Don’t judge me. That’s hurtful.
Criminal Girls: Invite Only is a curious little dungeon crawler by Nippon Ichi Software. As such, the game comes with a lot of caveats typical of the genre and the developer. And, just to get this out of the way upfront so you can get back to judging me with your stern eyes: yes, this is that game with the BDSM character development system. But the thing about that is — well, we’ll get to that.
First off, we should talk about what the game actually is. In Criminal Girls, the player assumes the role of a young temp worker whose new job turns out to be Hell. I mean actual, literal Hell. The assignment is to guide the souls of a group of sinners along the path to redemption; since these were only borderline sinners, they have the chance to atone for their sins and be reborn, and it’s up to the player to navigate them through the four trials they have to face on their way back to the mortal world. And in an astonishing coincidence, they’re all nubile young women!
That’s about it for plot, though, to be fair, it’s about enough. This is a dungeon crawler, after all; really what plot it needs is an explanation for why there’s a dungeon, why we’re crawling it, and what we hope to find at the end. The plot is conveyed through some rather engaging dialogue, replete with just enough "but thou must" choices to keep the player engaged with it, without at the same time actually allowing the player any material input; there isn’t one solitary dialogue choice that actually impacts anything all the way through the game, but there are plenty of fun "wrong" choices that earn comical angry responses.
For what little plot there is, it’s paced well, and the girls are likable and distinct; they actually do manage to stand apart from one another, and one of the most fun things about the game is watching the girls grow closer to each other (and to the player) through the course of the game. They all begin play as surly, aloof jerks, almost as though there’s something about eternal damnation that can foul one’s mood, but eventually they become fond of one another, come out of their shells, and really seem to mature as characters. That’s a lot to expect from a dungeon crawler, but Criminal Girls handles it with grace and even the occasional effective, serious moment.
Setting that aside, we turn to the gameplay. As a dungeon crawler, the gameplay in Criminal Girls consists largely of two things: fighting monsters and leveling up. In both regards, Criminal Girls turns out to be rather interesting and unconventional, which is unexpected. In combat, you form a party of four of your girls, and, each turn, each girl will suggest a strategy for the turn. You pick one of those four strategies, and that’s what your girls will do that turn — that’s all the girls will do, meaning that no other actions whatsoever will be taken. The girls may suggest attacking (the higher their "attack" skill, the more girls may be able to attack), using a single skill, or using a "combo" skill with another girl or girls; in rare cases, your girls may even panic and not be able to come up with anything. This is a fascinating mechanic, and an interesting balance to the more powerful skills; no matter how strong the attack is, if the girl doesn’t suggest it, you can’t use it. Of course, the system isn’t purely random, either; there’s a fairly complex weighting system in play, and girls are more or less likely to suggest different skills in different situations. In some situations, skills are always suggested — for instance, if any mob "charged up power" on the previous turn, Ran will always offer her "guard" skill. As such, the game doesn’t become the nightmare of randomness it might otherwise be, but remains interesting and strategic. This also creates fun trade-offs where you want to do more than one thing that are both being offered this turn, and you can’t count on having either of them available next turn, and you need to weigh your options. This is a nice departure from picking "fight" every turn unless you need to heal!
Speaking of healing, the combat system makes it an odd thing; there are characters with healing skills, but, of course, using one of them precludes any other action that turn. This means that healing becomes a much more situational thing, rather than the game boringly expecting you to maintain a dedicated healer who does nothing but cast "heal" every turn. To pad this out, the game permits you to use one item per turn in addition to the one action your girls get, meaning that you can keep them topped up if need be. You can also swap one party member each turn, bringing in a new girl if one of your current girls is out of magic points or dead, or if you just want to change up your strategy. Changing the mix of girls in play will also often change the suggestions the remaining girls make for the turn, meaning that you can also "redraw" your battle options by changing your lineup. The final option is to attempt to escape, which has no penalty for failure (not even the usual loss of a turn), but can also only be attempted once per turn. The net result of all this is a combat system that rewards strategic, long-term thinking and the development of character abilities while at the same time remaining accessible and straightforward. It’s really quite good.
Speaking of developing character abilities: oh hello! This is Criminal Girls’ notorious "motivation" system, in which you improve a girl’s combat abilities by performing some bizarre touchscreen minigame with a very loose connection to a light BDSM theme over the top of a half-naked picture of her. It’s very strange, but it’s worth noting that there’s absolutely no way to describe it that makes it seem as not-kinky as it actually is. In reality, you’re tapping and dragging symbols with no real erotic substance, and there just happens to be a naughty name for the minigame, and a suggestive picture in the background. That’s about it. These minigames are goofy and strange, and you’ll do an awful lot of them, but they’re also quick and quite easy, so it’s not really too egregious. The game is PS TV-friendly, and supports an alternate input method for those without touchsreens; the hand cursors can be controlled with the left and right sticks, and pressing can be simulated with L2 and R2. There is no DualShock 4 touchpad support, but that’s just as well, since the DS4 doesn’t have a rear touchpad, and the minigames require it.
While we’re talking about sex, we should be clear about one thing: there is none whatsoever in this game, which may not be what you expect. Still and all, it’s the case; there are some cheesecake pictures, minigames about tapping symbols that suggest in the text that you’re swatting the girls with one of those silk dominatrix whips, and a very light romance angle in the endgame, and that is it. This is not an eroge by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it a weirdo dating sim; it is a dungeon crawler with fanservice.
Which brings us to the censorship. Notoriously, the western release is censored; while some folks are working on uncensoring the Steam version, there is no such project underway (to my knowledge) on the Vita, and let me tell you: it really, really doesn’t matter. NISA censored this game in three different ways: by applying some pink mist to cover nether regions during the "motivation" minigames, by removing the voice clips from the "motivation" minigames, and by calling the "motivation" minigames "motivation" rather than "punishment." I don’t like censorship any more than the next guy — especially SJW censorship, which is what this is — but this is quite a small deal, and, if anything, the censorship serves to make the game more naughty than it was originally. I’ve seen the uncensored images, and I’ll tell you what: they don’t show anything. Not one solitary thing. All there is hiding underneath NISA’s weird pink fog is underpants. And I don’t even mean in the Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness sense, where the characters all have different, highly-detailed underpants for the true camera upskirt otaku, or in the Ar Nosurge sense where: oh I see. These are just like generic ragdoll underpants because there has to be some texture there. Why they put a big blotchy pink censor on this I cannot imagine, but there you are.
The game’s art style is excellent, with 16-bit-alike field screens and large character and monster portraits that honestly look like they were drawn on construction paper with magic markers. It’s a highly unusual and striking style, and the monster designs often ride right on that narrow line between "cliché" and "abstract" such that they’re still recognizable monsters but also weirdly geometric:
Which image provides a nice segue into a discussion of the game’s text. While the overall quality of the script is decent, it suffers from a fairly large number of typos, and has a lot of low-level stupidity. Now, here’s the thing. You know me. You know I’m about to raise a barn about that repulsive "singular their" in that screenshot. Well, you’re not wrong. But it gets worse than that. Ran is the only character able to learn the "revenge" skills, so really the string could know very well who’s gotten revenge, but okay, I’ll assume it’s coded a weird way and maybe it’s a handler that… somehow can handle other skills also. We’ll be charitable. Here’s the deal: every single character in this game is female. All of them. Every one. There is altogether no reason for the string not to have a big fat "her" right there in the middle, because it could literally never be wrong. As opposed to "their," which is, if I haven’t mentioned this, always wrong.
And on top of that, the coding for revenge skills is broken, and that message can pop up at really strange times. Like, several turns after the revenge skill resolves.
The text also has spacing issues. And to that point:
Sometimes the font choices are very wrong. Improper kerning, lack of serifs, and lack of punctuation can add up to text that’s really hard to read, and is on the screen for the blink of an eye. There is full voice acting, but it’s all in Japanese; normally in a game like this that would be a plus (it’s what the audience wants, plus, let’s face it, the dub would be awful), but there’s actually a fairly large amount of voice work that isn’t subtitled. The girls chatter constantly during combat, and there’s no screen text to help you understand what anybody’s saying. By and large it’s nothing thrilling, and it goes by so fast you’d never keep up anyhow, but it’s important to note that you can’t rely on the voices to get you through when the text is hard to read.
The art style is quite fresh and interesting, but, in contrast, the animation is virtually nonexistent. There are barebones walking and idling animations for the field screen, and the "motivation" minigames are fully animated, but that’s it; dialogue and combat are completely static. Mob portraits flash when they attack like in old-school Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy, and the character portraits, rather than animating, just move around on the screen. It’s not bad — I found it charming and nostalgic, personally — but it smacks of low budget. The sound is similar; the effects are barebones and the music is mostly forgettable riffing on out-of-copyright classics. Which is to say, except for the music that plays during the closing credits, which is honestly so bad I’m not sure it’s working correctly. As in, I think the music track may actually be corrupt; it’s disjointed and bizarre and I don’t understand it at all. On the bright side, the credits go by at warp 8.1, so you aren’t listening to it for long!
In the end, Criminal Girls: Invite Only is a strange beast: a game that sells itself as eroge cheese, but which has virtually no ero and surprisingly good gameplay. It has a clever (and very Japanese) vision of Hell, personable characters you’ll grow to like over the course of play, a combat system that’s much deeper than you might expect, and quite a lot of playtime. A bit too much, in fact; the game goes on a hair or two longer than it can really hold out for. Overall, it’s quite a likable game as long as your expectations are in line: this is a dungeon crawler and nothing more, and it has cute anime stylings and a just-as-much-as-it-needs-to-be plot that takes a very mature turn toward the end. I award the princely sum of three-and-one-half hentai tentacle hairs!