Though energetic and crammed with fun role-playing mechanics, Mugen Souls Z creates a barrier with its superficial, over-the-top characters and art style. In other words it’s a solid game, yet one encased in an unappetising shell.
Set shortly after the 2012 original, players slip back into the plimsolls of “Undisputed Goddess” Chou Chou, in her quest for universal domination. Her travels lead her to an unremarkable planet where she stumbles upon Nao, a treasure hunter about to uncover her latest haul. The artefact turns out to be an ancient coffin in which Syrma, a self-proclaimed Ultimate Goddess, slumbers.
There’s a brief encounter between both parties after which Chou Chou claims the mysterious coffin as her prize. In a bizarre twist, however, the casket spews her back out in miniaturised form. With Syrma now in the hot seat, a new dark power is starting to awake, forcing the two goddesses and their rag tag crew to embark on a new adventure.
Mugen Souls Z doesn’t spin a particularly bad story; the problem here is that it is far too generic and often pre-occupied with its one-dimensional cast. Each character ascribes to one of the various, overplayed manga archetypes, their interactions strafing from nonsensical to straight up creepy. This is characterised best by a series of bathing scenes in which female characters gossip and exclaim without imparting anything in the way of substance.
These bizarre tropes are becoming increasingly common in Japanese games, so given its status as a sequel, Mugen Souls Z is clearly catering for a sizeable fanbase, but for casual western gamers it will no doubt evoke a sense of culture shock. Manga enthusiasts will no doubt appreciate the modestly-clothed heroines and constant melodrama but, for others, this can create an insurmountable obstacle, despite Z’s more promising traits.
Gameplay in Mugen Souls is strictly turn-based, though it doesn’t conform to the traditional JRPG template. Unlike genre stalwarts such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, the game’s combat encounters allow free movement and targeting, creating an extra tactical dimension to fighting.
During a character’s turn you can move them a certain distance and then use an action, whether it be an attack, skill, or item. For the first half-hour it’s fun and easy to pick up despite Mugen Souls Z lacking a formal basic tutorial. From there, however, the game becomes increasingly complex as more mechanic start to filter in.
This is where lead protagonist, Syrma, begins to separate herself from the rest of her planet-conquering quartet. Z’s heroine has an entire sub-menu filled with bonus commands exclusive to her character. The most important of these is her “Captivate” ability which, when in range of enemies, allows her to attempt to seal them in her coffin or convert them into items. This is done by choosing a combination of “Fetish Poses” which alter the emotional state of targeted NPCs. If one of these three bar is maxed out, the conversion is successful.
It’s a fun mechanic to experiment with and gives players another alternate route to victory as opposed to simply KO’ing their foes. It must be said, however, that an over reliance on Captivate is dangerous. During boss fights and certain encounters, Syrma’s seductive powers will be rendered useless, leaving the group to duke it out, in the more traditional way.
Even several hours down the line, Compile Heart continues to dig deeper with its combat mechanics. Ultimate Soul, Fever, and Damage Carnival gauges start to populate the interface, granting a number of bonuses when in battle.
On top of these are a handful of coloured crystals scattered around each combat arena. These provide stat buffs to adjacent characters and, when combined with attacks that create a push-back effect, some encounters turn into what feels like a game of curling takes place, with heroes, NPCs and crystals bouncing from wall to wall.
Mugen Souls Z has plenty of ideas and when they come together it makes for an enjoyable gameplay experience. However, the soundly named “Overwhelming Tutorials” crop up far too often, burdening players with new information at every turn. On top of that, the game’s progression system is a repetitive grind which offers little reprieve.
To conquer planets, you simply have to drop into a dungeon and wade through a series of battles as you activate waypoints signposted on the map. Each one is tagged with a certain condition, requiring either an item exchange, KO quota, or specific sequence of Fetish Poses. Once done, you beam back out, and move onto a higher tier. Unless you are particularly engrossed with the story and characters, there’s little sense of reward, the game’s appeal hinging on the longevity of its game mechanics.
Daubed in a vibrant hue of anime splendour, Mugen Souls Z is colourful yet basic in appearance. Environments are varied yet flat and with little sense of interactivity. Character models also lack detail when compared to their hand-drawn dialogue portraits. This inconsistency is further let down by the game’s generally poor frame-rate with music and sound effects doing little to balance the score.
Fans will no doubt appreciate the new gameplay features but, as a whole, Mugen Souls Z feels too exclusive a game, even for a sequel. Its niche narrative focus and penchant for superficiality make it a hard sell for newcomers.