These criminal girls invite only the most generic anime protagonist dudes to dungeon crawl with them!
Death is the final frontier of the human experience. What lies beyond it is a great cosmic mystery. Criminal Girls: Invite Only posits that for delinquent girls there’s a special circle of hell in which they’re imprisoned, where they can be “reformed” and sent back to the mortal realm for another shot at life. If this sounds like little more than a staggeringly grandiose set-up for a titillating S&M themed anime game, that’s because it is! Don’t get too excited though! This S & M theme is merely titillating rather than explicit. The issue is, though Criminal Girls might not be hardcore porn, it definitely features entirely too much grinding.
Criminal Girls: Invite Only casts the player as a non-descript self-insert anime protagonist (because apparently you want to identify with a guy who gets slapped and sneered at by beautiful women?) You’ve been temporarily abducted from earth to oversee the rehabilitation of a group of particularly unruly young ladies. The battle segments give chibified presentations of the party, and the overworld map shows some pixelated sprites. The conversations are presented in visual novel style, where the girls are seen in all their curvaceous (or elfin) glory. The protagonist doesn’t get a voice actor or a detailed drawing to represent him (but his sprite does have a pretty snazzy hat).
As you lead the girls on their redemptive journey through their personal purgatory, you’ll meet your standard cast of characters. There’s the haughty blonde tsundere princess, the tough girl, the hyperactive catgirl, the spaced-out blue-haired girl, the ditzy big boobed lady who is always saying “ara, ara, ara”. Nothing mould-breaking in the characterisation department. You occasionally get to choose between two dialogue options when talking to the girls in story sections, but these choices are usually just cosmetic and funnel back into the basic linear storyline. Don’t get any ideas about romancing your charges as you would get to do in other visual novels. What makes Criminal Girls: Invite Only stand out is that the girl’s relationships with eachother are more meaningful than their relationship with the protagonist.
In battles, instead of giving individual characters orders on their turn, you instead pick from a dialogue choice given by one of the girls. For example, spunky catgirl Sako might say “Neko punch!”. Selecting this option would have her do a standard attack. If she says “Twin-tails!” (her nickname for the haughty ojou-sama Kisaragi) then Kisaragi will join in attacking whatever wretched abomination you’re fighting. These dialogue choices are often conditional. If a girl is low on health, she might want the party to run away, and selecting her option will have the party scarper. If the entire party is ailing, Fuko might suggest she uses a healing spell. What really adds an extra layer of complexity to the proceedings is how the girls develop ultra-powerful link attacks with eachother. It’s often in your best interests to engineer these cirumstances, having the right combination of girls in your party to deliver one of these devastating double-team maneuvers.
A unique aspect to character-building in Criminal Girls is how you level up your girls’ abilities. When you’re at one of the designated “rest points” you’ll have the opportunity to “motivate” members your all-female party. Curiously, this motivation involves dressing them up in fetishistic cosplay outfits and engaging in a minigame where you’ll have to whip away their “sinful thoughts”. A pinkish haze fills the screen, partially covering one of the girls dressed in some scandalous attire (think gym shorts, maid outfits or just some skimpy undies) and you click on various hotspots on the screen to attack their sinful thoughts before a time limit runs out. It’s a bit like Gal Gun, but with more Catholic School overtones. Making things more complex is that the pinkish haze fades as you vanquish more impure ideas. Interestingly, these motivation segments all need only one hand to complete, leaving your off hand free to do your tax returns (which is what you’d be doing, right?)
It’s almost self-parodic how much of a relentless dunegon crawler Criminal Girls really is. There’s one area where you meet Sako’s little sister Fuko. First she asks you to fetch her a healing herb for her sore tummy. After ten minutes of trudging off and coming back with the herb, you then need to fetch her an ice pack for her sore feet (which means several minutes of backtracking). There are other areas where you’re forced to fight three recycled iterations of a previously beaten boss in search of a switch to open a door (so you can meet up with the busty Tomoe on the other side). After you’ve gone through this rather tiresome procession of fighting bosses guarding inoperable switches, the klutzy Tomoe realizes she was standing next to the right switch all along! This highlights Criminal Girls’ self-aware humour, even if much of that self-aware humour is papering over the cracks in the lack of gameplay variation.
This is the fundamental issue with Criminal Girls: Invite Only. Any type of strategy or tactics is subordinate to the grind. If you lose it’ll ultimately be because you run out of stored healing items. Since you can perform an action and use a healing item each turn, it’s usually easy to keep your health topped up while continuing to wear down your foes, even if you make a mistake. There’s no real need to balance your offence with sustainability as long as you’ve got those sweet, sweet drugs. However, you can only afford the mountain of curatives you’ll need through fighting endless random battles.
Criminal Girls: Invite Only is the sort of game I might have rated much more highly as an amorous teenager, but now I find it hard to put aside the continual, tedious random battles to focus on the sexy ladies. I enjoyed the unpredictable mechanics that really emphasize the personalities and relationships of the various girls. However, it’s not always enough to spice up the grinding repetition at the heart of the experience. Criminal Girls: Invite Only will suit your tastes if you’re after a hardcore dungeon crawler with softcore erotica. If you’re an incorrigible delinquent who inexplicably doesn’t like harem anime, you’re sure not going to be reformed.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed), PS Vita; Publisher: NIS America Inc. ; Developer: Nippon Ichi Software Inc. ; Players: 1 ; Released: January 11th 2017 ; ESRB: M for Mature
Full disclosure: This review is on a review copy provided to Hey Poor Player by the publisher