Who would have thought the mobile RPG formula would be cracked by a game about delinquent girls that are into S&M?
If your hand's up, you're weird. Also, you're a bit of a visionary.
Criminal Girls: Invite Only is the Vita version of the 2010 PSP title simply named Criminal Girls. It's about seven girls whose redemption you're in charge of. Help them redeem their sins and get them out of hell, but in order to motivate them, you'll have to get a little kinky.
The PS Vita has become something of a haven for JRPGs and quirky imports. I've played a lot of them, in fact. Of all the games I've played, however, Criminal Girls seems to be the most aware of the fact that it's being played on a portable system. It's set up in such a way that it's easy to pick up, play for short periods and put away. I spent a few weeks with this one and never felt lost, even if I hadn't picked it up for a few days.
Beyond that though, other smart design points were taken: keeping conversations and cutscenes short are great, and keeping battles simple all show a respect for the player's time. It's nice to have mobile games that are mindful of the fact that people have real lives and things to do. These little touches make Criminal Girls easy to pick up and enjoy without feeling like you have to make a major commitment.
Criminal Girls really surprises in the combat department. Like may JRPGs, you're looking at turn-based combat, but the twist is you can only select one character's action per turn, and that action is pre-decided from your party's skills. It's a really strange system, but one that encourages a thoughtful approach to each battle, no matter how big or small.
Battles are reasonably difficult thanks to being able to control just one character, especially when faced down with multiple foes, but in a semi-shallow RPG, that's just fine.
Criminal Girls' most unique feature is how you get your party members to learn new moves. As I mentioned before, you're going to need to get a little kinky. To motivate your delinquent girls to help you in battle, you'll need to bring them a little pain. Apparently, girls that go to hell seem to universally enjoy spankings and cosplay, I guess that's kinda their thing.
It's definitely not something for everyone, and I'd like it if the mini-games linked to these punishments were a little more difficult, but the idea of developing a relationship with your comrades to get them to work harder for you in combat is a really cool one, and one I'd love to see in a more serious RPG.
Know your audience. There's a reason that's a saying. Unfortunately, it would seem NIS America forgot that they're selling a niche game with some S&M elements to it to a crowd that's largely accepting of this type of thing.
As fun as it is, Criminal Girls is a game that found its audience long before it launched. No amount of cropping or pink fog will make the game more palatable for fans. Criminal Girls' censorship isn't just inane, it's wholly ineffective. We still know the girls are getting spanked, and we're still participating in it, it's just being made sillier.
Criminal Girls: Invite Only isn't for everyone. On one hand, it's a fun RPG that smartly capitalizes on the fact that it's on a portable system; on the other, it's a game with sexual overtones that can taint the experience for some players. If you like the like that kind of stuff, and are looking for a lightweight RPG that doesn't require a big commitment, this is the game for you, otherwise your time might be spent better elsewhere.