The premise in Nippon Ichi's latest Anime RPG released on Steam is as dauntingly deterministic as it might be considered intriguingly original...
In Criminal Girls: Invite Only, you'll meet 7 girls who died so that they might be sent to Hell. This to prevent each from committing unspeakable crimes, which we're told, they would have carried out because of the said "sinful flaw" driving their very hearts and minds.
Thankfully in light of such dire fates, arises hope through salvation. Through death, the girls are brought together to form a crew and be put into a rehabilitation program that, upon completion, would allow them to live once more. You, as the player, are in charge of managing this rehabilitation program, and to this end, you'll conduct a variety of erotic practices commonly known as bondage and discipline. Your lofty goal is to help these poor ladies reach the top of the Hell Spire, and as you climb you learn more about who they are and what got them shipped to hell in the first place.
While the storyline doesn't evolve much going forward, it's enough to get us into the mood and trigger that urge which tickles anyone who plays games; you guessed it, our common thirst for gameplay.
Labeled as an RPG, Criminal Girls: Invite opted for a turn-based battle system.
As such, combat dynamics should be about planning your next moves, in attempts to maximize damage output and in a balancing act to maintain enough health and magic points to fight another day.
In such expectations lies the reason why Criminal Girls: Invite is ultimately a fail: the outcome of its encounters is, for the most part, the product of your luck.
Your actions are limited to two moves per turn. The first is to select an item, and the second is to select which character will attack your opponents. While in theory that is enough of a decision-making process to expect some depth in strategy, while that could have been enough to weigh risks versus rewards and enjoy the pleasures of turn-based combat, the potential is disappointingly not met for the simple reason that you have no control over which action your character will use next.
Your attacks are random, and for the strategic thinker, that's a problem.
And so, the time you invested in unlocking a fire-based magic spell, for you were told it'd be effective against the enemies of a specific area, never let you feel the merit in the grind. You might have worked hard to acquire the skill, but you never truly own it: the spell sporadically triggers when good luck comes around, and when considering that role-playing games find meaning in progression, the choice of such mechanics are, I found, unrewardingly counterintuitive. It's especially hard felt and frustrating when tougher opponents unleash punishing move after punishing move, all while your impotent self, in a streak of bad luck, triggers a series of underpowered attacks regardless of the arsenal you've built over time.
Ultimately, these odd mechanics will lead you to opt for the strongest girl in your party systematically, and that's no fun.
To further stifle enjoyment extracted out of combat, customization is severely lacking, with no weapons or items available for upgrades.
Would the enemies been easily vanquished, I may have been able to forgive the failings of Criminal Girls' combat system, but opponents also have an excessive amount of health, which leads to never-ending encounters. Thankfully, the issue seems to go away mid to endgame, with the pace picking up as you gain levels and stats go up. Once you gain access to your special moves, you'll welcome a boost in gameplay, and you'll get through generic encounters at speeds you'd expect based on your experience playing definitional turn-based strategy games.
Special moves you unlock by playing BDSM minigames.
These have you performing a variety of motivational techniques, from light spanking to feather-tickling. The girl finding herself "motivated, " she'll reward you with learning a new move. Noteworthy is the fact that the girl moaned as you motivated them in the original version of this Japanese game; in this Westernized and softer version, they remain silent. A pink fog was also added to hide the ladies' private parts, and somewhat amusingly, it gets noticeably thinner as you progress.
Criminal Girls: Invite Only's artwork saves the day. Characters are worthy figures of the Anime style many of us have come to appreciate, and mobs have interesting designs despite a certain lack of variety. Music and sound effects are also top notch, fitting in graciously with each visual, theme, and sequence in the game.
These assets may draw aficionados into the game -- to some extent. Still, that isn't enough to consider the release a worthy purchase: a video game should always be fun to play, but too many oddities plague the game's progression while inhibiting the strategic aspects turned-based RPGs depend on to be considered good games.