Some games find infamy accidentally, their hot coffee moment coming weeks or even months after an innocent launch. Other games court controversy intentionally, all the while stoking the righteous fires of indignation and revelling in the free publicity from the manhunt they cause. In all of the furore that surrounds such games, it’s often difficult to remember that in the middle of it all is a piece of interactive entertainment, perhaps designed for a set audience but certainly ticking enough boxes for us to be able to consider it a game. Whether or not it’s right to assess such a game on the power of its mechanics alone is a good question, but then there are some things that you just can’t ignore.
But, let’s approach this like the nicey-nice friendly reviewing outfit that we are, and tick off as much of the game as we can before we enter the murky realms of the moral debate. Enter Criminal Girls: Invite Only then. A remaster of an older PSP release, it’s a 2D dungeon crawler featuring turn-based combat and starring a cast of seven delinquent girls cast into Hell because of the sins they committed in life. However – there’s a catch. While they were on the path to true sin, these girls were too young to gain full-on convict status, and so they have been given a chance to ascend through the levels of Hell and atone for their sins, becoming born into life again if they are successful in their endeavours. This is where you come in – as the player you must both direct their journey and keep the girls motivated enough to continue.
As a remaster you’d expect elements of the earlier game to have been reworked, and you wouldn’t be wrong in that expectation here. While the main gameplay lacks the sharpness we’d expect from a retro-themed Vita title all of the anime talking heads have been spruced up, as have the mini-game graphics. The game is voiced entirely, albeit in Japanese with no English dub version, which may be a sticking point for some. If you’ve trawled through the original release in the past, then you’d be interested to know that a meaty post-game (which is important enough now to the overall story that it should be considered part of the main game) has been added which will extend your playthrough by many hours, and comes with two new playable characters who weren’t available the first time round.
While we’ll get onto it properly later, the motivation aspect is a key theme here. When you first gain control of your party none of them are motivated at all, and they’ll refuse to do anything in a battle situation. Initially, this feels like such a powerful concept – characters that you don’t actually have total control over, and that feasibly could just refuse to play ball with your carefully laid plans. Realistically it ends up being nothing of the sort. When you first begin the game, or find new characters, it’s true that they won’t do anything at all – they’d rather be pummelled into the ground than stand up and fight for their own life. Unlock a few skills for them, however, and it all changes – a valid option appears for that character nearly every turn of every battle. In fact, it’s only when a character’s health is extremely low does the chance of non-activity reappear.
What’s more interesting in this system is how the battle commands work; while you may have unlocked an array of skills for a particular party member, when each turn rolls around in battle the girls all present you with only one option, and you only get to pick one. This might sound like a recipe for RNG disaster, but in the main between the four characters you’ll get a viable option nearly every time. In fact, you can swap out an active party member each turn for one of your other girls, and this often has the benefit of refreshing the options available to you.
So, early on at least Criminal Girls is interesting on a conceptual basis, and some of the tougher fights will leave you on the edge of your seat as you try to battle past them. And then the cracks start to appear. It’s very easy to get slightly ahead of the level curve, and once you’ve done that the random trash throughout Hell’s floors becomes a walkover, albeit one that continues to throw experience points in your face. Options for the best skills for the moment have a canny knack of appearing, and once you unlock a couple of decent AoE abilities then the trash monsters just become a never-ending grind towards ultimate boredom. Levels are often extended by the inclusion of backpedalling, and the few side quests that exist will see you scurrying off and walking over entire floors once again.
But hey, at least those super-powers pop up enough so that the boss encounters should be fun, right? Nope. Whatever randomness drives the options available to you is dialled up a notch for boss fights, with far more instances of situationally useless options popping up. It’s an arbitrary way to increase the encounter difficulty, matched with an unhelpful tendency in end-game foes to be combined with super AoE moves that can destroy your entire party in one go. The system smacks of missed opportunity, especially when you consider that one of the girls is sold as a character who can help direct the other party members in battle, but ends up proving to be just another pot of randomness.
There’s one thing we’ve ignored until now, and that’s the motivation mechanic. As you progress through all your battles you’ll earn CP points, and you can use these in a safe hidey-hole called the Infirmary to play mini-games and motivate the girls – do well in the mini-games and you’ll unlock the active and passive skills and abilities that you need to progress through the game. So far, so good? Well, yeah. Until you realise that the mini-games involve you ‘motivating’ the girls in your party by actively engaging in light torture on them. Well, that might be unfair from a ratings point of view – the mini-games begin with the anime depiction of the girl hidden behind a pink fog, and you’re not technically punishing the girl in any of the games, you’re chasing her ‘temptations’ away by tapping and stroking on the touchscreen and rear touchpad.
But, that’s bunk of course. The mini-games put you in a position of authority over school-aged girls and then allows you to force them to dress up for a motivation session. Then you can spank them in one game, zap them with electricity in another. Not enough? How about one where you dress them in a swimsuit and get to drip cold, clammy ‘liquid’ over them? The worst thing is you can’t avoid this section of the game. Even if you loved the dungeon crawling and wanted to progress, you simply wouldn’t be able to without constantly checking into the Infirmary and spending all your points on acquiring new skills for the girls. Criminal Girls: Invite Only may have been designed for a portable device, but I recommend you don’t try playing it outside of the house.
The utter surrealism of the motivation mini-games really hits home whenever your party recruits a new member. In the overt story there is usually a joyous reunion, or at the very least a grudging acceptance that maybe wandering around hell on their own wasn’t the best of ideas. So, you find this girl, you rescue her from dangerous solitude and then you take her back to the relative comfort of the Infirmary and you beat the shit out of her with a riding crop – and you do this enough, and she’ll love you enough to become a worthwhile member of your party. There’s an insidiousness that hides here too; the blushing of the anime girls when you ‘pick’ them to motivate, the subtle changes in language as the soundbites the girls offer move from fear to acceptance to desire for attention – these are all designed to pander to a psyche that demands control. Wiser people than I could probably throw around convincing arguments around the potential level of misogyny involved, but let’s just agree that this isn’t a game to demonstrate to your gender equality tutor.
Criminal Girls isn’t going to make a fan go out and find an underage girl for a spanking any more than the latest iteration of Call of Duty would make that same fan head outside and start shooting people – there wasn’t a direct causal link between playing a game and exhibiting gameplay behaviour in real life before Criminal Girls and there certainly isn’t one now. The difference here is that the mini-games in Criminal Girls are essentially thinly veiled sexual torture, pandering to male power fantasies and in the cases of certain characters involving artwork far too close to the underage line. These issues by necessity dominate the scored assessment of the game, although as we have noted it’s not as if the underlying game was the top of its genre. Scores on the doors then? For a fairly uninspiring dungeon crawler with elements of missed opportunity – well, let’s come down on the side of exasperation and say a 5. If you love fanservice, and especially the kind that lets you exploit underage-looking anime girls feel free to add a couple of marks to that – if you’re everyone else then knock a couple off.