(PlayStation 3 Review) Mugen Souls

Developer: Compile Heart
Publisher: NIS America
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 5 = Average

Recounting the first 10 or so minutes of Mugen Souls will go a long way in determining whether this game, and this very review, is something that you might find interesting. Here goes.

As the game begins, the goddess Chou-Chou, in the form of a teenage girl, declares that she wants to conquer the seven known worlds. After her informal declaration, she then makes her official decree in a stylized song-and-dance number alongside her subordinate Altis on stage in a stadium packed with subservient peons who cheer enthusiastically. After some of these bunny-like creatures get too frisky, the duo then start to pummel and kick them back out into the crowd and towards the camera. Following the performance, the two jump into a hot tub to relax, only to be met by a male peon who, upon seeing his goddess bathing, starts to shoot out massive showers of blood from of his nostrils. With the tub now dirty, everyone leaves the sauna and makes preparations for the impending invasions. That is, until they are suddenly called to attention for battle against an incoming pirate ship attempting to ambush Chou-Chou’s city—which happens to be situated on G-Castle, massive ship that looks like some sort of surreal Pirates of the Caribbean ride that’s been absorbed by a feline spirit animal.

“What?” Exactly.

For all of Mugen Soul‘s faults, it certainly makes a bold entrance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long to realize that its front-loaded zaniness is the game’s best hook, and that it is much better at seeming interesting than actually being interesting.

Not that you would gather that from such a raucous beginning—I mean, space pirates! The initial encounter with the brigands isn’t just for show but also to introduce the rock, paper, scissors-style system for ship-to-ship combat. While the arsenal of moves contains some special abilities (e.g., the ability to turn damage into hit points) the core setup is based around three basic options: attack, reflect, and pierce. Attacks nullify each other in a satisfying collision of projectiles, complete with heavy controller rumble, while reflect sends attacks flinging back and pierce breaks through reflect. Crew or enemy dialog often hint at what’s to come before an action has to be selected, which cuts down on the random factor. There is a bit of an inverse relationship at play, however, with increasing certainty decreasing excitement, which ends up turning a series of fun asides into a string of anticlimactic engagements. But as this isn’t a space opera, the intergalactic duels do retain a respectable level of novelty for quite a while, mostly popping up as you travel from one subjugated planet to the next soon-to-be subjugated planet.

Your first stop after giving the pirates a good what-for is Sun World, the first of the seven independent, element-themed worlds. It is here that you learn just how Chou-Chou plans on bringing worlds to heel: by subjugating them continents at a time. It’s an audacious plan that requires her mastering key points on the continent, as well as those creatures roaming about its barren landscapes. These creatures, a largely lackluster assortment of fungoid and insectoid critters and elemental brutes, wander about free-roaming maps that represent the surface of the worlds. These navigable areas are confining, incredibly bland, and thanks to a camera that refuses to stay put, often trying to traverse. The enemy squads are represented by one of their ranks, hopping and scooting about until they spot your party, represented by Chou-Chou, which causes them to immediately close to engage. If you manage to attack before they make contact, then you will get the jump on them and be able to take the first round of attacks; however, if you flee and are caught, then they get the first round. Most engagements are the result of both parties running into one another for a standard battle, since it’s so easy to mistime your attacks due to a combination of a strangely choppy graphics engine and the enemy’s surprising speed. But as the saying goes, it’s all in who you know, and since you have a god on your side (and the necessary stats), you tend to get the first move even when you whiff.

Battles take place on small semi-free-roaming maps that are cluttered with crystals. These mysterious gems have innate effects that affect the battlefield in numerous ways, with their influence radius determined by whether they are of the large or small variety. The small crystals only affect a limited area, represented by a glowing radius, while the large crystals are strong enough to affect the entire battlefield. Their role in combat is largely reactive, but they can have a significant influence on the odd bout, such as the countdown timer that large crystals engage that will end the game if the enemy isn’t defeated before zero.

In most cases, the crystals are more nuisances than anything else. All characters have a move radius and an attack radius, and because crystals cannot be damaged by regular attacks, you must either move around them in order to secure optimal positioning before launching an attack or knock them out of the way. The movement and attack areas can be quite large, but the game isn’t always precise with object collision, so there will be moments when characters get hung up and brought to a halt even when they are merely near an object. The most radical way in which characters can alter the composition of the battle map is by choosing to engage a Blast Off move after a skill-based attack. After choosing the direction and strength of the blow, the target is hit with the attack and then flung into the chosen direction. Characters can not only bounce off of walls and one another but also the crystals, with damage being inflicted on anyone impacted by the chaotic swirl of characters and gems. There are two bonuses to knocking foes around, and the extra damage isn’t one of them. Save for those rare, inspired moments when you can align everything to deliver a lethal ping-pong attack, the damage inflicted is often minimal. Instead, timing blow-back attacks properly will not only result in extra room to maneuver but also a shift in the action bar, moving enemies further back in the turn line. But to be honest, even when there wasn’t much call for doing so, I would still engage Blast Offs simply because of the bedlam that ensued and of the random joy that comes from using enemies as billiard balls.

There is one other way to interact with the crystals and enemies, and it’s also the game’s most unique element: by wooing them. To be precise, events hinge on which of the seven affinities (moes) you are personifying and how they relate to the enemy’s moe and mood. If you can match the correct dialog option from a random set to the enemy’s random mood during a Moe Kill, then they will succumb to your will and become a peon. If you go too far one way, they will become an item—just go with it—or be sent into a state of frenzy. Large crystals are also affected the same way, except their outcome alters all enemies and small crystals, leaving the battlefield full of allies, items, or enraged foes. The upside of winning targets over is that adding more peons to your ranks strengthens your ship and unlocks special abilities, though the basic options served me well enough. Now if all of this sounds confusing, it’s because it is—at least in the beginning.

Mugen Souls follows the lead of so many other JRPGs of late in that it deluges you with information in highly colorful screens filled with compact windows brimming with icons, stylized text, and thumbnails. Before you can get the hang of one system, the game is showing you a new subsystem, and another, and then another. I couldn’t find a way to re-access any of these menus in-game, either, which meant that I just had to feel my way around after the endless reams of explanatory text and info panes. Even the characters comment on how much information is being given, as new currencies, attack types, enemy skills, and item- and character-creation systems are covered as quickly as possible. It’s a shame that level of awareness didn’t result in something more beneficial than a handful of quips.

For whatever the game lacks in reminders, it more than makes up for with hands-on experience. Combat is constant, and you will frequently switch between systems and subsystems as you outfit and upgrade. That wouldn’t be so bad if it often wasn’t so boring. You will be hounded by constantly respawning squads comprised of handfuls of low-level enemies that have no chance of beating you. Unlike other games that have fodder scatter or disappear when encountered, as in Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2, these grunts require your attention every time due to the relationship between peon count and ship upgrades; farming low-level creatures wouldn’t be possible if the game skipped encounters. That doesn’t mean that a workaround couldn’t have been implemented, nor does that lessen the irritation of having to wade through dozens of battles that you would otherwise skip. The random difficulty spikes, primarily the result of damage-absorbing super enemies, do little to break up the monotony of steamrolling uninteresting, weak enemies that have no chance of success.

Even if you have the gist of what to do and how to do it, you will still run into speed bumps, the most obvious of which being the result of the fluctuating dialog options and enemy moods. Your best bet is to match affinities with the target, which can be done by switching personality types either on the battlefield (a limited time) or on the map (unlimited number of times), and go from there. The beginning is particularly rough going because you might get responses that don’t seem to match anything, or responses that seem on target but end up having the opposite effect. It’s all a bit slipshod, but the best way to overcome the randomness is to simply play; your affinities become more charming as you level, with the result being that Chou-Chou ends up being so persuasive that targets love anything that comes out of her mouth. Another negative is that only Chou-Chou can court enemies, meaning that you will have to continually set your allies to Defend as you chip away at the peon meters. This is an annoying design quirk that makes grinding way more taxing than it has any right to be.

Sometimes, you have no choice but to grind. The Master Points that need to be charmed for a continent to be subjugated will frequently require you to have defeated a set amount of enemies. There are two other types of points, which can be equally hard to please: one can only be won over by conversation and the other by money. Need more money or victories? Grind. That is easier said than done because the locations of these points and what they want are only hinted at on a roster. You might read that Master Point 2 is near a snowman and requires enough money to buy a Long Spear, which means you’re off searching for a snowman or anything related to one and then guessing at how much a Long Spear costs—I always forked over a lot of money to minimize the guesswork. If you fail to win over the points—say, by having defeated less than 500 enemies but not enough “less” to meet a point’s requirement—you have to fight a battle before returning to the world map. Planets can be forcefully taken by defeating a world’s hero and villain, which is an interesting twist that serves to both progress the storyline and increase your ranks, but its loose connection with the subjugation of the world’s other denizens is a strange one.

So much of what the game asks of you seems unnecessary because it fails to tie it all together in any meaningful way. A good example of this is the Mugen Field. Accessible through G-Castle, the field is actually a series of floors (i.e., a dungeon) that offers you a great way to level up and gain special items. After placing a wager betting on your success, you then pick one of three routes that take you through floors of Normal encounters, Tough encounters, or Eventful encounters. The returns for your efforts depend on the route chosen, with the most interesting being Eventful, which mixes in ship battles and sudden rule changes (e.g., no magic or linked attacks with fellow party members) with normal encounters. After clearing the tenth floor, you are able to bow out or press on, with the choice of which route to take dependent on Chou-Chou’s charm. This is also where you can spend the Mugen Points that have been accumulated from clearing floors. In an effort to forcibly mash everything together, after having separated skills, skill levels, item upgrades, item enhancements, and character upgrades from regular leveling, the developers then turned to the Mugen Field as a catch-all system to obfuscate just how needlessly convoluted the setup is.

Characters receive not only the regular stat upgrades when they level, such as increased health and strength, but they also unlock new skills. Those skills don’t upgrade with the characters once unlocked, however, but through the allocation of Mugen Points while in the field. Those same points are also shared with numerous other elements, such as unlocking new subparty slots, gallery art, higher level ceilings, slots for defensive gear, skill slots, and combo damage limits. Depending on your level of involvement, some of the points can be saved for the primary characters. Many of these can be saved from the points necessary to get special peons up to snuff. Those peons are created using a rudimentary character-creation system, with options for gender, hair style, skin tone, class, and subclass. The Mugen Points are used to open new skill slots, new skills, jobs, and voices. Peons start at level 1 and can be upgraded either by playing through floors as part of the active party or relegated to the subparty, which allows for them to gain experience while safely away from the battlefield until swapped out with an active member. Or they can be ignored entirely. I found the payoff of adding and maintaining new characters to be too much of a hassle, especially when their advancement is at the expense of the growth of the primary characters.

There is even more, though. Playing through the floors also earns the amount of loot and coin necessary to fully delve into the item-enhancing system. Gear can be broken down to create item-enhancing materials, which can then be combined to form more potent material or applied directly to items. These perks, from increased attack damage to a higher defense, are side effects, but actually upgrading their core stats requires money and their grade requires G Up points, yet another form of currency (and only available by clearing Mugen Field floors). Then there is the Peon Ball, a ball of energy that builds as you battle which can be unleashed for huge damage or backfire and kill your party; the Sauna, where you can mix shampoos and soups for temporary stat boosts; and the separation of Equipment and Clothes. All of these layers and elements are so disjointed and seem so unnecessary that, as a result, the game becomes weighed down in the minutia of maintenance in the process.

The less-is-more approach would’ve also worked well with the storyline. While I found the voice acting to be excellent all around with some genuinely funny bits of dialog, especially when the game pokes fun at genre clichés, there is just too much too often. Despite the storyline’s simplicity, there is a surprising amount of text, and after a while, the handful of jokes aren’t worth wading through all the droning. It also doesn’t help that the game indulges in the same clichés it pokes fun at. There are some laugh-out-loud moments, more so than most titles I’ve played this year, but the walls of text will quickly wear you down to the point where you’re routinely reaching for the Skip button.

For those who love to tinker and tweak, the game does offer a large number of elements to tool around with. But while the options are nice, I really didn’t have much use for them because I found the time requirements simply not worth the reward. The many systems and subsystems never gelled into a coherent system, and while some might work in tandem with another, the whole never came together as a concrete, rewarding package.

Mugen Souls
has a lot to offer but not a lot of incentives to sink your time into its unorganized web of systems. Enemies are bland and weak, the humorous dialog is washed out under torrents of nonsense, and the packed combat system is poorly fleshed out and overworked by dull encounters. This is one of those rare cases when a game has all of the elements it needs but not the framework to bring everything together in any meaningful way. There are ways to grind, to create, and to optimize, but very few compelling reasons to do so.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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