"Hyperdimension Neptunia is a faulty game, but it's not without merit."
I've been an avid gamer for so long that I can't help but take pleasure in humor that pokes fun at my long-time hobby. I like how creative game developers can be when incorporating famous game characters, quotes, scenarios, etc. in all sorts of funny, clever and zany ways. This type of humor is what piqued my interest in Hyperdimension Neptunia - a game that parodies the game industry itself and its fans, along with integrating all sorts of references and gaming lingo. And then I noticed the developer: Compile Heart, a division of Idea Factory. You know, the developers who are responsible for classics such as Cross Edge, Record of Agarest War and Trinity Universe. It's not the best track record. Nevertheless, I still wanted to try the game, and I just hoped the humor alone would carry me through. In the end, its problems are apparent, but Neptunia isn't all that bad.
Let's start with the story, which takes place in a magical realm called Gameindustri. In Gameindustri two worlds prevail: the human world and Celestia, which lies above. In Celestia four goddesses known as CPUs (Console Patron Units) reside. However, the four CPUs despise each other so greatly that their conflict is now responsible for a console war. The console war is a battle for supremacy over the Gameindustri; the winner not only becomes ruler of it, but also receives the title of "true goddess." The CPUs have fought for eons, but always wind up in a stalemate. But then a shocking turn of events: three CPUs decide to team up against the fourth CPU, Purple Heart (alias: Neptune). Neptune gets mercilessly beaten and faces her punishment: being cast down to the human world. During this trip, she loses her memories as a goddess, and thus, the misadventures of Neptune begin as she settles into the human world.
Neptunia's premise is a bit underwhelming in terms of execution, particularly the main plot. The bulk of the narrative is your typical JRPG plot: Neptune is on a series of fetch quests to rescue a mysterious entity, and later, in true JRPG fashion, it all escalates to a fight against ultimate evil. The main selling points of Neptunia's story emerge from strong characterization and amusing parodies. The main heroines lack deep personalities, but they're still fun. The frequent character events help flesh them out, along with establishing their quirks. Their zany antics and interactions drive the game forward. Don't get me wrong, some plot-centric RPGs are great, but I wish more were very character-driven.
As for the parodies, they're somewhat underwhelming because they're a bit lacking in comical punches. Though flawed, however, they're still enjoyable for their jabs at the gaming industry. The main parody is an exaggerated reflection on zealous console fans who favor only one platform. For instance, console worshipping is treated like religion, to the point where each area mandates what CPU to worship, establishing churches known as basilicoms. Those who favor another land's CPU are branded heretics, outcasts in society who are subject to various cruelties including death.
The game has its charm, particularly when the heroines occasionally speak in gaming lingo and poke fun at some RPG clichés, such as when they try to guess their own plot points. There are also heaps of gaming references and cameos across all platforms. The names are changed around and the characters are not shown, but it's easy to pick up on if you are a gaming enthusiast. One of my favorite instances is when the heroines encountered Princess Pear, and she rambled about how she keeps going to another castle because she is secretly having an affair with someone else and doesn't want her rescuer to know. Yeah, it's low brow and not all that creative, but I still found it to be funny, plain and simple.
Another standout part of the game is the colorful and varied 2D visuals. I really like all the background scenery in the cutscenes. I also like how expressive character portraits are and the way they are animated to make them seem more lifelike. Unfortunately, the 3D graphics are much lower in quality and lack variation. Dungeon environments are bland and frequently rehashed, and most enemy designs are generic. Regardless, the 2D's strengths far outweigh the 3D's weaknesses.
Graphical quality aside, the only other part worth mentioning is character design. They look very creative and the fanservice is relatively tame, but there are several aspects that can be a turn-off. The entire main cast is female, several of them scantily clad. Some girls' breasts jiggle around due to portrait animations; this also applies to some gallery images where everything else is static. There is the occasional panty shot, innuendo conversation and transformation scene, plus a few other suggestive images thrown into the mix. The game also throws in underage girls for extreme cuteness, which can be unsettling for players. Unfortunately, this is a hot trend in Japan that's gotten out of hand and has become way too excessive in anime. If none of the above is a turn-off, or if it even sounds appealing, then more power to you. For everyone else, stay away because there is no getting around it. Personally, none of this bothered me, but many others may be appalled by such things.
As good as the visuals are, the same can't be said for the soundtrack. For a game like this, you'd think the soundtrack would be full of energetic tunes. Instead, the majority of the music takes a slower, less exciting and more ambient approach, which does not fit the game at all. To be fair, there are a few decent songs in the game such as the opening theme, but there is a lack of variety here. For some reason, only the boring ones are repeated to death, and there are about two songs total played in almost every cutscene. One of these, a goofy and completely obnoxious song, becomes overplayed to the point where it may get on one's nerves.
The majority of the game is voice acted, and like all other NISA-published titles, both English and Japanese voice tracks are included for the player to choose from. Usually, I go with English voices for personal preference, and thankfully, the dubbing became a saving grace for the audio department. The voice acting is energetic and a bit over-the-top, but it fits both the characters and the lighthearted nature of the game very well. It makes some of the dialogue even funnier when spoken, and none of the voices are really grating, though there are occasional weird pronunciations and at times awkward delivery. It may not be stellar acting, but for what it is, the voice actors did a commendable job with the dub.
Neptunia is a dungeon crawler that has you progressing through several mini-dungeons to advance the game. The dungeon objectives usually consist of defeating a boss or reaching a specific area. Rinse and repeat, many, many times until the end. Aside from main dungeons, there are tons of side dungeons to complete. These dungeons are timed, and the game ranks you based on how fast you complete them, which gets posted worldwide on the game's leaderboards. The side dungeons usually require that you kill a boss, but some others require you to defeat a certain number of enemies or acquire a specific number of items. Those are the most annoying ones, as with the clock ticking, your rank can be hindered if you're unlucky. At least the ranking system is lenient.
Sometimes, the area you're in no longer has plot events available, but the scenario isn't complete. In order to progress, you travel back and forth through four regions, and complete any events available. It's a little annoying, but there is a convenient bulletin system that indicates whenever a major event from any region is available.
Combat is standard turn-based style with random encounters, but as far as Compile Heart games go, the mechanics are quite straightforward. Luckily, the customization aspects give players a flexible amount of strategy as well. Each turn, your character can attack by pressing triangle, circle or X to create up to a four combo attack. Each attack costs you Action Points (AP), and your turn ends once you run out of AP. This combat system expands as you progress: new moves appear after leveling up or for completing certain events. Attacks are either physical or magical, and vary in strength, AP cost, number of hits and so on. Eventually, you get special attacks that give you a chain combo - which restores some AP, extending your turn - if you finish a combo with that attack. The only gimmick enemies have is a guard meter, as a form of defense. The meter drains as you consecutively attack an enemy, and when it runs out, the enemy receives more damage until the meter fills back up. It's not all that great, but it's a step up. However, Compile Heart still feels the need to get innovative, and overcomplicates simple things.
The biggest annoyance comes from simply trying to heal. First, there is no way to heal outside combat, and no, your HP does not recover after battle. Second, you can't manually heal in fights either; instead, you have to assign healing conditions for each party member. As your party members level up, they also gain item skills, which allow you to recover HP, revive party members, cure status ailments, and so on. These items can be made if you have the proper ingredients, which you can either purchase, or win from battles.
Each item skill can only be triggered by certain conditions, such as when you take damage or when your turn is near. There is also another condition to fulfill on "why" it needs to occur. For example, a party member receives damage, and her HP is below 50%. That's when the party member can heal - if you set the usage rate high enough. You have to assign item skill points based on how often the item skill will activate, and you have limited points to spend (that slowly increase as you level up). You could say this adds extra strategy to battles and removes the need for item management, but there's no need for such a roundabout mechanic for something as simple as healing. The game isn't hard enough to constantly need item skills, but there were times when I lost battles or had party members killed due to circumstances I had no control over. Maybe I didn't master the mechanics well enough, and healing does get easier once you have more points and better skills. Still, something is terribly wrong when you have a party member at one HP, and her sole available item skill can only occur when she takes damage.
Thankfully, that's as bad as it gets, although there are still a few other little annoyances. As the game progresses, the enemies get tougher, occasionally forcing you to grind - but EXP requirements are high and regular enemies provide too little. You can skip battle animations with the press of a button, but you have to press it with each attack, with no global option to disable them. Because new gear is so expensive, money is always needed. Additionally, you'll need to refill supplies to make items, but there is no 'sell' option. There is no other use for old or unneeded equipment, so it only clogs up inventory space. Forcing players to grind for cash for artificial reasons is just bad design. Selecting a region is also a bit of a chore to do: you have to navigate several menus to pick which region to visit, and then go to another menu to travel to that region. It's quick, but it doesn't need to be so convoluted. And the worst part is the mandatory dungeon you have to slog through every single time, and the monsters never get stronger.
There are also some pointless game mechanics, useless information and other little things that seem to be there for no reason. For example, why is there equipment with the same stats, but different prices? Occasionally more expensive equipment is even weaker than your current gear. Maybe there are hidden variables, but I never noticed any difference. In combat, you can switch party members between the front and back rows. You only have three party members total throughout the whole game, however, and all can be in the front row, which seems to be the best option. Not counting DLC characters, the only other party members to get are optional ones who aren't obtainable until the final dungeon, so why is there a need for two rows?
There are two endings you can get in Neptunia. One of them is your standard ending, and the other is a true ending, which requires some extra work. There are no real hints on how to get the true ending, but it involves a game mechanic that never gets explained, yet you have to utilize it to trigger certain key events. The only ways to find out are through trial and error, or through the use of outside sources. I chose the latter.
Hyperdimension Neptunia is a faulty game, but it's not without merit. I enjoyed the fun premise and characters, great 2D visuals, and the surprisingly good dub. As for recommending this, it's hard to say. The little faults aren't so bad in and of themselves, but they do add up, and the tasteless fanservice and innuendo could be a major turn-off for some players. For those on the fence, you can always wait until it gets cheaper. All in all, it's decent to play, and Compile Heart is trying to improve, but they need more common sense in refining basic gameplay elements.