Mugen Souls Review
I’ve put this off for too long. I’ve been struggling, actually struggling, to find a way to approach this review, because Mugen Souls is not simply a terrible game—it’s an offensive one as well. Having anything to do with this game makes me feel extremely uncomfortable. It made me physically ill to play certain parts of it. But this is all part of the job of being a critic; you have to sample the entire spectrum of the medium, and eventually, given the law of infinite diversity in infinite combinations, something utterly vile will cross your desk. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Mugen Souls.
For such a special case of terrible, I’ve eschewed our traditional review format and will lay my thoughts out as they come, because I literally have nothing to put under the “What I Liked” header. I will say it straight up though: do not buy this game. There are niche markets, and then there are sliver markets. This game was made for a sliver market. It boggles my mind as to why it was even localized for North America. It took a herculean effort by fans to get master works Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story to our shores, yet this … thing shows up uninvited. So please, do not buy this game. Don’t encourage the NIS America to seek out and localize more shameful dog’s breakfast games like this.
So why is this game so terrible it nets our first ever 0/10 score? Because it’s creepy, convoluted, annoying, and lazy. I’ve described it more-or-less as “Moé Hell,” the most offensive game I’ve ever played in 20+ years of gaming.
Mugen Souls, an RPG from Japanese developer Compile Heart, is an indecisive parody of something that quite honestly needs a mirror held up to its inherently skeezy nature: the aforementioned moé subculture that’s infested anime over the last decade and change.
Now for a bit of context. The term “moé” (pronounced “moh-ay,” not “moe”), to the best of my knowledge is a blanket term that basically means “cute” or “cuddly” when translated into English. In theory it describes fluffy animals and cute little girly characters with big heads and doe eyes and screechy saccharine voices who go on wholesome little adventures (think Hello Kitty, My Little Pony, or Strawberry Shortcake, etc.)—basically walking incarnations of the “d’aww ain’t she cute” reaction. But, this being Japan and all, it has, in practice, become fetishized and perverted and warped into yet another increasingly shameful release valve for a sexually repressed society. It’s this subculture and it’s shockingly wide audience (on both sides of the Pacific) that have contributed to the somewhat unfair stereotype of the “creepy anime fan,” whom this game is clearly aimed at (see “sliver markets” a few paragraphs up). So you can already see where the trouble with Mugen Souls is brewing.
The sticky part with this whole “moé parody” thing is that Compile Heart clearly had no interest in the actual “parody” part of its premise. It’s handled so inaptly that within 5 minutes of the game starting, it throws its hands up and says “balls to this noise!” and instead begins revelling in its creepy exploitation of poorly drawn potentially underage girls with only a scant winking joke here and there to try to poke fun at its subject matter. That’s like someone setting out to make a humorous parody of Hamlet only to copy the entire text word-for-word and shoehorn a joke about suicide every 300 lines.
I felt dirty playing this game. I was shocked into silence at some of the shamefacedly creepy things I was seeing. The opening sequence alone all but robbed me of what little desire I had to play the game, even just to review it. The game purports to be a colourful, cutesy, child-like deconstruction of BDSM relationships. I’ll say it again, the game is one giant Bondage/Dominance/Sadomasochism allegory—starring a seven-year-old who wears what is for all intents and purposes a Lolita nightgown. Panty shots, breast shots, butt shots, and terribly obtuse innuendo spill forth utterly unwelcomed and uncalled for from the game at every opportunity like a proverbial sewage backlog. I honestly don’t feel comfortable describing it in any more detail than that, so you’ll just have to take my word for it, but believe me, some of the goings on in this game are utterly putrid. I do not begrudge Compile Heart its freedom of expression, nor do I wish to deny them the right to make such a writhing self-antagonistic monstrosity, but the flip side is I then reserve the right to decry it for what it is, a writhing self-antagonistic monstrosity of a video game.
Upon doing further research into this ghastly abomination, I learned that games of this nature are apparently Compile Heart’s bread and butter, including an upcoming PlayStation Vita title that lets you use its touchscreen and sensor pad to, for all intents and purposes, physically molest little anime girls. Lovely! Compile Heart’s Wikipedia page is a right repository of games that never left the shores of Japan because they would never make it past North American censors. Even Mugen Souls itself barely squeaked by the ESRB with a T rating as opposed to an AO (Adults Only) after NIS America was forced to cut out a whole chunk of content that would have landed them in jail had they left it in and went to print with it. You can read up on what they had to gut out of this here on their forums, because I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Protip guys: if you have to say something to the effect of “this game possibly promotes subject matter that our company does not want to be associated with,” THEN DON’T PUBLISH THE GAME!
But enough about the creeptactular window dressing (for now). In terms of gameplay mechanics, Mugen Souls is the exact RPG antithesis of The Last Story. Whereas Last Story’s core mechanics were pared down to their essentials in order to focus as tightly on those key elements as possible, Mugen Souls is the gameplay equivalent of a face full of buckshot: a hot blinding mess that goes everywhere and leaves you unable to function after the initial blast. The writings of Jacques Derrida are more succinct and understandable than the unskippable 30-minute tutorial the game keelhauls you through in the first two battles alone. I’m not making this up. In the first battle, the game lets you execute exactly one move before the annoying rabbit-like mascot character comes on screen and proceeds to explain the entirety of the gameplay mechanics in one single sitting, in full Physics 499 Honours Thesis-level detail. And then, after it lets you execute your second attack after that, the damn thing comes back and explains even more aspects of the game that have now opened up because you did this other thing. By the end of it, I was just spamming the X button and skipping pages as fast as I could because I didn’t want to know any more of this crap. And it still took five minutes to get through all the screens. I was actually laughing by the end of it because I could not believe what I was experiencing.
There is so much micromanaging stuff to comprehend in the first few minutes of playing the game that there’s no way you can absorb all of it. There literally came a moment where the screen was filled entirely with text supposedly vital to understanding how the game was supposed to be played. And all I can say is thank god I was playing it on a decently sized high definition TV, because there is so much useless stuff on every last page of Mugen Souls’s endless tutorial screens that you would be unable to read any of it on an older SDTV. I’m serious, it’s walls of teeny-tiny 6 pt. font text punctuated by teeny-tiny screenshots that are supposed to be visual aids. Spoiler alert: they’re not helpful. Over all, the battle system is the textbook definition of “arbitrary bullcrap”; a mind-melting chimera of mechanics you need a roadmap open on your lap to properly navigate through. Any rhyme or reason to be found in it is so far up its own ass it’s not even close to useful in helping you figure out what you need to be doing.
Mugen Souls is ultimately a hodgepodge of ideas that, on their own, would make for some interesting gameplay mechanics. However, the “everything and every kitchen sink from every house owned by Mitt Romney” approach does crippling damage to the game. The main concept is rather intriguing, I will give it that. Building up an unstoppable army by subjugating anything in your path, like a mischievous and subversive version of Pikmin, Katamari Damacy, or the upcoming Wii U-exclusive The Wonderful 101, sounds like a concept that could work rather well in the right hands. But again, there’s just so much bloat, blubber, and endlessly recursive bullshit mechanics to wade through to get to the actual centrepiece of the game that it leaves the game broken, playable by only the most detail-oriented obsessive-compulsive shut ins. And I say this as a detail-oriented obsessive-compulsive shut in. Even people who manage to soldier through the endless tutorials and soak in every last detail would be hard-pressed to actually implement any of it with any degree of competency.
I commented in my Legasista review that that game lacked an English dub and forced the player to listen to its shrieky, dribbling, endlessly annoying Japanese audio track until they figured out there was a “mute character voices” option buried in its convoluted menu. So at least Mugen Souls has an English soundtrack. It doesn’t really do much good though, as, just like Legasista, the script is terrible and the characters are detestable/creepy. If anything, I feel bad dub cast for having to be associated with this, doubly so because it was actually a high quality dub job. People invested earnest talent into this trainwreck…. Well, I at least hope NIS America paid them well for it. The Japanese voice work is also included, and being the sadist I am, I forced fellow writer Roland to endure it as I demoed the game with him. We agreed after five minutes to switch back to the English version. The dub is probably the lone point in the game’s favor, but even that isn’t enough to boost it in to the realm of whole number scores.
The soundtrack is a plinky, twinky music box nightmare that only adds to the disquieting vibe of corrupted childhood the game radiates. It sounds like the soundtrack of some inescapable psychologically scaring carnival or circus. In hindsight, it’s pitch perfect to the game—it’s a goddamn psychotic circus of bad taste and poor decisions. It’s as disturbing as it is annoying. That’s really all I can say about it.
Oh yeah, and the graphics/art style looks cheap too. It shares a visual similarity to the Disgaea metaverse games, but don’t be drawn in by it—this is not a Disgaea; Disgaeas at least have a modicum of class to them. Compile Heart walks right up to the same line Nippon Ichi does with their “she’s got the body of a 12 year-old, but she’s really 1,000 years old, honest!” trope, and gleefully steps over it and keeps on going into the wide groady yonder. The in-game graphics are cheap late-PlayStation 2-era-looking garbage and the story sequences are the typical “two images of characters on either side of the screen talking to each other” stuff that’s become ubiquitous to RPGs of this nature that want to tell a story without putting any real effort into it. I swear they were literally animated with Flash or something. However, the blood-soaked cherry on this sundae of bad taste is the character customizer. Yes, the game also lets you dress your little Lolita avatars in an appallingly wide variety of bald-faced fetishized outfits, again to appeal to the “sexually frustrated Japanese pervert” niche market. Upon discovering this feature, I immediately turned the game off and have not touched it since. I was already done with it, that was simply the period on the end of the sentence.
Japan has produced some truly beautiful artistic works in its time. The Seven Samurai, Princess Mononoké, Grave of the Fireflies, Shall We Dance?, the collective works of both Mamoru Hasoda and Satoshi Kon, the Genji Monogatari, hell, even Takeshi’s Castle—compared to these works of art, Mugen Souls is worse than worthless, it’s plain out insulting to one’s every sensibility. It’s a heartbeat away from being a hentai at the worst of times (that’s animated Japanese porn, for ye mercifully uninitiated). I cannot in good conscience recommend that anyone buy or play this game because you would only be encouraging NIS America to import more games of this nature.
Five months ago, my Legasista review led to someone rushing to downloading it, and that was a moment of pure pride for me. My words inspired positive action in someone I’d never met before. I pray I can achieve a similar effect this time around only in reverse. Avoid this game at all costs. Don’t even pick it up if it’s on sale or in a bargain bin.
Mugen Souls is terrible, avoid it at all costs.
Mugen Souls was reviewed with a copy provided by NIS America.