A flying fortress bedecked with cute animal faces. A propensity for cutscenes featuring skimpy clothing and hot baths. An underage girl who changes personality, form and... ahem... breast size in order to defeat enemies. If you aren’t dissuaded by any of these scenarios then welcome to Mugen Souls! If you feel quite dirty/creeped out/confused then step aside, this game is not for you.
The latest title from Compile Heart, Mugen Souls follows a very similar formula to the previously released Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 - guiding a group of characters through different worlds, defeating enemies and levelling up as the story progresses. While the Hyperdimension Neptunia series has its fair share of disconcertingly sexualised girls and anime tropes, Mugen Souls embraces its esoteric weirdness, producing a game that is inherently ‘Japanese’. The comedy is broad, sitting awkwardly with the mass of complex gameplay mechanics that comprise the Mugen Souls experience.
Chou-Chou, self-proclaimed ‘Undisputed God of the Universe’, wants to subjugate the Seven Worlds and all those who reside within them. While this sounds malevolent, Chou-chou’s cutesy, saccharine name gives a better indication of the overall tone. The Japanese concept of ‘moe’ is prevalent within Mugen Souls, to the degree where a number of different systems and figures are prefixed by the term. Moe, for those unaware of its meaning, derives from the Japanese word for ‘budding’ and is often applied to a specific cuteness found mainly in anime. Chou-chou is a good example of this - indeterminate age, dressed up in slightly revealing yet frilly frippery, prone to making various kinds of girly sighs and sexual innuendos. Chou-chou deviates a little, however, thanks to her petulant ways. Anyone who gets in her way is subject to become her peon - able to stay in human form or turned into a Shampuru (a poor creature, looking rather like an anime Rabbid). As things progress it becomes evident that most humans actually develop a crush on Chou-chou, making their ‘enslavement’ more comedic than tragic. Meanwhile, the word peon crops up in nearly every conversation, like an overused Carry On joke in such lines as ‘Can you peon me?’ Chou-chou straddles the line between extremely annoying and deceptively likeable - within minutes you’ll know if her shrill proclamations are bearable enough.
Your party initially comprises Chou-chou, the angelic Altis (forever trying to become a demon) and Ryuto - the pilot of your flying fortress who happens to be hopelessly in love with Chou-chou. Throughout the course of the game other characters will join your merry band, available to choose depending on the challenge ahead. Whereas Hyperdimension Neptunia contained a primarily female group, having Ryuto as part of your team feels like a breath of fresh air. Despite his use as comic relief - mainly slapstick comedy, too - his eagerness to please and overreactions work well at keeping things grounded. Other male characters join your party soon enough, along with an assortment of sexualised girls of varying inclinations.
Dressed up like a princess’ bedroom, Mugen Souls initially looks dazzlingly vibrant. The opening movie, featuring Chou-chou and Altis, sees them singing to a huge crowd, complete with fireworks, zany camera angles and choreographed moves. It’s blatantly there to pander to otaku gamers, so prevalent are the panty shots, faux-embarrassed reactions and skimpy outfits. Set to a piece of bubblegum J-pop and an ice-cream bra away from being a Katy Perry video, the opening promises a lot more than what’s delivered. Although the character designs and art direction remain admirable, it’s the chugging sub-30fps frame-rate that afflicts the main campaign that disappoints - something you’ll be unaware of during the video opening.
However, first impressions can be deceiving. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Mugen Souls is both aimed at children and also a breeze to play. Wrong on both counts. The PEGI rating on the back of the box is the first clue - it’s rare to find a game like this available in UK stores, especially one with ‘Sex’ as a content warning. It’s here that you’ll begin to question whether publisher NIS were right in localising Mugen Souls for the UK market. While it’s admirable that such a niche title is seeing release - complete with re-recorded dialogue and translation that maintains a quirky tone - the subject matter is a little dubious. With inquiries and scandals becoming a regular feature on the news, a game with underage girls in compromising situations could land you in hot water (rather like Chou-chou and Altis, first seen in a hot spa with minimal soap suds covering their... assets.) The main mechanic during combat sees Chou-chou transform into one of many different personality types including ‘sadist’ and ‘masochist’ among others. While this is a pretty normal occurrence for certain games in Japan - where the culture has always been different regarding young girls - it’s a bit of a hot topic in the UK and could get you some odd looks.
The other misleading thing about the game is its difficulty. While you’re still learning the ropes it’s a gentle, easy turn-based strategy game. By the fifth time the game has introduced a different, interlocking game mechanic it can become overwhelming, as if Compile Heart threw everything into Mugen Souls without regard for comprehension. Ship-to-ship combat between levels? Of course! A peon management system? Chuck it in there! Super hard battle mode? Go on then! It’s a mind-twisting mass of complexity, especially once you realise how vague the system behind the combat can be. Chou-chou’s transformation into different personalities curries favour from certain enemies aligned with that type. Basically, if they’ve got the hots for a ditzy girl, Chou-chou’s ditzy form scores extra damage and influence and so on for each type. If you manage to enter a battle with the right personality type, you then gain the ability to turn the enemy into your peon - one of the weird little Shampuru creatures. To do this you must gauge the enemies mood, select a few words from a frankly bizarre selection (‘hit’, ‘desperate’, ‘smile’ etc.) and build up a meter that can either a) turn them into a Shampuru, b) kill them or c) cause them to power up into a frenzy. Shampuru counts influence the ship-to-ship battles and winning enough battles can turn an entire continent into your peon. Factor in crystals affecting entire battlefields, bosses and the usual remit of items to equip and you have the most complicated game masquerading as an anime (sorry, Catherine, this takes the cake.)
It’s so indecipherable that it really is hard to recommend. The strange battle of words - dependent on mood and affection - is downright confusing and, with a limited number of personality changes and attempts, it’s very common that you’ll have to keep retreating in order to enter the fray as the ‘right’ Chou-chou. The reliance on personality types also negates the other party members in the fight. More often than not you’ll simply skip their turn so that Chou-chou can use her feminine charms on the enemy, thereby scoring more precious peons. Luckily, there is a tutorial that is far more explanatory than in any other Compile Heart title, but memorising the right processes can only go so far. Often it’s down to pure luck whether you’re the right personality type. It would be rather more bearable if the worlds didn’t look so empty. A mission to subjugate every living creature in the universe isn’t going to be too difficult with such sparsely populated and dull areas. Like Hyperdimension Neptunia the environments are repetitive, unimaginative and do not inspire exploration. To achieve ‘continent subjugation’ there are a smatter of directives to complete; when they are as complicated as ‘stand by the tree’, you’ll get the picture of how intricately detailed the game can (or cannot) be.
It’s a testament to the (very Japanese) humour that Mugen Souls is partially forgiven for these missteps. Not only are the characters likeable, there’s also a thread of meta-humour running throughout satirising RPG genre traditions such as looting every chest. There’s more personality in the game than any other Compile Heart title in recent memory and I’d be lying if I said I was never titillated. On the other hand, it’s this feeling which is problematic - you might feel guilty as much as amused. Playing in private, or with fellow Japanophiles, you’ll look past the cultural misgivings and potentially experience the moe feelings the game looks to inspire. Unfortunately, Mugen Souls might alienate more players than it ropes in; again questioning whether it was entirely right in localising it for the UK. Players who like Japanese style strategy games might be put off by the bawdy, juvenile tone (in which case Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 or Agarest: Generations of War Zero might be a safer bet.) Fans of this style of anime comedy might enjoy the ridiculousness (and perhaps even the mild perviness!) Both groups might subsequently deem it too hard and play something else. However, the enigma wrapped in a riddle that is the main gameplay conceit is the primary problem why Mugen Souls just doesn’t work. Poor graphics can be ignored if the gameplay is worthwhile and addictive - this game is repetitive, obtuse and has a learning curve resembling the letter ‘J’. It’s certainly something different - and certainly a controversial addition to any gaming library outside of the Far East - but its hard to fully endorse Mugen Souls to anyone but the niche.
Chou-chou-se a different game.