"Since the 'sexy' aspects of this game are supposed to be its main draw, I'm going to talk a lot more about them in this review than I normally would."
The topic of "sexiness" in games is one that comes up from time to time here on RPGFan and elsewhere, and given that it's a big part of Criminal Girls: Invite Only, I feel obligated to start out by clarifying my position (haha) on the topic. Like any other creative medium, I feel that there's room for a wide variety of subject matter in gaming, from Oregon Trail to Final Fantasy to Leisure Suit Larry to Call of Duty and beyond. I always romance someone in BioWare games, and I wouldn't send angry emails to the developers if those scenes were more explicit than they are, but I'm distinctly uncomfortable with games like RapeLay. I wouldn't go so far as to say that they shouldn't exist, but like real rape (or real murder), that kind of game is something I don't like to focus on. Still, since the "sexy" aspects of this game are supposed to be its main draw, I'm going to talk a lot more about them in this review than I normally would.
Criminal Girls: Invite Only is an updated version of a Japanese PSP game from a few years ago in which you play a random male who has been drafted (in his sleep) to lead a group of seven female prisoners from Hell through a series of trials. These trials are in place to grant prisoners the opportunity to overcome their sinful pasts and earn a chance at rebirth. The sins of these particular girls can basically be tied to one of the legendary Seven Deadly Sins
, and while they were lifelong repeaters, they were more like bullies or pathological liars than murderers. That is, the rehabilitation program is designed to help people who just barely earned themselves a place in hell, so they can learn from their bad choices and do better a second time around. It's actually a fairly solid premise.
The trials the prisoners must overcome are in two formats: combat against demon-like "convicts," and "motivation" sessions led by your character. Combat earns XP for the entire group, and leveling up that way increases their stats. Motivation (formerly called "punishment") sessions cost in-game currency (earned in battle and also found in treasure chests), and completing them successfully for a character unlocks new skills for her. These sessions are the famous "sexy" part of this game, and they are awful.
Motivation sessions are minigames wherein you must touch or drag certain points on the touch screen or back panel in certain ways before time runs out. You unlock five different styles as the game progresses, and while they are all possible to complete, none of them make using the back touch panel any less bad than it's ever been. (Ironically, perhaps, game's menus would have been improved by letting you use the front touch screen, but the touch areas are only used in the minigames.)
As you motivate a girl, a somewhat interactive portrait of her writhes in the background, covered by a pink fog that somewhat dissipates based on your success. The more levels of a given girl's minigame you complete, the farther she removes her outfit. There's no genital nudity, but I can confirm that at least a couple of the girls either don't have nipples, or they're not where they belong. The girls run the gamut from completely flat-chested to having breasts so big they could crush a car; and dialogue suggests that they all died after growing to at least young adulthood, although at least two of them are clearly designed as prepubescent.
Before each motivation session, the girls complain about the fact that you're making them dress up in the outfits you see in the interactive portraits. During the session, they scowl and make no sounds, but after the session is over, they'll make angry comments. One of the girls always called me a "damned pervert," and to be frank, I felt like one! And yet, as the game approaches its end, they all basically declare their love to you, and a couple of the optional one-on-one scenes have dialogue that implies you're about to have sex.
Maybe it's the fact that I'm not into S&M that makes the whole thing seem illogical to me. You've spent the entire game humiliating and physically harming these girls... and now they're all
in love with you for it? Still, even if we accept the premise that these seven girls are all secret submissives, the whole thing is very creepy. The original version included verbal response during motivation sessions, but those have been censored in the Vita version, and the quiet makes those scenes feel even more back alley creepy. "I'm gonna whip you, and you're gonna like it, and you're going to stay completely silent while I do it." *shudder*
The pink fog is also a censorship issue, and it doesn't contribute to creepiness — it's just stupid. The fog is at its most dense while the girls are the most clothed, and it always stays completely opaque over their crotches, which are always covered by panties anyway. In the end, all that patch of fog does is pull focus to the area. And given that one of the girls who looks like a child is generally posed spread-eagle with her hand on her panties (although it's not clear if this is a masturbatory gesture or a "no, please don't take these off, master" move), I really would have appreciated anything that drew focus away
Ugh. Enough said about all of that. Let's move on.
Combat is turn-based, and four party members can be active at a time. During each turn, you can swap out one party member, use one item, and take one action. Each of your four active party members proposes either a basic attack or one of their skills for use, and you pick between those four proposals. You never get to directly choose from a list of all known skills, so you have to hope that each turn, someone proposes something you'd actually want to do. This gets increasingly frustrating as the game goes on, because more unlocked attacks means less chance that the skills you really want will be proposed on any given turn. Making matters worse, in battle, they don't use the same name that you see for the skill elsewhere, so until you work out which proposal means which skill, it's kind of a guessing game.
To the game's credit, the AI is very aware of certain situations and will always propose the proper skill when they occur. For example, a character named Ran learns a skill early on that has the entire team defend that turn. Any time a boss is going to use one of their strongest attacks, if Ran is in your active party, she'll propose her defending skill. But good situational awareness is no replacement for getting to make your own choices, and there were countless turns in battle when I knew just what I wanted to do, but my team didn't propose it.
As I mentioned, the story's goal is redemption for the girls, and once it gets going, I feel like it's both well written and compelling. Unfortunately, that only happens about halfway into the game. The first quarter is mostly spent gathering your party and giving you a superficial view of their personalities, and I'd be hard-pressed to identify anything that happens or is even discussed in the second quarter. But after that, things really start moving, and the girls' stories are all emotionally effective. By the end of the game, I felt that the girls had really grown and learned from their experiences and their bond with each other. Their claims of love for me, as I said, felt like Stockholm Syndrome, but at least their connection to each other felt genuine.
Criminal Girls: Invite Only is a difficult type of game to review. Its battle system, while not completely successful, is creative and different from what we see in most games, there are some really good story beats, and they're accompanied by good (Japanese) voice acting and music. But those good things are undermined by the lackluster opening half of the story and the slightly awkward controls to the extremely awkward "sexy" minigames. There were honestly times when I felt like if anyone saw me playing this game, they'd think I do things to kids that you shouldn't do to kids. Even if you have no fears on that regard (perhaps you only play your Vita at home, alone), I can't recommend this game to you. There are plenty of superior RPGs available, and if you want to see sexy Japanese cartoons, the internet is always there for you. But I'm not telling you my favorite links. Find your own.