Mugen Souls Z Review
Let the wacky moe wars begin . . . again!
When we last left Chou-chou, the undisputed god of the universe, she had completed her task of taking over the Seven Worlds and turning everything from enemies to random pieces of flotsam into her peons. Now things are getting a bit boring for the moody tike and it's time to go exploring again. We rejoin her as she sets her sights on the Twelve Worlds, once again bent on domination. Here she meets up with the obligatory hero Nao who recently awakened as a hero for some vague reason (possibly to stop Chou-chou) and also the colossal ditzy airheaded Syrma. Syrma also happens to be a god but she has been sealed away in her big coffin for a long time so she doesn't know much. Chou-chou's curiosity about the coffin winds up costing her her size and before she knows it she's tinier than ever. As such Syrma has to become the playable god this time as she absorbs and wields the powers of Chou-chou in her continuing quest to trudge through Japanese craziness, anime character parodies, and moe culture. If you aren't up on moe, it's just a character crafted to fit the basic fetishes often used in anime.
One of the reasons I was looking forward to this sequel, after an okay time with the first Mugen Souls, was that Hyperdimension Neptunia improved especially in the graphical presentation greatly from game to game. Mugen Souls Z only takes a very small step forward from its predecessor. There is a whole lot of visual novel storytelling here so the good news on that front is the character art is some of the best in this format. The characters aren't just the typical cardboard cutouts, they breathe and talk and move enough to keep things going. On the field there's a partially cel shaded look going on for the characters while the surrounding buildings and such have a soft simplicity to them. As soon as you start running or moving the camera around you'll notice a slight stutter in the flow of the images. It's not unstable or anything, just a quirk you have to get used to in this age of buttery smooth games. In battles the frame rate is unreliable at best. While most cut scenes take place as visual novel portions there are a few cuts done with the character models which is a nice change but it happens far too rarely.
In battle the animations have improved the most from the last game but they are still quite lacking. A lot of what goes on is taking shortcuts, something is here and then it's there and there weren't a lot of steps in between. Folks who dig these kind of games probably aren't going to care much about that though, it's all about the wackiness. The attacks aren't quite as crazy as the last game but they are more visually stable. The special effects are poor, barely doing the bare minimum at times. The color scheme reflects the rest of the game in the sense that it's all over the place. It can be pretty garish at times but at least it fits the theme. MSZ is no beauty but it can be charming in its own way.
Story in a game like this is often highly subjective because the whole point of it is to be absurd, ironic and all over the place so you'll just have to trust that I know something about it. It generally meanders around every character trope imaginable while trying to undermine the basic her versus demon lord plot. Unfortunately whatever satirical bite the original Mugen Souls had is mostly gone. The commentary on moe fan culture aims for the right targets but misses. The story misses its own parody targets often and when it does land in the right territory it does so without much heart. The gags are mostly lame retreads that telegraph themselves well before they hit. Timing is paramount for good comedy but MSZ just can't stop dropping the ball by rolling out the jokes slowly and predictably. Having the new main character such a slow ditz doesn't help because things that are already over explained are super over explained leaving the gamer often thinking, okay we get it now let's move on. The visual novel cuts are just way too long and drawn out, testing the patience of even the most dedicated fans.
The sound profile borrows heavily from the previous game for sound effects and music. The news is good on the voices front. The English boasts a solid cast of performers that usually fit their roles well, nailing the fetishy girls down pat. The Japanese cast is just a bit better plus the original language fits the overall nutso atmosphere better to keep the cultural impact there. The only drawback is it doesn't always give you the necessary subtitles to make it funny like when you do the fetish poses to gain peons. The sound effects are abrupt and often quite flat. The music is most often a cacophony of awful noises, piping, and shrill trumpets that could easily be used to elicit a confession from a suspected terrorist. I understand what they are trying to do here, it's meant to represent the general craziness of the plot and characters. It does fall in line with that but at the sake of your ears and general common decency.
The gameplay setup is simple, effective, and actually has a bit of depth for those with patience. Each world is a set of medium sized maps for you to traverse while looking for enemies and things to turn into peons. Between you and the next story piece are monsters you can fight or flee from. For combat you engage enemies by running into them or giving them a good thwap with your weapon. Doing so will give you an advantage. When fighting everyone gets a turn and a circle of effectiveness. You can run around freely during you turn to get enemies into your circle and when the are you can target them. If they are too far then you'll have to stop and defend yourself. A cool addition are the crystals on the field, they each have various effects when inside your range. You might get more items drops or extra experience for instance.
Battle is prosecuted with physical attacks, magic, and special moves that you learn as you advance your characters. A bit later on you'll learn about a couple of specials called Mugen Field and Ultimate Soul, which are cool. Syrma uses her special Captivate ability to make enemies into peons or items. This is where the more fetish system comes into play. Enemies have a certain disposition and will fall for certain moe personas over others. Syrma can use Chou-chou's special ability to turn into other women to make this work best. If you suspect that, based on this enemy's mood (represented by a little face) they might be susceptible to a sadist or bipolar or airhead then you can switch to those girls (who all have their own look) once per turn and then crank up their charmed level. One nice thing this game does over the last is giving you a hint of how effective each fetish pose will be on the enemies so you aren't constantly guessing. Gaining peons raises the effectiveness of the fetish type you are in when you make the peon and peons can be made into new characters which are useful both in battle and for your home base, G-Castle. Also each kind of peon raises different stats so if you are inclined you can hunt just the ones you really want to raise. In addition to making peons into new characters (whose class you can choose) there are clothes, accessories and weapons you can buy to raise stats. I just prefer to play crazy dress up with them but whatever floats your boat.
G-Castle is your ship, base, and giant robot transforming battle machine. When a rival approaches with their own ship you will enter into an absurd turn based duel where you try to ascertain how the enemy will act based on what they say (a little like Suikoden). Each move goes over better when the enemy does something in particular. Outlasting and doing the most damage is the name of the game. I have to say I enjoy these ship battles and wish there were more of them. They break up the mind-numbingly boring monotony of the rest of the game.
When it comes to replay value I honestly can't imagine why someone would want to play this more than once but you certainly could do so. There's an unlimited amount of characters to create and customize and you can always make more peons or search for the rarer items. The story is what it is and isn't going to change.
Mugen Souls Z feels like a rehashed, more tedious version of its predecessor that wasn't really needed. The attempt at throwing every crazy thing surrounding moe fan culture into a pot and boiling turns up more of a hot mess than a coherent satire. It plays fine and has some good voice performances, but the visual novel portions will have you looking at the clock more often than chuckling. This is a game that only big fans of the first should subject themselves to.
5/22/2014 David D. Nelson