You learn a lot of things about yourself when you’re a video game journalist. You learn that some of the best games can come from nowhere. You learn that some developers care about their product more than other developers. You learn that accidents happen and sometimes they’re actually accidents and sometimes they’re veiled attempts at screwing someone over.
While playing Mugen Souls for review, I learned two things: that the word “mugen” is actually a Japanese word for “fantasy” or “infinite” and not just the name of a really great fighting game engine, and I learned that I can be angry at a game for being as unbelievably bad as it possibly can be.
Our friends to the east are well known for having a taste in video games that, to be honest, doesn’t quite make sense. I’ve played these games before, and reviewed them here. Some I liked, some I didn’t. I’m usually understanding of the difference in culture between myself and the Japanese, and realize that I’m not a part of the otaku culture and, therefore, am not the person who the game is marketed towards. However, this doesn’t change the fact that underneath all of the typical scantily clad children and bright anime graphics, there’s still supposed to be a playable game, despite any aesthetics that may or may not be my cup of tea.
I mention this because, although Mugen Souls somehow manages to push the eastern vibe even further than your average NIS America game, even the foundation of what’s built here is crumbling to the ground, and is ultimately what makes it a terrible game. So before the pack of fanboys who love this kind of stuff with all their might, and still seem to follow me, rush to the comments to say I don’t know what I’m doing and that I shouldn’t be a professional reviewer, know that I warned you that the base problem with the game is in the mechanics and not in the sensory details, and any comment thus far who claims otherwise will be met with the simple and trollish response from me: “You mad, bro?”
You begin the game with a plethora of events I can only be sure are in place to induce the perfect “WTF?” face from the players. You’re met with a giant flying boat covered in rainbows and a giant bunny head on the front. As you engage in battle you learn that you play as the (extremely) young girl named Chou-Chou, the self-proclaimed Undisputed God of the Universe with the impossibly big dreams of, and I’m not making this up, “making everything in the universe into your peon.” Which is essentially fancy/perverted talk that you want to control the universe whether everyone agrees with you or not. So you’re an eight-year-old dictator…awesome.
Oh, and then there’s a pop concert on the boat. There’s literally no reason why, after all you’ve just engaged in battle. You can’t rally the troops with this kind of thing because you don’t use troops in battle. So…what? This concert filled with gratuitous panty shots to characters that aren’t legally arousing is supposed to establish that the game is weird? Or something? Okay then.
This combined with the awkward shower scene between Chou-Chou and her…erm…”assistant” Altis within the first five minutes of the game makes for a very creepy set up for the rest of the game.
The ultimate goal is to conquer the lords and leaders of each of seven worlds, each based on a specific element or weather pattern (ugh,) and progress until you control everything. Within each world players are plopped on an overworld and led very closely through a series of checkpoints that each come with their own cringe-inducing cutscene. The overworld is filled with visible enemies that lead to a battle screen a la Eternal Sonata, as well as the usual treasures hidden in the corners. Other than that the world is surprisingly barren and bland. Which is really confusing considering the game seems to have troubles achieving a framerate of 30. I’m usually pretty good at the whole “strike enemies first so you get a preemptive strike in battle” thing, but it’s nearly impossible to time it right when your sword swing is only two or three frames of animation.
Once you’re actually in battle, you’re presented with a turn-based battle system that should be fairly familiar to fans of the genre. The order of who’s going next is at the top of the screen, and your characters get a limited amount of free movement and attacks per turn. Battles might have catches like a crystal in the middle of the field that alters your stats or movement abilities. And if you happen to be near another member of your party while their turn is next, you’ll perform an admittedly impressive link attack that must be the epitome of over-the-top attacks. Some of these involve spinning your party members like a top, firing them from slingshots, dropping planets on your enemies, firing a giant cannon that’s shaped mysteriously like a particular part of the male anatomy, etc. Oh, and those framerate issues from the overworld are monstrous here with all the particle effects and other stuff going on.
I haven’t even begun to mention the odd “charming” system for the process of actually making enemies into your “peon.” You see, each enemy has a specific mood that becomes important when you activate your “Moe-Kill” ability. Once activated you’re presented with each of the enemies on screen along with their moods and their affinities like “ego” or “depression.” You’re presented with two or three vague words that are supposed to alter the moods of the enemies on screen. Were they polar opposites this would be easy, but when you’re trying to decide what will appeal more to a sad enemy between “hit” and “abuse,” which are probably the same thing to begin with, it means you’re probably never going to get the hang of this particular mechanic.
What you’re supposed to accomplish by mastering this word system is making a little meter go up for each monster. The meter is split into three parts. If one bar gets to the top, your enemy turns into your “peon.” Another bar turns them into an item. The final bar turns them into an angry monster out for blood, who wants nothing more than to end your life and savor your sweet flesh in a pre-teen stew.
Also, Chou-chou is the only person in your party at all times who can actually use this ability, so even if you figure out what it’s supposed to be used for you had better plan your turns carefully! Although I never did figure out the usefulness of the actual mechanic, which is odd considering the tutorial in the game is annoyingly descriptive, but also painfully dull and drawn out.
With each section of the tutorial that presents itself, you get a simple explanation from a friendly critter on the screen, followed by a massive wall of text that looks like it’s been ripped directly from the manual. It’s not a smooth presentation by any means, and continues as long as ten hours into the game. TEN HOURS.
I know JRPGs usually have a really long “set up” phase at the beginning of the game, but this is just ridiculous. I’d rather shove the manual in my ear with the hopes that my brain would somehow absorb the manual and understand it better through direct osmosis.
So at this point, I’m staring at the game with a massive headache and thinking to myself, “Well the game has to at least run well, right?”
NO! It doesn’t! On top of the aforementioned framerates which seem to plague everything but the still shots that make up some of the cutscenes, the environments are bland and uninspired. There’s absolutely no detail to them whatsoever, which makes the game much less interesting to actually get through. You begin to think to yourself, “What am I working towards?” At least with most other JRPGs you’re rewarded in the form of a really cool cutscene or important story elements, but the story here is so simple and unsatisfying that you won’t want to take another step in the blank slate of even the first world.
Let’s be honest here, if you can manage to get past all of this there’s a ton of customization options for your characters, including forming entirely new party members with objects obtained from enemies, and there are the quintessential bottomless dungeons and item dungeons that games like this are known for. But the kicker in that statement is “if you can manage to get past all of this.” That’s the equivalent in this case to saying that “Sure! You can have an ice cream sandwich if you can manage to win a fight with a dozen bears.” You either have to really, REALLY love ice cream sandwiches or be absolutely insane to put yourself through such torture for such little reward.
I’ve not even mentioned the best part yet, though. Your typical RPG would have character stats like “strength” and “defense” and “agility.” Mugen Souls decides to make the already confusing equation even worse by giving you stats such as “Masochist,” “Bipolar” and “Sadist.”
…what the heck does that even mean?! I would applaud developers Compile Heart for trying to be innovative here, but innovation sort of relies on the fact that 1) your solution makes sense and 2) you’re innovating in a place that needed it in the first place. There’s literally been no one in video game history that ever looked at the base stats of a character and said, “You know what? These make too much sense. Let’s be RISKY and base stats off of mental conditions!”
It’s not even a matter of if I “get” the game or not. I clearly “get” the game. You can look past the surface and see that even the gameplay and basic technical functions of the game do not work as they should. And those that DO work get in the way of it.
Mugen Souls is a mess. There’s absolutely no redeeming qualities for the game, and it’ll even push the limits of those who eat, sleep and breathe anime styled games. Strip away all of that and you still have a game that’s so confusing that it needs to explain how to play itself almost throughout its story, mechanics that are so convoluted and insane that you’d need to play the game for years in order to understand everything without reference and an attempt at reinventing the wheel when the wheel was doing just fine in the first place. Add the creepy aesthetic to the mix along with the non-sensical story, annoying characters and horrendous dialogue and voice acting and you’ve got a disaster on your hands. The over-the-top attacks and damage numbers seen in trailers may be enticing to those who’ve always wanted something crazy, but it’s a trap. There are so many great games coming out this fall season, please don’t let this be one of them.
This review was based on a PS3 copy of the game provided to us for review purposes.