Compile Heart made a name for itself with the Neptunia franchise, having made over thirteen of them (as of this review) since 2010. While this moe interpretation of the console wars raged on, the boys at Compile Heart would develop and release games at an incredible pace when most Japanese developers struggled to stay afloat; the seventh console gen.
Between Record of Agarest War sequels and Fair Fencer F, Compile Heart squeezed out Mugen Souls with Keiji Inafune of all people as producer. As one would expect from a low-budget JPRG developer working on PlayStation 3 with the mind behind Mighty No. 9 calling the shots, Mugen Souls came out as a horrific mess.
In 2012, Compile Heart’s output was aggressive and sloppy. A lot of time has passed since and maybe with a re-release, Mugen Souls could be all it was meant to be. With improved hardware, more time, and a lot of hindsight since its original release, is this the definitive version of this obscure JRPG? Find out in this Mugen Souls review!
Developer: Compile Heart, GCREST
Platforms: Windows PC, PlayStation 3, Nintendo Switch (reviewed)
Release Date: April 27, 2023 / October 16, 2012
Price: $39.99 USD
When Mugen Souls originally came out on PlayStation 3, it was rife with a horrendous framerate and agonizing load times. This game was already a hellish grind, but compounded with the poor optimization and the time wasted while it loaded new areas, you could feel your body atrophy.
This new version of Mugen Souls on Nintendo Switch fares much better than it ever did on PlayStation 3, but that isn’t saying much. In its current state, the framerate is still far from perfect and it is confusing because Mugen Souls is not a technically demanding game. If you squint your eyes, it looks like a low-budget PlayStation 2 game.
Character models and environments are simplistic in their design. Polycount throughout the entire game is kept surprisingly low for a mid-generation PlayStation 3 game. Textures are fuzzy and sparse and there isn’t much in terms of post-processing effects. Mugen Souls may run better on Switch, but it has no excuse to be as spotty as it is.
Gamers who can get past the mediocre graphics will find that the art style used is just barely able to carry the visuals. It is too bad because the art is appealing and is done by Kei Nanameda, whose designs are distinct with chunky black outlines, defined silhouettes, and contrasting colors.
The character models don’t honor Kei Nanameda’s concepts. The figures look crude and each one is seemingly sharing the same body type which was likely a cost-cutting measure. Costume elements will clip into each other when mixing different outfit parts which shows a lack of care when the models were designed.
Overlooking the spartan graphics and unimpressive frame rate will leave players with the core of Mugen Souls, which is its gameplay, not the story or characters. The premise is very thin and revolves around a hyperactive and ruthless girl named Chou-Chou who wants to rule the universe. How does she intend on doing this? By enslaving those who are weaker than her and by manipulating anyone who could be a threat.
Chou-Chou is not an interesting or compelling character. She is written as a joke or parody and she exists to get a laugh out of the player. The humor comes from the absurdity of the premise of a cute anime girl acting like Alexander the Great and generally being terrible to her subjects. This can be amusing, but the joke runs out of steam quickly and the only challenging aspect of the story is fighting the urge to skip cutscenes.
For anyone who does care about these scenes of lame comedy, expect to be disappointed by the lack of panache and low-budget execution. Most scenes are done in a visual-novel style with static character portraits. There are hardly any actual cutscenes that rely on animation and any crucial scenes are depicted with admittedly beautiful illustrations.
All the animation budget went into the special attacks in battles. There are a lot of them and they are very imaginative and they are genuinely funny. The only problem is that it means having to get into a battle and endure the combat system. Thankfully, this new version of Mugen Souls on Switch comes with all DLC which can make these battles utterly trivial.
There was a lot of DLC made for this game and most of it is super-powered equipment that makes Chou-Chou and her party into gods before the first boss. This was a practice seen in Death end re;Quest 2 and just like in that game, the absurdly convoluted battle system can be completely sidestepped and become something players can opt-in.
For players who decide not to use the powerful items, get ready to get lost in one of the most confusing battle systems ever designed. The combat is like most Neptunia games, but with a tumor attached called “Moe Kill”. The idea behind it is that she adopts different personalities and tries to subjugate her enemies.
On top of the main cast and the rock-paper-scissors ship battles, there is another module to Mugen Souls where players create custom party members. There are many classes and layers of customization for these units- seemingly to an endless degree.
Ultimately, this insane level of freedom does not matter because Mugen Souls’ balance gets thrown out the window. Stat figures get out of hand and can potentially reach the billion range and it gets to a point where any mental calculation or strategizing stops mattering.
The ridiculousness of the core game was not lost on the developers and they likely knew how much of a grind Mugen Souls would become. This is likely why they made the DLC overpowered and why the Switch version comes with every piece of DLC ever created. It is as if the inclusion of the DLC is an admission of the flaws of the systems.
Players won’t need to bother with the peon system or the moe kills at all with the souped-up gear. Choosing phrases to manipulate foes is too random to be enjoyable and combo team attacks can be weaker than basic attacks or using special abilities.
Mugen Souls needed a rebalance and redesign for it to be enjoyable. Giving players the insane DLC items doesn’t fix anything, it only shows just how needlessly complicated the core systems are. At the very least, not having to deal with the grind does allow players to enjoy the story and characters at their own pace and makes getting all the endings less of a grind.
Instead of spending over a hundred hours in the same few recycled areas over and over like you are in hell, the DLC items let players progress when they want. The game may be trivialized, but at least Mugen Souls won’t feel like working a job.
Mugen Souls on Switch is an improvement from the PlayStation 3 version. Gamers can still expect laggy controls, flickering models, and an untamed framerate- but now it won’t induce a seizure or make you die of old age while waiting through a load screen.
This is not a game that comes recommended for the faint of heart or for anyone who desires a polished or thoughtfully designed JRPG. At the very least, Mugen Souls is interesting and has a lot of weird ideas that are worth experiencing. The ramshackle build of the game is almost impressive that it is a product from an established industry developer.
Mugen Souls was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a copy provided by Eastasiasoft. Additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy can be found here. Mugen Souls is now available for Windows PC (via Steam), PlayStation 3, and Nintendo Switch.