NIS America’s latest RPG for the Vita, Criminal Girls: Invite Only, is no stranger to controversy. A frequent topic of discussion about the game was whether or not a game focused on reforming school-age girls through various forms of punishment could actually make it out of Japan. As a remake of a 2010 PSP exclusive, Criminal Girls expands on the game with new content including new characters and dungeons to explore. Are the characters Criminal Girls: Invite Only worthy of being reformed, or is a criminal sin to play this one?
Criminal Girls: Invite Only opens with the player taking the role of a sort of prison warden tasked with the role of four (and eventually expands to seven) delinquents, would-be sinners that died before they could commit their mortal sin. In Hell, there is a reformation program with the outcome of turning these girls back into model citizens and giving them another chance in the living world. This is no easy task by any means, especially as these girls don’t take too kindly to positive reaffirmation and suggestions.
The alternative answer? “Maintenance,” as the game so kindly puts it. The ladies based from the Seven Deadly Sins under your care, and everyone else you recruit along the way, don’t listen to your commands in battle until you spank them, among other more lascivious actions. These punishments take the form of little mini games that make use of the Vita’s front and back panels (or dual analog sticks and shoulder buttons if you are playing on a PS TV).
These minigames, however, receive the entirety of the censorship that NIS America has implemented in ensuring that this title was acceptable for localization. Gone are the sultry moans and other lewd noises from the punishment segments. In addition, an additional layer of pink fog covers the girls’ more naughty bits, even though the original artwork was still fairly tame given the source material. Instead, a cheerful musical interlude plays in the background while the girls stare awkwardly at the player while he applies a tickle torture or massage oil. Perhaps the most damning aspect of the censorship changes are how the mini games turn into a sort of low-end Flash game you might see on the 18+ segments of Newgrounds back in the early ’00s. That isn’t to say that the punishment scenes weren’t always these low budget, instead it is a comment on the lack of responsiveness from your actions and the doe-eyed stares you receive from your partner.
The punishment games are a huge aspect of developing the girls in your party and without them, they would be useless in combat. Each of the four (with a fifth punishment unlocking towards the end of the game) punishments are essential to boosting your girls’ stats and giving new abilities. For example, Ran the paladin defensive type of the group, won’t learn the basic ability of Guard until midway one of her later punishments and these have to be done in order to unlock their full potential. You may have to sit through the same punishment scene seven or eight times per girl before they learn all of their moves, so that’s a whole lot of Vita poking and spanking you’ll have to endure.
Just because you’ve taught your girls new moves doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll care to use them. Contrary to other RPGs where you have full or even semi control of your party (ala Persona 4 Golden), the main character has very little direct control over the combat. Each of the four girls in your party instead tell you what THEY would like to do for their action and you have to choose one of the four moves each turn. There are ways to properly seed combat in a particular direction, such as tagging out girls or using items called Proof of Bonds that allow access to some powerful tag moves upon request.
As a dungeon based RPG, there are no towns to visit or side areas to really explore in Criminal Girls: Invite Only. Even equipment and weapons are non-existent, leaving you only with the girls’, their combat abilities, and consumable items. Upon most floors of the dungeon are infirmaries, rest areas where you can purchase new consumables with a currency called CM, dole out punishment also using said CM, or rest your party members back up to full fighting capability. Side quests are few and far between, only taking the form of Girls’ Orders, character specific quests to procure a key item from a particular dungeon or engage in a high difficulty battle or two. Girls’ Orders help boost the girls’ potentials, either reducing the cost to punish by a huge margin or reducing the MP cost of that character’s skills.
Delving deeper into the trials (or upwards, the game doesn’t really specify) bring about harder and harder challenges. Grinding is quite a necessity in order to survive the latter half of the game, as some of the skills and abilities can turn the tide immensely in combat. A technique I’ve picked up from years of playing JRPGs is to hang out next to a save point (in this case, an infirmary) and use Yuko’s ability to instantly put you in combat and just go hog wild with your MP abilities and attacks since you’ll be able to rest up whenever necessary. I often found myself exploring a floor to locate the exit or pick up all of the treasure, only to hang out next to an infirmary and spend maybe three or four times as much time just grinding up to a higher level.
With how random combat can go, the later fights in the game almost feel like feats of luck. Many of the bosses towards the end of the game (and especially during the post-game segments, which nearly double the length of Criminal Girls beyond its basic story) have a tendency to pull out high-damage abilities that are capable of wiping out your party at a moments notice at random. Thankfully, these enemies always have to take a turn to charge up said move, giving you time to prepare or get Ran back onto the playing field to cast her guard ability. This trick only lasts for so long, especially as many post-game bosses have attacks that can push through her shield and still wipe out the party. One of Ran’s final abilities, Invincible Knight’s Shield, can turn the party invincible for two turns, but not only does it have a high MP cost, there’s no guarantee that she will even use it.
There was an encounter near the end of my playthrough with Criminal Girls: Invite Only that had the boss use its instant kill attack no less than seven times, meaning I had to have perfect luck with Ran asking to use her shield ability each and every time. I had to trigger it each time either by just sheer luck, swapping another party member out to re-roll the four abilities I could use, or using a one-time consumable item to make her use said ability (that costs 70,000 CM, higher than anything else in the game). This sort of challenge came out of nowhere, bringing the game up to some of Shin Megami Tensei‘s notorious bosses at a moment’s notice, only with the added challenge of being at the mercy of the game’s random number generator.
Criminal Girls: Invite Only is a title that has become notorious among JRPG fans simply because of its sadistic nature and sexual themes, but beneath all of that is a pretty challenging JRPG. The censorship, while I can certainly agree that it sucks, feels like a requirement to even get a title like this a worldwide release. If you have a tolerance for grinding and hard-as-nails boss fights that can go ugly at a moment’s notice, there really is something to Criminal Girls‘ dark charm.
[Editor’s Note: Criminal Girls: Invite Only was reviewed on both the PlayStation Vita and PlayStation TV platforms. Review code was provided to us by the publisher.]