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Criminal Girls: Invite Only Vita Review

It seems that we are in an age where some of the most unlikely games released in Japan are actually getting translated and arriving on our shores. This is a great thing to happen, because I hate the fact that when I see something that sparks my curiosity released in the land of the rising sun and it doesn’t release here, I’m not going to be able to play it unless I learn Japanese – in my current lifestyle this is not going to happen when I’m working full time and then playing video games and writing about them – or the game is easy enough to understand without knowledge of the language. Nippon Ichi has brought such a title that most likely wouldn’t have seen the light of an English translation a few years ago to the Japanese role-playing game handheld known as the PlayStation Vita.

Criminal Girls: Invite Only didn’t begin life as a Vita game. In fact, in Japan, the title was originally released as Criminal Girls for the PSP in 2010, but later brought to the Vita in a remastered edition, which added two new characters, slight graphical tweaks and the use of the Vita’s back and front touch controls that will no doubt shift a few eyebrows with the way these touch controls are used.

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Players are thrown into the shoes of a prison warden situated in the depths of Hell, where the boss, Miu, orders the warden to keep a watchful eye over four delinquent girls.  Delinquents are special cases in which these once living humans never committed their crimes to become convicts, but were living a life of mischief that would lead them down a path to breaking the law, stopped only by their death. These people who don’t quite become convicts are given a second chance in Hell, where if the warden can guide these girls to the top of a tower and redeem them as humans, they will be reborn a new without any criminal intentions. Of course, dealing with some characters isn’t easy, as the girls, which eventually doubles in size from the initial starting four, don’t exactly like the idea of being around a warden, so need convincing before they open up their trust to you.

The story as a whole is fairly standard, with the girls being the focus of the game, and their interactions with you an important factor. I found I began to like their various attitudes towards each other and my warden character as the game progressed, with the girls changing from awkward to likeable characters. While the overall story is forgettable, seeing the girls come to grips with their differences and eventually working together with the player is kind of neat to see. This story concept comes across through gameplay as well, thanks to the rather interesting and unique battle system featured in Criminal Girls: Invite Only.

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As the warden, the player doesn’t participate in the battles, as this is left to the girls (four in a party) to do the fighting. The warden’s job is to use items, manage the team and see which action each of the girls recommends that turn, then pick one to use. This means you cannot pick all four moves to use, so you have to work out which seems to be the best for the current situation. Initially, the girls join the party with zero respect for you and will not do anything. A quick tutorial shows you have to motivate a character (more on that later) to get them to do a basic attack. From there, the more motivated the girls become, the more skills they are willing to use in a fight, eventually offering powerful moves and joint skills between each other, as the delinquents combine their assault for more damage. It’s a battle system like no other I have seen, one that leaves the combat recommendations to the AI of the characters and the player acting as the guider, just like the story has set the player up to be. If there is one thing the game does well it’s that it tries to stick to its concept through story and gameplay.

Experience points are earned in battle, with enough of them allowing the girls to level up to gain stat increases, but after battles (and sometimes from looting chests) the warden earns CM points that are used for the motivation mini-game. Side quests, called Girl’s Wishes, often require backtracking to accomplish the task given, such as finding an item or killing an enemy. This will unlock a trait for that girl that could be something like less magic points required to cast a spell. They are handy, especially for points in the game where I felt the need to grind a little to get the girls more HP or better skills, so I could take down a challenging boss. It’s not as challenging as some of the old school JRPGs that have come out in recent years, but you can’t always rely on luck to get yourself through this game, so it’s nice to get the girls buffed with new skills.

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Outside of battle, the game is a blend of dialogue and dungeon crawling. You will be working your way up through numerous themed floors with some of the simplest level design. It’s impossible to get lost, because the maps draw themselves out as you explore, but are small and linear, with Roman-inspired straight lines and right angle corners to make dungeons crafted from square rooms and rectangle corridors. It’s rather uninspiring, and when you haven’t run into a random battle, you are trundling along from a top-down perspective to find the stairs to the next level, hunting down the boss, looting for treasure chests or finding switches to unlock a sealed off area. More variety is needed, as the cosmetic changes don’t do enough to make the dungeons anything more than a run-of-the-mill design.

Taking a look at the game’s profile on the side of this review, you might have noticed that big red 18 certificate on the game’s cover, well, that’s all due to the area of the game where the motivational activities happen, which will certainly affect someone’s decision if they decide to play the game or not. Each motivation technique requires the use of CM to use. Things like using the whip are cheap, while tickling with a feather will cost more, as this unlocks more powerful moves. Having access to these tools comes during progression, so you cannot get straight to the tickling and unlock the best moves in the game.

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Issues arise when taking part in using these tools. Mini-games are made from the concept that each girl is covered with temptations, so you must cleanse these by putting the girls through some bizarre foreplay torture using the Vita’s front and back touch functions to hold a position on the screen to slap, zap or drip away these temptation blobs. Now, it wouldn’t be as much of an issue if it felt more in context with the game, maybe having normal torture positions, but instead, the girls are put into spots, such as lying on their back with legs apart and one hand on the front, sometimes in minimal clothing, which comes across as trying to pull in some sexual nature into these mini-games. You can even pay more CM to have the girls dress up in cosplay, which in Japan had new sound effects, but since that isn’t here; it seems a waste of CM.

I guess with the recent popularity with 50 Shades of Grey and its bondage sexual exploration, people do have an interest in the kinky stuff, but for a game like this, it seems weird that you are taking a girl into a room and doing these sort of activities. There has been some censorship on its journey to the West, such as no sound effects from the girls during the mini-game, and while the girls aren’t naked, they are in positions that can make people feel uncomfortable. It’s a shame that this is the case, because I feel the concept behind learning characters through something like this and being a commander in battle to pick one of the options advised from the girls is a distinctive idea in the genre.

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Visually, the movement from PSP to Vita is clearly evident here. While improvements to the portraits and other computer art have received a resolution bump, making them clear on the screen, the in game sprites come across as if they have been taken straight from the PSP game and upscaled, as there is a clear pixelated area around the sprites that comes from being blown up to meet the new resolution. Animation is simple, using portrait stills with different positions to demonstrate attacks, defence and other battle stances, while the audio is enjoyable, but forgettable. There is no English dub here; this is purely a Japanese audio track with subtitles.

Criminal Girls: Invite Only’s main attraction is its unique battle system, there isn’t much like it out there, plus, if you are fairly new to JRPGs, then this game is easy to get into, thanks to simple to understand mechanics. Criminal Girls: Invite Only is built from a mixture of good ideas on top of some average dungeon designs, and of course, the game has that racy content that is questionable and will probably taint the fascinating concept that is going on in the game. In any case, if you don’t mind the sexual nature of the motivation mini-games and are looking for a JRPG that makes for a fun play in short burst and is a little different, then taking a peek at Criminal Girls: Invite Only might offer you a fairly enjoyable, if flawed, time.

6 out of 10