There's a classic feminist anthem by Devo which goes into great detail on what one ought to do when faced with a problem. Criminal Girls: Invite Only isn't the long-awaited JRPG based on that classic musical achievement, but there are similarities. In fact, put the song on in the background as you play and, like Dark Side of the Moon and Wizard of Oz, things start to spookily line up – if only because you'll be doing a lot of whipping.
That's not a bad thing – especially not when you're faced with a team of potential criminals who could kill you as soon as they look at you. Maybe. Having died too early, these girls go to hell because of the 'criminal DNA' in their blood, not necessarily because they ever did anything wrong. If you can lead them out of their afterlife prison, through the various layers of Hell and out, they'll be allowed to have a second chance. Not that they're especially charming, mind. Delinquents is the word used in the game, although you could just as easily use brat or punk. These young women may not be criminals, but they don't make a good first impression either, so naturally, it's time to get out the whip.
There are thousands of JRPGs steeped in fanservice. Some of them are very good, and others border on the creepy, but it all comes down to the person playing and how they feel about unusual or overt sexual themes and ideas. This game is literally built around its fanservice, but outside of the initially surprising development system, it doesn't feel especially bad.
When you're developing a character, you must help them to overcome their urges. You do this by forcing them into cosplay and whipping away the thoughts. Using the front and back touch panels, it's as simple as holding your finger to the right part of the screen. These mini-games are presented relatively often, and are performed against the backdrop of a semi-naked picture of whichever girl you're “educating". As you progress, you'll unlock new ways of developing your characters, including electric shocks.
That sound that you just heard was half of our readership closing their Internet browsers and going to do something less risky than reading game reviews, but oddly enough, that particular system doesn't have such a bearing over the game that it ruins things. You'll do it to the point where it's boring, yes – but it's rarely made into a big deal. The girls seems begrudgingly accepting of your actions, like a guilty child, and it makes any attempted titillation confused at best.
Doing things until they're boring, though, is unfortunately the name of the game here. The characters aren't especially interesting, but their motivations are, and your focus will last for as long as it takes for you to get to know them. The story itself can be hard to enjoy because of the somewhat weak premise, and in the end, it feels like a poor X-Files fan fiction.
JRPGs often completely rely on their storylines or characters to see them through, because mechanics can sometimes only take you so far across a 20 hour story, but even here, the game stumbles. Different areas have a tendency to blend into one, so exploration isn't as enjoyable as it should be, and while the battle system is interesting on paper, it quickly loses its originality as fights take too long to complete.
The girls you take into a battle will suggest things that they can do to the enemy. Perhaps one will say that they should guard, while another will offer to team up with an ally to do extra damage. These things are seemingly random, outside of you teaching the moves to each girl, and your only control will be picking which of the four to utilise.
It's a clever mechanic when you think about it, but the gimmick wears off when you realise that in the early parts of the game, you'll only be given the choice to attack. To put that into context, you could be playing alongside this system for hours before it starts to become interesting, and even then you'll probably long for the dozen-option menus of Final Fantasy. It's a nice idea, and one that could have potentially made for some interesting character development, then, but a wasted opportunity.
Meanwhile, graphically the game looks nice enough. The artwork is fairly well designed, and the various levels look good – despite how often they're reused. The battle animations are overly long, however, and these drag out fights that are already far too lengthy – an especially annoying issue considering that there's rarely much to the animation outside of a smack with a weapon.
The voice work sounds pretty good, though, and has been edited in the right places. Moaning sounds during the minigames were removed for the English release, and this was probably a smart move – especially considering how excited the voice actresses sound over even the smallest of things. That said, those familiar with many more recent anime franchises will be right at home.
Criminal Girls: Invite Only is a niche title at best, and it'll appear strange to any outsiders looking in. Despite that, the content isn't overly offensive in context, and it's handled about as well as you could expect. Indeed, far more upsetting is the repetitive nature of every other portion of the game; it's not broken, but it's not especially interesting either. Ignoring the advice of the aforementioned song, the developer clearly failed to properly crack that whip.