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by Becky Cunningham
It's difficult to be tricked by Mugen Souls Z. The game's cover art, description and introductory video are very clear that it's an obnoxiously cute title that is steeped in Japan's moé fan culture. This subculture of obsessive fans who form emotional attachments to cute young female characters has evolved from an incidental phenomenon into a full cultural industry. We've seen an increasing number of Japanese games featuring purposefully moé characters released in English lately, but none of them have fully embraced the concept quite like Mugen Souls.
A sequel (not a remake, as might be suggested by the title) to the original Mugen Souls game, Mugen Souls Z features the continued adventures of the cloyingly adorable undisputed god Chou-Chou as she moves on from her original conquest of seven planets to take over twelve new worlds. Her curiosity and stubbornness soon create an accident that strips her of her powers and reduces her to a tiny (even cuter, of course) form, however. The player ends up controlling Syrma, an ultimate god of one of the new worlds, but Chou-Chou still calls the shots and the player's objective is similar to the first game. You'll have to go from world to world, using your moé charms and good old-fashioned force of arms to bring the worlds under Syrma and Chou-Chou's control.
Rather than a title that revels wholly in its pandering, Mugen Souls Z feels like a parody of Japan's obsessive fan culture. Just as soulless corporations seek to drain the coffers of socially-awkward young Japanese men by designing “perfect girlfriends” who indulge their every fetish, the goddesses in Mugen Souls pitilessly exploits the fetishes of their conquests in an elaborate game of make-believe, turning everything from monsters to entire planets into their peons by posing in the shape of their targets' desires. Perhaps this is giving the game too much credit, but as an outsider to that particular subculture it's hard for me to picture this game as anything but satire.
Because it so heavily references various oddities of moé culture, Mugen Souls Z is most likely to appeal to gamers with at least a passing familiarity with, and tolerance for, that culture. The localization team has attempted to make the game accessible, for example by replacing the names of various Japanese character archetypes with rough English analogues (tsundere has become “bipolar,” etc.), but the result is a bit like pouring A1 sauce on sushi and calling it steak. The more you're invested in modern Japanese subcultures, the more the humor and satirical elements will appeal.
What's it like to actually play? There are two games packed into Mugen Souls Z—the one most people will probably play and the one that you could play, but is hardly worth the bother. At its heart, it's a fairly simple, somewhat repetitive RPG. Players travel from world to world, engaging in mildly tactical turn-based combat that allows the player to move and position characters around the battlefield. Syrma can captivate monsters by turning into one of her various moé personalities (sadist, masochist, terse, ditzy, etc.) and posing for the monsters in a simple mini-game. This will either turn the monster into a peon or a potentially valuable item. She'll also have to capture various planetary spots by giving them items, having a certain number of kills from combat, or once again playing the moé mini-game.
That's the main game in a nutshell, but layered on top of that simple premise is a plethora of RPG systems. Weapons and armor must be created by selling loot to the armor shop, and then can be upgraded in various ways. Characters can increase their statistical growth by playing dress-up. Peons that can be used in combat can be created, but the game's main cast is more than sufficient and requires less grinding to be useful in battle. There are various extra battle systems that have minor effects on combat, but it's usually simplest and most effective to use basic attacks and character skills rather than attempting to master the “advanced” combat options.
It feels like the Mugen Souls developers are attempting to cook up a successful systems-heavy dish by doing nothing but reading the ingredient list. Successful complex games have systems that fit well together, and the results of participating in any of these systems are easily quantifiable. Although Mugen Souls Z does a better job of bringing its disparate systems together than its predecessor, most of its various features remain heavy on flash and light on substance. The effects of many combat and customization systems are both opaque and seemingly too minor to make a difference in most battles. Many systems require far too much grinding to be useful.