Most portable JRPGs coming out recently stick to a pretty specific mold, so when NIS America announced that the enhanced PlayStation Vita port of Criminal Girls, given the new subtitle "Invite Only", would get a western release, it naturally turned some heads. With its mix of partially AI-controlled battles and its infamous "punishment" scenes, does it end up being a good game? That depends on the person playing it.
You take the role of a prison guard who becomes tasked with helping seven girls complete their own trials to fix their past sins in order to escape from hell. Each of the seven girls corresponds to one of the seven deadly sins. One thing I do have to give NIS America credit for here is that they didn't pick the obvious meaning of the sins when crafting each character. Ran, the embodiment of wrath, is an extreme misandrist instead of just being super angry all the time which causes issues as you, the player, take the role of a male. Kisaragi, the embodiment of greed, is spoiled but also looks down on the player because the price tag of your clothing is beneath her. This characterization for the remaining five deadly sins follows suit similarly by taking their respective deadly sin and providing something that is faithful to the sin's origin but unique at the same time.
The storyline is your pretty basic fare outside of few thought provoking sections, but there is one thing that is commendable about it. Most modern JRPGs tend to overstay their welcome these days, but in Criminal Girls the story segments are succinct and to the point, generally lasting only a few minutes before the player is thrown back into the action. As I've gotten older, I've had less and less time compared to my younger days, so a game that gets rid of the fluff while keeping the overall narrative intact is a welcome change.
The biggest difference that separates Criminal Girls: Invite Only from other JRPGs is its battle system and its infamous "punishment" (renamed "motivation" in the Western version) system. The battle system in Criminal Girls is unique in the sense that you only have the choice of a single girl's attack out of the four to use and what attack or skill she uses depends on the girls' motivation towards the player. There's a bit of an annoyance in the randomness at play here, but generally I found one of the four choices from each girl worked to my advantage in battle. Picking the right attack becomes paramount, as each enemy gets their own attack compared to your single attack. So going in with the right strategy can make or break a battle for you.
The second half of the uniqueness, the "motivation" system, comes from the CM currency you obtain from battles. Outside of using it to buy items, you can use it to perform punishments to the girls in the form of a touch-based mini game. During the mini game there's a floating icon on the screen which you need to press using your finger on the screen to get rid of. After completing the mini game, the girl levels up and gains new skills.
What made this mini game controversial from the outset of its Western release announcement was that it's heavily BDSM-based in nature, with each girl placed in heavily provocative positions with clothing to match. There's four different punishment levels with each level getting more revealing as you go on.
What's odd is that NIS America decided to censor the more suggestive parts of each girls' body during the scene. The change was likely needed to err on the side of the ESRB's wrath of an AO rating, but some of the changes fall into territory that Nintendo explored with their censoring of Tharja from Fire Emblem: Awakening during a side event where she had on somewhat revealing clothing and Nintendo of America put a drape behind her clothed rear area, which made the scene even more suggestive than it barely was. While this isn't the exact same situation here, some of the censored bits play into this territory and is odd considering the likely consumer who is targeted by this game would object to the censoring in the first place. These mini games are the only way to gain new skills so they're essentially unavoidable to progress any further, so if you vehemently hate this concept you won't like the game at all.
The music in Criminal Girls: Invite Only is passable at best and isn't noteworthy in any sense of the word, but it wasn't grating and worked quite well as background noise throughout the game. Graphically it's an enhanced version of a PSP game, so the artwork is basic but colorful and the Vita's enhanced graphics rendering smoothes out some of the jaggedness present in the original PSP version.
Criminal Girls: Invite Only is a unique twist on the Japanese RPG genre to be sure, but its controversial BDSM-influenced mini game will turn a lot of people's heads in a bad way and the censoring decisions might make some in the target market for this game decide against it on principle. If you're open to both, then there's enough unique things here to entertain you if you wish to accept the invite.
|The dialogue gets to the point quickly and doesn't overstay its welcome like most JRPGs.|
|The characterization of each of the girls is a welcome surprise from what one might expect.|
|Battle system is gimmicky, but it doesn't feel unfair if you strategy in your decisions.|
|The censoring gives the impression the game is even more lewd during the level-up mini games.|
|Graphics are detailed and stylized, but their Sony PSP roots are visible in this port.|
|Music isn't noteworthy, but it isn't grating either.|