Originally released exclusively on the PlayStation Portable in Japan, Criminal Girls has finally found its way to foreign shores courtesy of publisher NIS America. Since its debut in 2010, however, much has changed in the way we view Japanese role-playing games, with many developers moving away from the genre’s two-dimensional, turn-based roots. Something which remains largely the same though are Western attitudes towards certain strains of Japanese anime culture. There are no doubt plenty of die-hard otaku and NIS fans who have been eagerly awaiting this localised adaptation but, for the majority, Criminal Girls is simply a no-go.
The game’s premise revolves around you, a hapless prison guard tasked with helping a rowdy bunch of law-breaking ladettes on the path to redemption. With no real say in the matter, your character accepts the situation, mounting the first rung of a seemingly endless ladder. You see, despite Criminal Girls’ attempts at characterisation and hammering out some sort of story, it follows a straightforward A-to-B track with little room for deviation.
Unlike renowned classics such as Final Fantasy IX, Dragon Quest VII and Rogue Galaxy, there are no sprawling worlds to travel across. Instead, players are forced to trudge through a mosaic of colourful albeit repetitious tilesets as they move further and further up the tower. Their uniform alignment gives a monotonous sense of confinement, perhaps echoing on the fact that you are navigating through a massive prison. There’s a lack of effort which also permeates into the game’s battle sequences which look no more immersive or engaging as those Japanese RPG’s we saw in the late 1980s.
In fairness, there are some parts of the game that do receive more attention – it’s just a shame that these are also Criminal Girls’ most controversial, depending on personal views. In order to upgrade the abilities of characters, the player will need to participate in one of several simple mini-games that have been reworked to use the PS Vita’s front and rear touchscreens. For each correct input you will “motivate” your chosen character, clearing the on-screen fog to reveal part of an animated portrait. These artworks leave little to the imagine, dressing each of the girls up in skimpy outfits, and if that wasn’t enough, they also groan throughout each sadomasochistic mini-game, adding yet another layer of cringe to the entire process.
What’s perhaps worse is that these side activities are completely unnecessary and could have easily been replaced with a simple menu option. Instead, every time you want to buff your ladies’ fighting capabilities, you’ll need to endure these pointless sexualised mini-games.
It’s not as if there’s much of a pay-off, either. Combat in Criminal Girls, although not bad, does nothing new or inventive. It’s only unique factor is the way in which your party behaves in each scenario. As their prison guard, the girls rarely feel inclined to take orders from the player. On paper, this sounds as though it could add a fun twist to gameplay but in truth has the opposite effect. Like any other turn-based JRPG, you’ll still have a list of commands to choose from, it’s just that sometimes this selection will change depending on how the convicts are feeling.
It might not come across as so basic if not for the punishing amount of grind Criminal Girls forces players to endure. Ten minutes in and having only just learned the ropes, your attention will turn to levelling up your party, occasionally “motivating” them to unlock better stats and new abilities.
For some, everything we’ve just described will be relatively easy to overlook. It may be hard for us to imagine, but there is a sizeable group of gamers who simply can’t get enough of these imports. That’s completely fine and it’s always great to see publishers catering for smaller niche audiences with titles such as Criminal Girls: Invite Only. However, for those unfamiliar with the culture who are looking for a handheld RPG, we recommend caution.