“It seems like an NIS game”, is a common, albeit reductive comparison for both Japanese role-playing devotees and detractors. Under scrutiny, Nippon Ichi’s publishing efforts share some broad similarities, but upon deeper inspection, their output falls into at least three distinct camps. Omitting GUST’s Atelier and Ar Tonelico franchises, La Pucelle Tactics, Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger Vs. Darkdeath Evilman, and the Disgaea franchise are developed internally. More playful than perverted, each of NIS’s own titles are often marked by traversable battlefields, disproportional damage quotients, and a buttery smooth overworld. Alternatively, Idea Factory and (subsidiary) Compile Heart-crafted works frequently rely on complex combat systems with multiple gauges, as evidenced by Hyperdimension Neptunia’s dense division of skill, action, and guard points. They’re also a bit more visually and thematically lascivious, with a large dissimilarity between the quality of character portraits and combat arenas.
Although recent Compile Heart creation, Mugen Souls has been touted as being Disgaea-esque, with art and character design from Takehito Harada and music from Tenpei Sato, make no mistake- it’s conceptually closer to Neptunia that anything from the Netherworld. Faithful Idea Factory fans should enjoy it, buy Prinny pundits may want to revisit the undertakings of Laharl, Adell, Mao, and Valvatorez.
Undeniably, Mugen makes a memorable first impression, with the protagonist’s objective for world domination rivaled only by her eagerness for titillating exposure. Players are introduced to Chou-Chou, and her underboob exhibiting accomplice Altis, during the game’s opening J-pop number, which is exhausting enough to require expositional dialog amidst the steam of a onsen. Naturally, the duo’s male pilot is invited to leer at the two beauties, but is prohibited when his excitement leads to a massive nose bleed. Players who weren’t distracted by the skin or comical shaming will discover the approach behind Chou-Chou’s plans. She intends on traveling to seven worlds and defeating each realm’s ruler before forcing the leader to become her peon. Later in the game, an additional character appears to put a serious crimp in the megalomaniac’s methodology and escalating the difficulty of Chou-Chou’s ambitions.
Typical of Compile Heart titles, tutorials are employed to help players make sense of Mugen Souls’ multitude of intricate systems. As Chou-Chou’s party moves across worlds and the three maps contained on each landform, she’s encounter a plethora of enemies. Bumping into one (ideally rather stealthily, to score a preemptive strike) initiates the title’s turn-based battle, which vaguely recalls the combat mechanics of the Hyperdimension Neptunia games. Here, characters are free to position themselves in a ‘move’ radius, optionally getting in rage on an enemy to swap attacks. Like Disgaea, adjacent heroes are capable of partnering up to deliver an exponentially more overwhelming assault against foes, each accompanied by an amusing animation.
Of course, that’s just the beginning of Mugen’s battle decisions. Unlike her teammates, Chou-Chou can summon a Peon Ball, comprised of defeated and appropriated enemies, which delivers an explosive attack that is particularly advantageous against boss characters. To generate addition peons, Chou-Chou is obliged to use the game’s Moe Kill, which permits the protagonist to get into the head of opponents. Once this command in activated, the players must pick adjectives from a bank that matches the temperament of an adversary. If the players speculates correctly (which can be challenging given the ambiguity of the words), the opponent becomes part of the player’s party. A succession of incorrect guess puts the enemy into Fever Mode, radically increasing their offensive and defensive abilities. Once you factor in Chou-Chou’s collection of seven personalities and the requirement of taking over continents with specific dispositions, the Moe Kill proves to be Mugen’s most complex system. Expect to still be discovering the technique’s nuances during your thirtieth hour of play.
While combat is Mugen Souls’ focus, there are plenty of other components that compete for the player’s attention. Beyond clothing the perpetually underdressed peons and augmenting your arsenal, the game offers its own take on Disgaea’s Item World. Dubbed the Mugen Field, a one-hundred level dungeon offers an escalating trial that’s ideal for buffing characters before a boss fight. For players who prefer the appeal of customization, there’s even a character creation component. Less interesting are Mugen’s ship-to-ship battles which prove to be little more than a galactic game of janken. Ideally, these skirmishes would have copped some of the complexities of the game’s core combat system.
Visually, Mugen is an archetypical Compile Heart game with opulent character dialog screens juxtaposed against battlefields which struggle to maintain a margin framerate. Expectedly, Takehito Harada’s contributions elevate the game, especially Chou-Chou’s fan-gratifying sadist and terse outfits, which portray the protagonist as a buxom dominatrix and lovable loligoth. Sonically, the game’s selection of songs complement each of the elementally-themed environments, while the game’s Japanese and English voice-overs are capable. Although purists will bemoan the removal of some of Mugen’s more salacious mini-games for stateside audiences, the localization team didn’t fail to interpret the game’s more lascivious lines of dialog.
Regretfully, the title does have a number of significant drawbacks. While the level of challenge is manageable through most of the storyline, the difficulty increases dramatically across the last three chapters, swapping impish fun for rage-quit levels of frustration. Additionally, the game’s character maintenance menus proved to be a bit inelegant, failing to provide an easy way to compare the quality of two items. Like Hyperdimension Neptunia, positioning in the movement radius proves to be finicky, making lining up at attack a bit more cumbersome than it should be.
With console role-playing games becoming increasingly scarce, enthusiasts will likely look past Mugen Souls’ missteps, mollified by a copious quantity of fan-service. With an engaging (though still needlessly complex) array of gameplay components, the title represents a small step forward for Compile Heart. Yet for most players, the developer’s succinct stride won’t be substantial enough- resulting in a competent experience undermined by a few irksome design decisions.