Review: Mugen Souls Z (PS3)

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Title: Mugen Souls Z
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PlayStation Network Download (8.5 GB)
Release Date: May 20, 2014
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Compile Heart
Original MSRP: $49.99
ESRB Rating: T
PEGI: 16
Mugen Souls Z is exclusive to the PlayStation 3.
The PlayStation Network download version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy.

Gameplay
Before I jump into the review of Mugen Souls Z, let’s discuss moe. Moe (pronounced with an emphasis on the e) is a term in the Japanese animation fandom used to describe a “burning-like passion” some fans felt for some characters or for certain character traits, such as physical appearance (like wearing glasses or having a specific hair style) or personality traits (like being airheaded or being clingy). I mention this because Mugen Souls Z doesn’t use the kind of elemental affinity systems that many RPGs use. There are no fire-type enemies or rock-type moves here. Instead enemies have a moe affinity; an attraction to a personality type such as Graceful or Hyper.

This affinity system ties directly into the story. The main character of the first game in this series, Mugen Souls, was Chou-chou, the “Undisputed God of the Universe,” who has the power to change her appearance and personality to appeal to the moe of her enemies. By doing so, she has the ability to turn them into her peons. For monsters, this means they become harmless bunny-like things while the heroes and demons that inhabit the worlds become her followers.

Due to a series of events at the beginning of Mugen Souls Z, this power is accidentally stolen by Syrma. Syrma had woken up in a coffin just prior and her only memories are her name and that she is the “True Ultimate God” who can absorb the power of other Gods. The two of them, along with a colorful band of allies, decide to travel to each of the 12 worlds in order to help Syrma absorb the powers of the other Ultimate Gods with the hopes that she will be able return Chou-chou’s power.

Mugen Souls Z’s story is very reminiscent of the Disgaea games. While characters are introduced with silly titles and tend to fall into the camps of hero, demon or god, none of the heroes are particularly heroic, the demons demonic, or the gods godly. The characters are played up to be wacky and backwards from what we would expect a hero or demon to be.

However, where Disgaea games use the wacky and backwards characters to serve an interesting and thoughtful story, Mugen Souls Z characters are just wacky and backwards to be wacky and backwards. It does manage to put up some good humor and I did chuckle at some of the jokes. But when the game tried to spin the story into more serious matters, it never managed to really hook me. The character Nao summed up the story pretty nicely in the game with the line, “If I try to take any of this seriously, my common sense is gonna explode.”

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Complicating matters is the sheer size of the cast. In addition to starting off with six or so characters, each world the party travels to eventually adds one or two more. While it is not a problem on its own, it starts to bog down story events. The majority of the time only a few characters have any meaningful input, but we’re still treated to a cycle through every other character that is on hand as they toss their two cents into the conversation.

To make things worse, the game defaults to using cut scenes that are simply a picture of the character talking with text under it. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with using that kind of storytelling, it quickly falls apart during events with any kind of action going on. These event scenes turn into characters narrating the things happening to them in an awkward and stilted manner.

Battles in Mugen Souls Z are turn based with an air of tactics thrown in. However, unlike many tactics games, such as Disgaea, Mugen Souls Z doesn’t use a grid to move characters around. Instead, characters are given a circular limit on the battlefield to show where they can move. Once they’ve moved, character’s attacks also have a circular range indicator showing possible enemies that can be attacked from that position.

Although this system gives the game the impression of being a ‘strategy RPG,’ it rarely feels like any strategy is actually required. Many other strategy/tactics RPGs toss in varying terrain or differing field sizes to affect the strategy that the player should take. Mugen Souls Z’s fields are all flat and the same size. The one small wrinkle is that maps contain crystals that have a small sphere of influence and provide a buff or debuff to characters within their range. However, these rarely have much of an impact on the battle; particularly in the average random battle.

Mugen Souls Z does try to provide a lot of tools to the player. The first ten hours of the game are rife with tutorials, each adding something new to the battles. Sadly, many of these tools are so rarely applicable that it’s hard to say that they really add anything to the game.

Once all is said and done, there are a dozen different meters and numbers on the battle screen indicating percentage of this thing or level of that thing and it’s hard to care about most of them when the ‘attack’ command and basic magic spells will get through the majority of the normal encounters in the game. The times I did need to use some random system in the game (mostly for the challenge mode), I found myself repeatedly referring to the in-game tutorials (fortunately available at any time by pressing select) to remind myself of the conditions to activate them.

The oddest thing about the plethora of tutorials in the game is that they still don’t seem to fully cover everything. As alluded to earlier, enemies have an affinity to a particular moe and magic attacks sometimes have a moe attribute but nowhere in the game could I find a chart of how they interacted. I had a few times where a magic attack would be nullified or absorbed so there is some interaction going on.

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The tutorials can also leave a lot to trial and error. For example, Syrma can, during battles, change her personality and perform Fetish Poses (game’s term, not mine) to turn enemies into peons, items or stronger monsters. The game only gives a very basic explanation of this system leaving a lot to experimentation. Fetish Poses can also be used at certain locations on the world maps to turn each planet into a peon and these places don’t have any meters to show the possible outcome. It took me some experimentation to realize that planets seem to have a level requirement to be captured, as being too low of a level will repeatedly fail to peon the planet even if Syrma is in the correct personality.

As if offering a smorgasbord of systems in the combat isn’t enough, customizing the characters in the game has a similar amount of options. You have everything from equipment being able to level up and having their own equipment slots (cue Inception sound?), to skills being able to level up, to giving characters more armor slots, to fusing and dismantling weapons and even leveling up the level cap (cue Inception sound!). A peon shop in the main hub also gives the ability to create, fuse and rebirth characters, offering a huge amount of customization.

That said, like the battle systems, most of this stuff is hardly necessary for the majority of the story mode. For example, leveling up equipment is helpful for reducing the amount of grinding during the occasional difficulty spike in the game, but hard to justify when you know you’ll probably be able to buy or find a better base weapon soon.  Those who want to continue on to optional content, like the randomized Mugen Field dungeon, might find more use for some of the various minutia of the systems as the difficulty of that mode ramps up.

Speaking of the Mugen Field, I did notice a pretty major bug in the Mugen Field mode. Occasionally (maybe one out of fifteen or twenty times) when ending a level, the game would freeze completely instead of moving to the next level, requiring a hard reset of the PS3. I spoke with another person who obtained a pre-release copy of the game and he had the same issue. While it doesn’t impact the main story, it can slow progress toward the true ending and Platinum of the game.

Hopefully this can/will be fixed (I’ll remove this section if it is) but I lost a good hour or so of grinding to this bug so I figured it was worth mentioning. The bug can be mitigated by frequent use of the item that returns you to town (so you can save), but doing so reduces the bonuses from the mode and requires continually buying said item.

(EDIT: NIS America has released a patch that seems to have fixed this issue.)

The last gameplay mode I’ll bring up is a mode called G-Castle mode. It’s an infrequent battle mode where you pilot Chou-chou’s giant transforming ship, the G-Castle, in battle against another ship. Unfortunately, it is not very fun. Fights amount to a glorified rock-paper-scissors and although the enemy (or one of your allies) gives you a vague hint for each enemy attack, there’s still a lot of guess-and-check.

Your character’s level and skills have no bearing on G-Castle’s stats and I always seemed to be very underleveled when the mode would pop up. Attacks in this mode also take forever; I’d advise mashing R2 to skip them all, as it’ll reduce the battle time of twenty minutes to three or four minutes. The mode only pops up on occasion, but I’d rather they left it out completely.

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Visuals
The nicest thing about most of Mugen Souls Z’s character customization is that they offer a visual change. The game’s myriad clothing and weapon options are represented on the character models that appear in battles. These changes only affect the character’s 3D models, which are the ones used for battles (and walking around on the maps, for Syrma).

Character models are all made to look ‘chibi,’ an anime art style characterized by disproportionately small characters with large heads. These models look good and fit in well with the moe style that the game is going for, better than the comparatively uninteresting zones that the battles take place in. Characters are decently animated as well. During many of the various over-the-top attack animations, they dish out damage by shooting enemies to the moon in heart shaped beams or freeze the enemies in a giant blocks of ice.

Story sections ignore the 3D models and instead offer 2D art of each of the characters as they talk. 2D models use muted outlines to give the drawings a softer and gentler look. They do a good job of helping convey the story, even if the 2D animation is limited to pretty much just breathing and mouths moving.

Outside of the characters, there is a lot of borrowing going on. Enemies get palette swapped frequently and half of the worlds also reuse assets with small color changes. The maps are all so similar that they began to blend together in my head, making it hard for me to remember which one had the thing I wanted to go back and collect later. Nothing in the game stuck out as looking particularly bad, though not amazing either, and fans of anime styles of art should enjoy the visuals.

Audio
Anyone who has played recent NIS America published games should find the English voices in Mugen Souls Z familiar. It’s passable but runs into the usual NIS America dub problem where some of the female actresses are trying a bit too hard to sound young. There are also Japanese voices available for those who would rather use the original language track.

In addition to being heard during the story scenes in the game, characters also get plenty of attack yells and taunting during combat. Some of these can become quite annoying though due to being repeated frequently in battles.

Mugen Souls Z’s soundtrack runs the usual range of background music styles, fitting each planet with a unique theme. The emphasis of the music is perhaps a bit strong on the high energy and J-pop styled tracks, particularly the music that plays in the main hub or the Fever Mode music, but does flex itself at times, such as for the more somber Grey World. Overall, the soundtrack fits and works well in the game but isn’t memorable beyond that.

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Online/Multiplayer:
This game is single player only.

Conclusion
There is definitely an audience for Mugen Souls Z: The kind of person who enjoys the more inane aspects of the characters and story. The kind of person who sees the trophy for dealing 100 billion damage in a single attack and gets excited to reach it. The kind of person who would be interested in spending a hundred hours leveling up their custom character to level 9999 after rebirthing them several times to learn extra skills.

Even for that audience however, Mugen Souls Z is merely okay, a mindless diversion with an uneven experience. Those that aren’t that audience will find a game that stretches itself too thin, trying to do too much and failing to standout in any meaningful way.

The biggest compliment to the game would probably be that it isn’t a bad game and can be a time-sink with a fair amount of content. Though for a game that focuses a lot on moe it seems unlikely to incite a “burning-like passion” in any of its players.

Score:
6.5

* All screenshots used in this review were provided by the publisher.

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Written by Andy Richardson

Andy Richardson

A longtime PlayStation fan who enjoys JRPGs and rhythm games when he’s not tweeting about his parrot.

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