Heart game, in fairness. The masters of the delightfully-bizarre-yet-never-particularly-brilliant JRPG always stuff their offerings full of cute scantily (pantily?) clad ladies, cheeky cheesecake galore, crazy gameplay systems and violently colourful art direction - and I can't help but love them for it even as I bring down the critical hammer. Irrepressible personality and gorgeous anime artwork can make a good game great and a mediocre one interesting, but it can't make a bad game worth buying.
Such as we saw with the original Mugen Souls. A vain goddess tried to win over an entire solar system by making it fall in love with her -- inanimate objects, landmasses and all -- by assuming a variety of dated female character tropes to cater to specific anime fetishes. Unfortunately the quirky veneer gradually cracked to reveal a grindy and annoyingly obtuse JRPG. As much as I love all things anime, there was no disguising the rubbish game buried beneath all the crazy.
Thankfully, Mugen Souls Z is a much better game in almost every respect!
The plot is predictably unpredictable, so here's a grossly oversimplified version. Chou-Chou, the self-appointed Undisputed God of the universe (who happens to be a young girl of undetermined age - aren't they always?), has successfully captivated an entire solar system and is moving onto bigger targets: twelve worlds ripe for conquering. However, her first foray results in the Undisputed God running into an Ultimate God -- Syrma, a ditzy and unfeasibly well-endowed lass -- who ends up absorbing her power and turning her into a tiny chibi caricature by way of a horrifying magical perverted tentacle coffin. Of course.
Long (and pleasingly bizarre) story short: they team up and set out to make another solar system fall in love with them, with Syrma now the playable protagonist at Chou-Chou's beg and call. Along the way they'll meet up with characters old and new, who boil down to a collection of character tropes (an older gent who's fawned over by girls far too young for him, a meek shrine maiden, a young lad who gets nosebleeds every five seconds when something risqué happens... you know the drill) - which sounds atrocious but manages to stay upbeat and colourful enough to work in the main courtesy of unpredictable localised dialogue.
Quirky and lengthy visual novel-style exchanges will help keep you sane through what is ultimately the worst part of the game. And sadly the biggest part of the game: exploring the twelve worlds themselves. This boils down to grinding and grinding and grinding through some of the worst field maps I've seen in years; tiny, sparsely-populated and visually primitive stages that would have been slapped down hard on PS2. Production values hit a shocking low here, miring us in empty environments with blocky geometry, randomly-placed objectives with almost no attempt to replicate visual novel events, a bare minimum of detail and only a single jumping sound effect.
Which just so happens to be the lead character literally saying "jump." It's awful, and so far removed from the crisp and vibrant charm of the cutscenes and portraits!
Despite some new fun traversal tricks that make revists more interesting, the fact that a core part of the game is so woefully inept will factor into our final score in a BIG way. A shame since once you manage to engage an enemy on the field map, the combat is fantastic.
Halfway between Hyperdimension Neptunia and the Tales series, Mugen Souls Z's turn-based battles gives you two degrees of freedom as you perfectly arrange your characters to best utilise their unique weapons and skills. Of which there are hundreds upon hundreds to choose from, all with different effects. As your skill increases, you can then bounce foes around the arena to deal extra damage or group them together, take advantage of status-changing crystals that can totally change the course of a scrap, mete out insane pain in 'damage carnival' attacks and even turn cute little Chou-Chou into an enormous murderous ball of chibi death. Loads of options make for versatile, tough and enjoyable engagements.
But wait, there's more! Syrma's ability to change into various anime archetypes is more than moe fan service, since she can transform enemies into servants or items by catering to their specific fetishes. Some foes are into complicated girls. Others like their anime heroines to be masochists, sadists, ditzy or totally hyperactive, and Syrma can change into the lot. Then pull off some slightly exhibitionist poses mid-battle. The so-called 'Captivate' system is bonkers, but works much better than Mugen Souls' original Moe Kill mechanics since Syrma can change form without restrictions and access useful metrics that tell us how effective each archetype and pose is. What used to be a horrible memory test is now a viable mechanic.
Turning some tough adversaries into useful items or adorable rabbit-like 'Shampuru' servants can turn a defeat into victory, and always feels fantastic since collecting Shampurus factors into a selection of massive robot battles dotted throughout the campaign. Even crystals and entire continents aren't immune to your charms, with various captivate points dotted around the field maps.
It's a smokescreen designed to distract us from the terrible grindy field maps, of course, but it works surprisingly well - and it's joined by loads more peripheral gameplay systems that make the grinding much more fun and palatable. We've got an enormous optional dungeon to explore with bosses and special items, The Mugen Field, buoyed up by a staggeringly in-depth character editor that lets us create unique custom heroes out of various classes.
Practically everything is layered with extra mechanics, from the inventory and skills - so there's plenty of content here even if much of it feels somewhat peripheral. After all, the main story characters will be more than enough unless you optionally keep on grinding away after accessing the New Game + mode.
Ah, yes, those characters. I do have to point out that Mugen Souls Z (and Mugen Souls) actively try to take a pop at established anime and 'moe' cliches from time to time, while providing unapologetic fan service, but do so by making all of their characters established anime and moe cliches. This doesn't give you a free pass, Compile Heart! You've still delivered a shocking dearth of interesting and unique characters beyond determined swordswoman Nao, and even she suffers from the terrible female character design that tends to infest the genre. Syrma is a case in point: a practical non-entity who's basically a cardboard cutout with outrageous exposed breasts and awful voice acting in either dub.
Though the dialogue can be very entertaining and frequently very funny, we can't ever really grow to like or care about the cast to any great extent.
And speaking of dialogue, there's some seriously questionable content here. This review is already far too long even with 700 words removed (sorry about not going into detail about the Mugen Field!), but suffice to say that Mugen Souls Z often charts some risky waters, not at all limited to flirting with loli countless times and throwing heroines into Syrma's coffin on a regular basis.
Which would be fine, except that the box happens to be filled with groping sexy tentacles. That we then see in an accompanying highly suggestive full-screen artwork followed by a hot tub scene. Whether you take offence or enjoy the ecchi titillation comes down to personal taste, but as far as I'm concerned, it's in bad taste.
At least NIS America made the right decision to cut a bath minigame that let players scrub soap off the near-naked female cast, complete with moaning sound effects and blushing. Many fans are up in arms, but I'm not one of them. There's a difference between censorship and localisation -- cutting content versus making a game more suitable for a different international audience -- and this is definitely an example of the latter.
Plus, before you defend the opportunity to touch up young girls in a bath, ask yourself what the hell you're doing with your life. Oh, and don't roll out that 'but games can be violent so it's a double standard' argument here, because I will crush it. Pick your battles.
This sour taste aside, though, I feel that Mugen Souls Z still manages to be cheeky and anarchic enough to deflect most of these criticisms, and more importantly keep us entertained for the duration. Whereas the original fell flat, its sequel manages to be well worth a punt for genre fans, even if I feel that Compile Heart still has yet to deliver a truly superb JRPG that delivers stylish anime flair with superbly solid gameplay to match.
- Fantastic combat is deep, versatile and accessible
- Captivate system works well; countless improvements over original game
- Quirky and upbeat personality will keep you entertained for the lengthy duration
- Still sensationally grindy, field maps are absolutely tragic
- Lacklustre production values outside of cutscenes and portraits
- Some misfiring (and occasionally offensive) humour and content
- Characters clichéd by design, but still all tired tropes
The Short Version: Mugen Souls Z is still hides grindy and unambitious core gameplay behind a concentrated beam of pure moe, but numerous tweaks and fixes make it significantly more fun to play than the original. Fans of the genre and Compile Heart will be well away thanks to the cheeky sense of fun and fantastic art style, though demanding JRPG enthusiasts will be less than captivated.