Mugen Souls? More like Rock Paper Scissors Souls!
Mugen Souls is an exercise in interest in many things Japanese, the chief of which being harakiri. Harakiri is a ritual practiced by samurai where they disembowel themselves on their sword, often due to some sort of disgrace they’ve committed. The foundations in this action RPG are solid, combat is enjoyable (albeit laden with abstract mechanics), there’s loot and leveling up and all the great, fun things people want in an RPG. The hand-drawn anime-styled art is quite crisp and polished, and if it weren’t for a low frame rate in certain areas the presentation would be quite solid. Then there’s MOE Kill and space battles. If you’re content to simply play in the Mugen Field and ignore the story, maybe you’ll find Mugen Souls worth playing. If not, don’t waste your time.
The story, characters and overall premise of Mugen Souls is rather intriguing. Chou-Chou, the main character, was found in space by an ex-demon named Altis, at which point she declared she would subjugate the seven worlds within the universe. These seven worlds, each with different themes loosely based on gaming tropes (like fire or darkness), are home to multiple continents, a hero, and a demon. As you progress through the worlds you’ll travel through open fields encountering monsters and “Master Points” which you must subjugate in order to gain control of the continent and defeat the boss. Each world will play out the same way, except of course with monsters getting tougher and tougher, and the only real difference between the two being the genuinely goofy and entertaining dialogue. The dialogue is what got me through the story most of the time; it’s the game’s saving grace until you either beat the game or give up on it and go run around in the game’s kill-stuff-ad-nauseum mode.
Mugen Souls‘ combat system at its core is reasonable, it’s basic, and it’s polished. You have up to four team members on the field at once, each of which are either a soldier, gunner, magician, monk (pugilist, call it what you want) or any sub-classification of those categories. Based on movement ranges you can link up with team members to deal additional damage with basic attacks, or use skills and abilities to enact area-of-effect attacks or inflict status ailments. The system incorporates solid turn-based RPG elements which are easy to understand although the interface makes it difficult to follow how much damage is being dealt or received if you have animations turned off (which you will within an hour). However, as with almost every game published by Nippon Ichi Software (NIS) in existence, Mugen Souls is not complete without some strange combat features in addition to the core system.
There are ton of features, so many that I can’t explain them properly. These features are all tied to the concept of “subjugation” or “peon-ing” as the game oft refers to it as. Chou-Chou can use the MOE Kill option in battle to turn enemies into her peons, into items, or to piss them off (usually by accident). Peon’d enemies turn into shampurus (small, bunny-like creatures) which boost the power of Chou-Chou’s ship for use in the space battles at the beginning and end of each world. As such, it’s incredibly useful to subjugate enemies with the MOE Kill system. Unfortunately, the MOE Kill system is absolutely the most pain in the ass mechanic I’ve had to deal with an Action RPG for as long as I can remember- and I’ve played Dark Souls.
Here’s how MOE Kill works: you enter MOE Kill mode and see a series of three bars for each enemy in the affected zone. Each bar represents either peon, item or frenzy. Every character has a MOE affinity and a mood (except Chou-Chou, who only has an affinity). In each interaction you are given a series of two phrases to choose from twice, and then a last set of three to choose from, each of which represent an anime-related archetypal behavior (like confession or bipolar). The three phrases you receive are completely random. How each phrase will affect the desired targets depends on their affinity relative to yours (matching is best for peon-related things, opposite means frenzy, and item is some weirdly adjacent affinity) and which phrases the enemy wants to hear depends on their mood.
The mechanic is actually fairly thought out, as such I thought it would go over just fine. However, because there’s no way to truly tell which phrase will affect which affinity match up during which mood (other than a gross amount of trial and error and archival on your own time) every MOE Kill encounter turns into a frustrating crap shoot. It wouldn’t be that big of a deal if it was just a means of getting more stats for your ship through combat, but you have to use the MOE Kill system to subjugate each continent as well, and sometimes you simply can’t do it. Chou-Chou has the ability to change her affinity as much as she wants on the field so she can prepare to properly woo the continent, but if that particular MOE Kill setup rolls the wrong phrases or mood (sorrow and fear essentially are impossible to peon with) then you’re stuck re-rolling the entire level by leaving it. Time is wasted constantly in this game due to vague feedback from the MOE Kill system and a ridiculous over-emphasis on random elements. In combat later in the game MOE Kill is less frustrating because each successful phrase is much more powerful, but early on it’ll kill any joy you found in this game. It almost single-handedly kills the game. I say almost, because another frustrating mechanic felt it necessary to waltz in and finish it off.
The shampurus power up your ship, the G-Castle, which serves as a hub while Chou-Chou’s not out subjugating worlds. Beyond that functionality (which it does quite well, I might add, no complaints there), before landing on and fighting the final boss of each world you must compete in a space battle. Each battle plays out like rock paper scissors with too many options and a misleading method of interpretation: you pick an action, they pick an action, it plays out, then the enemy says something which is supposed to hint at their next move. If you attack and they attack you’ll both take damage, then maybe the enemy will say “Oh no, I can’t bear to lose this fight!” so it’s on you to assume what their next move will be. These battles would be all well and good if that properly worked, but it doesn’t. Patterns are abandoned after only a few moves, forcing you to re-learn constantly and sucking all the fun out of it. It’s also not enough that your ship is constantly under-powered (and because peon-ing is so asinine early on it takes forever to grind it up to snuff), you also don’t get to load a save from JUST before the battle- you have to go through all the walking and dialogue and crap that lead up to the fight as well. Exhausting. Not fun. Why is it in the game?
Mugen Souls also has an NIS-staple infinite-replayability mode called the Mugen Field. In the Mugen Field, like Item World in Disgaea, or really any NIS game, you pick an entry point and difficulty to decide the level of enemies and the chance of getting cool gear and items, then compete in a series of inescapable (except with a special consumable) fights complete with random special rules and intermittent boss fights. Except for when you have to do G-Castle space battles (yes, they’re here too, the game thinks they’re far more enjoyable than they are), this is the best way to play Mugen Souls. Upon completing each battle you get to use special shops and upgrade stations to unlock additional sub-party slots to level up non-active characters, more skills and abilities or even job classes- it’s a smorgasbord of awesomely useful shops that really let you expand your team’s potential.
But it’s not worth picking up the game just for Mugen Field. It’s not worth picking up Mugen Souls just for the admittedly hilarious dialogue and tongue-in-cheek commentary on video game and anime tropes. If the story wasn’t so freaking annoying to go through due to the MOE Kill system and horrible space battles, this game would easily be recommendable to anyone who enjoys a good action RPG. The combat is solid, the character progression is solid, and Mugen Field is genuinely one of the more no-nonsense infinite-modes I’ve played in an NIS game. I’ll even forgive the abstract combat mechanics that I really still don’t understand (you don’t have to use them, but they’re there if you want to) because I know people out there like that kind of stuff and will like Mugen Souls for it.
If you can get past the massive irritation that is MOE Kill and space battles, you can enjoy Mugen Souls. Perhaps I just never figured out how to grind properly because given time, yes, you will just be able to overpower anything in your way. But I shouldn’t have to grind levels so much that I can sidestep entire mechanics, a game shouldn’t block important, mandatory campaign moments with features so heavily grounded in randomness. It wouldn’t be so bad if the random elements were fun, but they’re not; they’re just frustrating time-sinks. And that’s what most of Mugen Souls is: a frustrating time-sink.
Mugen Souls was developed by Compile Heart, and published by NIS America. A PlayStation 3 copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of review.