Mugen Souls is the type of game that makes one question one’s interest in video games. It may have cured me of my attraction to niche JRPGs at least. Maybe that’s a mark in its favor as far as its audience is concerned.
When the game starts, the player is introduced to Chou-Chou, an apparent preadolescent girlygirl who proclaims herself undisputed god of everything. Then, Chou-Chou and her best friend Altis, who wears a shirt that constantly exposes the lower halves of her breasts, do a peppy song-and-dance number in front of an apparent stadium-sized crowd, a routine that culminates in Altis getting groped by an anthropomorphic stuffed bunny (a “shampuru” in the parlance of Mugen Souls, something like this game’s version of Disgaea‘s everpresent Prinnys), resulting in that bunny and a host of other bunnies getting summarily smacked, punted, and stomped. All of this, of course, is set to a sugar-blast of a song that goes from charming to shrill in ten seconds flat.
Immediately following the song-and-dance number is, of course, a trip to the hot spring, where (the, again, apparently preadolescent) Chou-Chou and Altis have an innuendo-filled conversation while clad in nothing but strategically-placed bubbles. Eventually, their friend Ryuto, a boy, shows up and gets so excited at the sight of the girls that he has a nosebleed so violent that it is referred to throughout the game as “the Ryuto Geyser.”
Eventually, all of this coalesces into a run-of-the-mill JRPG, albeit one whose grind forces a strange sort of attention that must be paid to it. You see, Chou-Chou calls herself the god of everything, but there are seven worlds out there just filled with people that don’t worship her. In order to rectify this obvious oversight on their part, she travels to each of these worlds on her giant airship with the goal of flirting with each of these worlds’ denizens until they do worship her. The more inhabitants she can get to worship her and turn into her “peons”, the more powerful her airship gets, which is helpful when she has to go into combat with another airship in a strangely epic rock-paper-scissors session.
Now, over the course of the semi-random encounters that are mandatory in a game like this, you, as Chou-Chou, have a choice. You can either bash your way through the baddies, which is the quickest and easiest route, or you can go in for the (ahem) “moe kill.” That is, you play a minigame in which you pick phrases that you think would be attractive to your opponent based on that opponent’s personality. Get the opponent excited enough, and they’ll either become your peon, or turn into a potentially valuable item.
There is enough complexity in the system that there is a ton of potential for it to be interesting. Trying to balance whether pure attacks are sufficient to get through a series of battles or whether a moe kill would be a better idea in service of the long game is the type of choice that makes every ridiculous little battle feel like a critical step toward… something.
The problem is, the game designer who thought this up did so in service to a director and, presumably, writers who would rather push such innovations to the backseat, instead favoring a “cute” sense of humor and boatloads of fan service.
The reward for making a world fall in love with you? Another trip to the hot spring!
Chou-Chou’s reaction to not being able to boss around a male character early on? “I’m gonna peon his ass!”
And so on. And, you know, there are no nipples or F-words, and someone took out the mini-game that was in the Japanese version of the game where the player gets to “wash” the girls in the hot spring, so the ESRB is all “hey, that’s cool” and gives it a T.
If we really crane our necks, maybe we could see in Mugen Souls a satire of the modern JRPG. It follows the tropes to the letter, and tends to point them out along the way. Still, even if we take its everything-to-11 over-the-top approach as satire, it has nothing to say. When one of the most clever bits is the appropriate naming of “Explanatory Shampuru”, who pops in every so often to offer tutorials on the game’s many mechanics, you know you’re in trouble. When you talk to an NPC, one of the characters is bound to say “hey look, an NPC!” It’s that kind of game.
Then again, there’s certainly an audience for whom this is the height of comedy, just as there is certainly an audience for whom the glut of underdressed teenagers is a legitimate artistic choice. The problem is, I don’t know if I want to know that audience. I certainly don’t want to be part of it.