When we last visited the candy-coloured world of Mugen Souls we were left marginally unimpressed and not a little uneasy. Of all the JRPGs reviewed, Mugen Souls has always been the most problematic in terms of its fan-pandering, overt sexuality; incredibly young girls spouting sexual innuendo, not to mention the predominance of a bathhouse, complete with bubbles obscuring any dirty bits. It was with trepidation, then, that we took a look at Mugen Souls Z, a direct sequel that introduces new characters while building on the layered gameplay of the first game. It’s worth saying that things look to have improved – it could be familiarity with gameplay mechanics gleaned from playing the original, but even if that were the case the delivery of each gameplay mechanic feels better explained. As with a lot of these mid-budget JRPGs, new mechanics are introduced well beyond the start. Mugen Souls Z incorporates everything from ship-to-ship combat, to a battle system affected by switching personalities and more in between. For a newcomer it will all be overwhelming – almost enough to put you off entirely, unless you’re OK with difficulty spikes and a whole lotta grinding – but anyone with a familiarity with JRPGs will soon get a hang of it, as well as discovering a few new twists to the standard formula. Dead cute!What plot there is in Mugen Souls Z is as ludicrous as it is shallow – Lady Chou Chou, the pint-sized ‘Undisputed God of the Universe’ encounters Syrma, a more powerful being known as an Ultimate God, whilst visiting a newly discovered world. While Chou Chou and chief peon Ryuto are able to defeat Syrma, her curiosity over a coffin owned by Syrma gets the better of her. In her impatience to see what lurks inside Syrma’s chain-adorned coffin, Lady Chou Chou instead loses her powers, in the process transferring them to Syrma herself. It also results in shrinking Chou Chou down to an even smaller size, as if the sexualisation of a normal-sized girl wasn’t weird enough. What follows is a quest to find the remaining Ultimate Gods, absorb their powers and restore Chou Chou to her ‘rightful’ position. If that all sounds like trite nonsense then you’d be correct. While a silly plot doesn’t make for a bad game – hey, it worked for South Park! – Mugen Souls Z stretches it out with reams of pointless, inane dialogue. What’s meant to portray Chou Chou as charmingly vapid instead kills the pacing. Perhaps the developers wanted to make the cutscenes as much of a grind as the rest of the game? It doesn’t help that Chou Chou’s precocious nature veers on the unlikable, while Syrma comes from the ditzy, brainless mould of JRPG female characters. Syrma soon becomes the controllable character and amazingly she’s an improvement over the first game’s focus on Chou Chou. Despite her initial ditziness she’s infinitely more likeable, seemingly harbouring a good side underneath the memory loss and incredible power. The remainder of the cast are made up of the usual JRPG tropes – the perverted sidekick prone to nosebleeds, the feisty female warrior who’s mature enough to recognise the silliness surrounding her, evil forces that lurk in shadow. Thankfully, skipping these dialogues is easily done with a press of a button, saving you a few brain cells that might otherwise have been lost to eternity.Some dire-logue in action. Gameplay hasn’t hugely changed from the first game, although the tutorials seem to be clearer in explaining the myriad systems. Ship-to-ship battles are turn based affairs as you fire salvos and block incoming attacks. The G-Castle (Chou Chou’s warship) now inexplicably resembles something from Gundam, adjusted barely enough to avoid copyright problems. Ground-based gameplay is a mix of exploration, battles and waffly dialogue. First impressions aren’t great – despite being so late into the PS3’s lifespan, the graphics are still underwhelming and run at a juddery, abysmal framerate. No improvement over the first game whatsoever. The meat of the game – combat – might not look amazing but hides some intricate options. Playing like a mix of Hyperdimension Neptunia and Agarest, battles aren’t wholly turn-based – you’re free to move within a limited area as much as you like with only attacks or item use using up your turn. Scattered around the arena are crystals with their own areas of effect, buffing or debuffing dependent on their qualities. On top of all this, the game soon introduces the eye-rollingly named ‘Fetish Pose’ system, one of the many otaku-friendly mechanics that causes consternation. Syrma can choose from seven different behaviours – ditzy, sadistic, masochistic, bubbly and more – in order to charm enemies based on their propensity for a certain personality type, her lolicon character model schizophrenically jumping between flirty poses and come-ons. Successfully charming them turns them into a Shampuru; failing royally riles your enemy up. These cute, rabbit-like creatures are your ‘peons’ and affect the power of your ship as well as other upgrades and the ending of the game itself. Oh, and once again they allow for any number of lewd jokes around the word ‘peon’.Not quite poetry in motion. Although the game itself seems much improved – the systems better explained and a slightly more comprehensible plot than the first – there still remains the problem of hyper-sexualisation, now focused around a lead character who looks even younger than before. Not to sound crass, but is it entirely pertinent to include scenes of Chou Chou and friend cavorting in steamy bathhouses if she hasn’t even developed breasts? The shallow approach to such content robs the game of any depth and will likely make even hardened (careful now!) gamers feel uncomfortable. That’s not to dissuade localisation of these most-niche of the niche titles, nor their censorship. Just that certain things just feel wrong and Mugen Souls Z has its fair share of eyebrow-raising moments that make playing it in company awkward (and even dodgy when playing alone). Nevertheless, for anyone who enjoyed the first game Mugen Souls Z is more of the same, slightly refined and smartened up. For those accustomed to big-budget JRPGs – Ni No Kuni, Tales of Xillia – it definitely looks like a budget title and will underwhelm. For its intended audience Mugen Souls Z has plenty of content, interlinking systems and slightly perverse charm to justify a recommendation. This makes it hard to pin a score down – it’s marginally better yet hasn’t quite solved all of the problems between titles. All of it comes down to your propensity for hardcore mechanics wrapped up in basic but pandering style. The mechanics have improved and there is refinement to be found amidst the cringeworthy material. It’s worth a try but don’t be surprised if the culture shock proves too much.
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