Review – Mugen Souls (Switch)
It’s fair to say that Compile Heart knows their key demographic. One look at a majority of their titles tells you that if it’s cute, if it’s RPG adjacent, and if there’s a touch of either ecchi or hairbrained behavior, then it’ll land. When the games get folded under the parent company Idea Factory, you get a much bigger mix of titles, like Amnesia or MeiQ (fingers crossed for a Switch port), but Compile’s song remains the same. Have cute characters in questionable outfits and then have eyebrow raising activity peppered throughout hammy performances and you’ll garner a fanbase. Look no further than Neptunia, and the severe decrease in quality since Megadimension to see that fans will stan certain franchises regardless.
Having said all that, many will be amused, if not appalled, at the abject, unrepentant nature of Mugen Souls, a turn-based JRPG that feels so anime that Excel Saga would tell them to tone it down. In a universe where there exists seven worlds (each a hue of the rainbow with characteristics to match), the lone pirate/commander/would-be tyrant, Chou-Chou, dreams of subjugating every last one of them. She feels she has all the necessary supplies: a spaceship capable of warfare and lightspeed travel; two initial peons of varying backgrounds (reincarnated demon and helpless fanboy) who want her to achieve her dream; and cuteness enough to coerce, bully, or guilt an endless number of enemies into joining her rank and file. The dream is far from simple or original, but it’s her dream, dammit, and she’s going to make it come true no matter what!
If you’ve played a Compile Heart title before, you’ll know a bit about what’s in the core, but humor me as I go over the “basics” of Mugen Souls. You have a semi-3D map where your character moves about, interacting with enemy mobs and various objects/people to activate certain events. Combat is a ridiculously complex affair that can be simplified if you’re only looking to play in a certain style, but you’ll need to speed click through a lot of explanations for the nuance of every sort of battle approach you might want to take.
Like Trillion or Neptunia, the potential for incredibly high levels and damage exists if you’re determined to grind it out, and it’s both necessary to a point (mid and full bosses are not to be taken lightly) and incorporating different aspects are both fun and functional depending on how you’d like to deal with all the fighting.
For example, two major facets of Mugen Souls are the Burst Mode and the Moe Kill mode. Burst mode is a physics-based consideration for when you use skills that can and will send enemies flying across the screen, careening into other enemies and objects, as well as members of your own party. This is fairly simple to figure out (and the yellow pie slice that indicates your strike zone and repercussions doesn’t hurt) and has the added benefit of potentially setting up great combos in the future. Making sure enemies land near your fellow party members means setting up great combos, especially if you can put them between two other friendly combatants and enable a Link attack (two or more characters attack at the same time, creating a funny little animation and doing serious damage at the same time).
The second, Moe Kill, is the bread and butter of the game, not only in terms of mechanic but also in the overall story. Moe Kill is the ability for Chou-Chou to directly interact with an enemy and choose a series of prompts to charm, berate or emotionally destroy an enemy. Enemies charmed this way will add to your “peon” count, which, in turn, can become a healing effort OR a massive attack called a Peon Ball, which actually increases in power across battles.
At first, it’s a fairly straightforward setup with occasional success, but it changes significantly once transformations come into play. Chou-Chou can alter her form to be one of eight different personas, affecting nothing of her actual combat, but totally changing how her engagement style goes with enemies for Moe Kill. This, honestly, is brilliant from Compile Heart. Not only does it add a certain spice and personality into how you approach the game, but it also gives them a HUGE variety in costumes, sprites and potentially expensive figurines at Animate without needing a pesky reason why these characters exist. “No, that’s just Chou-Chou’s Sadist transformation, we can market as is!”
The reason that I focus so much on the combat aspect is because Mugen Souls is incredibly paint-by-number otherwise, and that comes with both good and bad hangups. On the one hand, since we understand the core demographic and ideas from the very start – people who love moe characters with ecchi moments – you don’t need to set the bar particularly high in any one direction. The worlds you explore are semi-open, with plenty of roaming space without being completely omnidirectional.
There are plenty of enemies to grind should you see to it, treasure chests to discover and, after a time, a bunch of mini games for visual enjoyment and generalized fun. There’s this whole thing with being able to fight with your ship as well, but that is a fairly small component compared to normal ground combat and, honestly, it wasn’t for me. It was the Gummi Ship customization of Mugen Souls: appealing to some, occasionally necessary, but wildly forgettable.
Keeping to such a simple approach gameplay wise also means that players can really sink their teeth into the anime aspect of the entire title, which also has merit. Chou-Chou is a deliberately hyperbolic character in a wildly hyperbolic world, and things are unapologetically over-the-top from the very beginning. Chapter headings literally scream what’s going to happen to you in each scenario.
Conversations are airheaded without being stupid, and sudden bursts of realization or accidentally stumbling into a good point happen infrequently, but often enough. This “uncut version” restores more scenes of almost-nudity and scandalous costumes to dress up in, so players looking to get their jollies can eat their cake and have it too. In short, if you like how Compile Heart handles cute girl protagonists and shouting, then you’re in the right place.
On the other hand, it also means aspects of the game are really held under the lens. Mugen Souls is more than ten years old, and lived on the PS3 and Steam for many of them. In that time, developers could have found a way to really smooth and streamline things before porting this game to the Nintendo Switch, but I feel like there’s an air of “eh, good enough” in so much of it.
Walking around feels stilted and laggy, like there’s a moment’s hesitation before your character starts moving at any given time. There’s visible slowdown when too much is happening on the screen, which can be annoying even with turn based, patient combat. Even that little stutter right before a battle happens is something that grates on you. This isn’t the Nintendo Switch trying to chug through a AAA title from last year, this is a significantly older game with cute but ultimately undemanding sprites. Why can’t it just be smooth?
Also, the layout of the game itself can be a turnoff when players spend too much time in one area. You have some camera control, but the smaller map for a larger area means easily getting turned around after restoring from a save or literally just going in circles trying to ferret out enemies. I don’t think it’s a testament to good design that I spent two hours before I saw my first boss, I bet I could have gotten there significantly faster if I was able to keep perspective from moment to moment.
Having said that, I will say there’s something undeniably unique about Mugen Souls. Even the Neptunia series, with constant fourth wall breaking and shameless fan service, seems to draw some lines in the sand about how far they’ll go, but Chou-Chou and her crew have no problem being polarizing, almost static versions of anime tropes. The castle filled with gothic lolita servants, the fire world with spicy men, the water world with…tremendous amounts of plot, it all works out. Even the characters that you design and hire back at your spaceship are filled with their own aspect of being generic on purpose, which makes them strangely endearing. The unabashed nature in how things are controlled and delivered in a title that, honestly, is much shorter than your average current JRPG is refreshing. It’s a palette cleanser of sorts.
One last note: Mugen Souls received an absurd amount of DLC over the years, and all of it is packaged into the Nintendo Switch release and is off by default. If you want any sort of perks, go right ahead and toggle them on. Some are redundant: Japanese voices are available naturally so their DLC toggle doesn’t appear to do anything. There’s also a ton of clothing to add if you just want to go fashion forward, but be careful from what you activate.
A majority of the DLC is wildly unbalanced coins, points (for unlocking skills and grunts), and equipment that can and will hurl the difficulty out the window. If you just want to brutalize the entire story, go right ahead, but don’t be hasty if you can help it. Mugen Souls is a fun trek, and you might as well do it right if you’re that determined to assist this pink haired demon in taking over the universe.
Excellent character design in portraits and cutscenes, plus the battle animations as well. Overworld sprites are a bit rough and tend to move sluggishly, but overall a solid balance of colors and concepts.
After an exhausting amount of tutorial exposition, you fall into a fairly rote approach for everything. Walk around, charm or kill, have funny conversations. There’s nothing spectacular that demands your attention, but it’s fun enough to fall into a grind loop.
Really good use of banging music throughout, sometimes a bit too dynamic but completely in tone with the rest of the game. Inclusion of Japanese voices are a plus, but the English voice cast adds to the anime camp of it all.
Fun Factor: 7.0
Honestly, a romp that was never boring, even if it was a bit repetitive. Amusing ideas, good design, a lot of visual candy to keep it moving and enough one liners to make me chuckle. It was a good time.
Final Verdict: 7.5
Mugen Souls is available now on PS3, PC and Switch.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Mugen Souls was provided by the publisher.