Breaking the Law – Pleasure, pain and purgatory await in a comical quest for redemption
Joining the ranks of Akiba’s Trip: Undead & Undressed and Senran Kagura: Shinovi Versus as Vita games you probably shouldn’t play on your daily commute comes Criminal Girls: Invite Only. Developed by Tokyo-based Image Epoch and published by NIS America, this risque dungeon crawler may seem like little more than a vehicle for fleshy fanservice, but a unique and engaging battle system and loveable cast of deadly delinquents ensure this perilous trip to purgatory is one worth taking, just so long as you’re not easily offended by a bit of superfluous digital debauchery.
Criminal Girls: Invite Only begins with players settling into their new digs in the role of a prison guard. However, it doesn’t take long before you discover that this isn’t your normal nine-to-five gig. You’ve been assigned to care for and instruct seven delinquent girls who’ve had their souls damned to hell for all eternity, that is, unless they can atone for their sins on the mortal coil. Players must guide these seven ne’er-do-wells who’ve been tasked with completing the Reformation Program, which effectively gives them a chance at atonement so that they may return to their former lives. Players must embark on a quest to climb the Spire, a labyrinthine dungeon full of fearsome demonic convicts on a quest of for redemption so that they may save themselves from purgatory and return to the world of the living.
While all of this talk of sins and atonement may sound heavy, the actual antics that encompass the game’s lengthy 30-hour adventure are anything but serious. Criminal Girls: Invite Only is filled to the brim with lighthearted shenanigans and lowbrow antics as players explore the game’s deadly dungeons, and it’s largely the cheeky writing that moves the game forward as you become attached to the game’s felonious femme fatales and begin to understand their backgrounds and the sins that landed them in purgatory.
The premise is certainly unique, but the bread and water of Criminal Girls‘ penal pilgrimage are much more pedestrian. In typical dungeon crawler fare, players must navigate the many floors of the Spire, battling a menagerie of fearsome foes and collecting a wealth of treasure tucked off the beaten path such as stat-boosting potions, healing items, and other helpful tools to even the odds in the game’s challenging encounters. Battles take place in random encounters that at first seem like standard turn-based melees, but feature a unique twist that makes them feel initially quite simple, but devilishly clever as your repertoire of abilities expands.
See, rather than directly choosing a command for each of your delinquents during the combat phase, each of the four characters participating presents a move or ability from their list of talents they are willing to perform. These moves range from standard attacks to party-boosting buffs, along with mighty Chain Attacks that allow two characters to combine their abilities to perform a devastating move; such as the buxom bushido Tomoe imbuing her katana with Alice’s ice magic to put the chill on your foes with an freezing slash, or twins Sako and Yuko busting out in cheer, boosting your stats and regenerating your party’s health. The somewhat roulette-style nature of the combat adds a layer of chance and excitement to the battles, and deciding whether to heal your party during a boss fight or execute a powerful attack that may not become available again for several more turns makes for some tough decisions, ensuring you weigh your options heavily, and think two turns ahead at all times.
That’s not to say the abilities available at any time are random. If your opponent charges up to deliver a truly punishing attack, chances are Ran, the party’s tank will present a Guard option to mitigate the damage dealt to the team. Additionally, healers will almost always suggest their services when the going gets tough. However, if a character is especially hurt they can lose the will to fight, meaning keeping your merry band of miscreants in fighting shape directly affects your team’s combat prowess.
Now, if you’ve heard a bit about this game leading up to its release you might be familiar with the sadomasochistic elephant in the room when it comes to Criminal Girls: Invite Only. Namely, the unique and utterly perverse BDSM-themed minigame that must be performed in order to “motivate” the girls in your party, unlocking their more advanced abilities. Motivation sessions take place in save rooms, in which players must choose from a variety of kinky tools including feather dusters, cattle prods and riding crops to beat the “temptations” out of your selected heroine. After plunking down a considerable amount of CM (the game’s form of money), you’ll use the Vita’s front and rear touch screens to poke, prod, and manipulate random gremlins that appear on the supple exposed skin of the character you’re motivating. If you manage to defeat all of the temptations within the limited period of time you’ll accrue more motivation points, allowing you to unlock a new combat or field technique. While lasting roughly 20 seconds per session, these segments are more than a little disturbing, and truthfully feel out of place when taken in context with the rest of the game. If you’re easily offended this alone might be enough to make you pass up Criminal Girls: Invite Only. However, if you’re not easily offended or feel that disciplining a heroic harem will add to your enjoyment of the game, then have at it. Personally, I feel the game would have been better without these segments as they add very little to the overall experience.
In terms of presentation, Criminal Girls: Invite Only doesn’t come close to taxing the Vita’s hardware, but the vibrant colors, varied environments and stylish and imaginative creature designs certainly make the game pop. Each area has a multitude of creative creatures you’ll encounter, and some of the boss designs look really fantastic. Unfortunately, the game’s battles feature a serious lack of animation, and are largely static until a character attacks. Even still, the flashy effects of magical spells and cacophony of colors on screen come together to create a game that’s nothing if not charming and easy on the eyes.
On the aural front Criminal Girls: Invite Only fares even better, featuring a varied soundtrack with a handful of standout pieces along with quite a bit of fully voiced Japanese dialog. The performances are solid, and no character comes off as especially grating, which is always a plus.
When all is said and done, Criminal Girls: Invite Only is a very solid dungeon crawler, so long as you can stomach the game’s rather raunchy undertones. Players who can manage to look beneath the game’s greasy veneer will find an equally humorous and racy adventure with an addicting and engaging combat system that feels fresh from start to finish. There are some seriously challenging fights packed into this 30-hour stint in purgatory, and grinding becomes a necessity during the final stretch of the game. Even still, with combat this fun and so much to do, including multiple endings to unlock, additional Girl’s Wish quests to undertake, and a plethora of hidden abilities to discover, Criminal Girls is a guilty pleasure from start to finish.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Vita (reviewed) ; Publisher: NIS America; Developer: Imageepoch; Players: 1; Released: February 3, 2015 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Criminal Girls: Invite Only provided by the game’s publisher, NIS America.