The traditional console RPG is a genre in a very strange place. Square-Enix is out of it completely for the time being, Atlus’s RPG output is focused primarily on the handhelds, and everyone else is trying to translate the MMORPG formula to the single-player experience. For anyone wanting to kick back in front of the TV with a nice menu-driven combat system that lets you think about the moves and their consequences, pickings are pretty slim. There’s no question the genre needed some serious shaking up, but as Mugen Souls‘s battle system demonstrates, it’ll be nice when things settle down again as well.
Mugen Souls is as close to a standard RPG as you’re likely to see on a console this year. Yes, it’s highly complicated, with a few dozen systems to keep in mind, and it’s also goofy as hell, with a silly storyline and characters that tread just a little too close to pedo-tastic in their design. The primary battle system, though, is refreshingly traditional despite its complexity. Your guys start on one side of the field, the enemies on the other, and you each use skills and abilities to knock the bejeezus out of each other, frequently pinballing chaotically about the battlefield when things go flying. The learning curve is more cliff than slope, but once you start climbing there are some highly entertaining options at your disposal.
Battle starts by contacting the monsters visibly wandering the field, at which point you’ve got a wealth of options at your disposal. Attacks, skills, links, and moe kills are just the basics. The leader of the group is Chou-Chou (pronounced shoe-shoe), and she’s on a quest to turn all seven worlds and the people who dwell there into her minions. She’s the only one with the moe kill ability, which lets her convert monsters into weird little rabbity-critters called shampuru. She’s got seven different aspects of her personality, and the key to conversion is being in the right form and saying the right things dependent on enemy mood and alignment. There’s also a large crystal in the center of the battle arena, and successfully pulling a moe kill on that transforms every enemy on the field into a peon. Chou-Chou can also have orders enabled, which drive up Peon Points when followed and lessen them when ignored. It all starts to make sense after the first dozen hours of play.
Off the battlefield there are also a number of systems to poke at. Character creation, weapon leveling, an infinite dungeon, and tons of stats and percentage modifiers to sift through all wait back at home base, and having played a review copy without an instruction manual, I’m desperately hoping for the sake of the average player it’s 50+ pages minimum. Still, once you start to get a handle on things, you’ll learn which bits to care about and which to ignore based on overall effectiveness and personal play style. If you care about creating minions, dressing them up in various outfits from the clothing store, and leveling them up to godlike status, have fun with it. If not, there’s a ton of characters to meet through the game, all of them highly effective when used properly.
What can’t be ignored, however, is the thoroughly creepy feeling of underage perviness in the character design. Chou-Chou looks to be about 9 years old, and is routinely given hot springs fan-service. Her half-demon half-angel all underboob companion Altis looks more like 15, which is somewhat better, but as a fully functioning adult it’s hard to see the sex appeal put into these characters and not feel a little gross. It’s a shame, too, because the story is light and fun, with an entertaining cast putting in a good amount of decent voice-work. There’s a lot of honestly funny stuff in here, but having it broken up by pre-teen fan-service drags the whole game down.
Still, if you can grit your teeth and put up with some, let’s say for politeness, cultural misalignment issues, Mugen Souls is a solid RPG with a lot of meat on its bones. There’s worlds to conquer, monsters to both convert to your side or smack around for rare item drops, battleship to battleship confrontations, a robust character creator if you don’t feel like using the huge cast available, and tons of systems to play with. The graphics engine is a bit sad, chugging on scenes an engine not held together with chewing gum and bent paperclips would blow past without losing a frame, but the bright anime style makes it easy to ignore once you get used to the limitations. Mugen Souls is a fun, fast-paced RPG with a goofy sense of humor and a million interlocking gameplay systems, and both makes fun of and feels like a throwback to a more traditional style of RPG. Ignore the character art and dive in — you’ll have a great time converting the world to minion-hood.