"I still can't recommend [Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2] for anyone but the hardcore fans of the first game..."
When Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 showed up on my doorstep, I expected something like the absolutely unplayable mess of the first game: one that's molasses slow, very unbalanced, and awfully ugly. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this wasn't the case with mk2... but pleasantly surprised in the same way that finding out the closest gas station to your broken down car is only six miles away, not ten. Neptunia mk2 is certainly a much improved title; it's much speedier and features strategic combat and streamlined systems, but it's still far from a quality RPG. It's full of subpar graphics, nonsensical dialogue, bad jokes, grindy dungeons, and pallete-swapped enemies. In short, it's a low-budget RPG tailored to do just enough to snag hardcore fans of moe-style anime and not much else. If you liked the original Hyperdimension Neptunia, this one's right up your alley, but with the amazing number of quality RPG releases in the first quarter of this year, there's no reason for anyone else to touch this one.
Neptunia mk2 begins three years after the first game, with the Console Patron Units (CPUs) held captive and slumbering in the Gameindustri Graveyard. The CPUs were the protectors of their lands: Planeptune, Lowee, Leanbox, and Lastation. It's up to their sisters, the CPU Candidates, to save them and restore balance to the world, fighting against the forces of Arfoire and her CFW minions, who are stealing the market share away from the CPU's homelands. It's a very ham-handed allegory regarding piracy in the games industry – R4 carts allow the piracy of Nintendo DS games and Custom Firmware does the same for the PSP. The fight against piracy is one that's incredibly worthwhile, but the game really does nothing with the ideal. Rather than try to send a message, almost the entirety of the game is spent following the CPUs and female personifications of various Japanese developers on inane tasks filled with asinine dialogue that fits better in a bad dub of a generic anime. None of this is helped by the incredibly low production value – all of the dialogue takes place with one or two character models against a static backdrop. As something that we see in DS and PSP RPGs consistently, it's not so bad, but it's unacceptable in a PS3 title. At least show the characters who are talking and give them appropriate animations; when some characters are never shown and others mysteriously don't appear when speaking, it just feels sloppy.
There are optional segments that provide additional story – in each city, you can access "Chirper," another obvious reference (this time to Twitter) which opens up small skits. Most of these aren't worth watching, although they do often provide significant boons in regards to new abilities, items, or crafting recipes. Unlike the skits seen in Namco Bandai's Tales games, only a few of these actually flesh out the characters. Aside from the occasional backstory-related skit, most of them have nothing to do with, well, anything. Instead, it's much like the filler episodes seen in anime like Dragon Ball Z, where Goku goes and learns how to drive a car.
It's bad enough that the story and execution is as poor as it is, but Neptunia mk2 goes beyond the already over-the-top sexual elements presented in the original title. While I certainly expected a fair amount of innuendo, lines are crossed several times in mk2. There are allusions to the sexualization of children – and I'm not referring to characters identified as "eighteen" in the instruction booklet despite looking younger. These characters are identified as, look like, and act like children, but during more than one sequence, an enemy character is portrayed as having a sexual obsession with them. This is just one of many cases where lines are crossed, and it's unfortunate, considering that a true satire of the games industry would be a welcome environment for an RPG.
The abhorrent story aside, the core of Neptunia mk2's gameplay is actually decent, turn-based fare. With free movement and variable size targets for attacks, the combat feels almost like SRPG Phantom Brave, only much more fast-paced. You can set combo attacks for each character, with variable amounts of AP used on each; the more AP, the more powerful the special move that results from the attacks. Each time characters attack or end their turn, they build up SP, used for abilities. There are several of these special attacks that are specific to each character, including one, previously seen in several screenshots and trailers, where Keiji Inafune is used as a weapon. While it may take two or three turns to charge up the AP necessary for use, they are incredibly powerful – almost to a point of being incredibly unbalanced. There are several other elements that go on during battle – viral enemies, the break meter, the ability to swap to a backup character, and equipment customization that changes the range of each character's attacks. The depth is there for good combat, but the problem with the gameplay is everything that's not the combat.
Hyperdimension Neptunia is essentially an endless stream of quests that consist of two objectives: kill things or collect things. Oh, and to collect things, you need to kill the things that drop them. Even most modern MMORPGs give players more variety in quests, and the combat and story aren't sufficient to buoy repetitive gameplay. None of the game's other elements are enough to help, either. Item crafting is unnecessary and time-consuming; the same items you're turning in quests for are also used to craft. In the twenty-odd hours I spent in the game, there was almost nothing worth grinding materials for. The game never really explains the Lily system, which allows you to craft certain items, and it doesn't seem to have any sort of noticeable impact anywhere else in the game either.
In a game with decent combat, maybe exploration should provide the impetus – finding new enemies and new environments might make many players happy. Neptunia fails there, as well. While enemies are parodies of creatures found in other games – Pac-Man ghosts, the doctor from Brain Age, Tetris blocks, and several other gaming stand-bys, there's really only about fifteen different enemies in the game, although they are given the Mortal Kombat Ninja treatment. Fighting Tetris blocks that are different shapes, or doctors with different shaped glasses or different colored ghosts doesn't qualify as fighting different enemies, however. In fact, it adds to the frustration of the already-repetitive quests. Piled on top of that are the environments – ugly, muddy, and just as repetitive. Much like Dragon Age II, you find yourself in dungeons that are almost completely identical to each other. There are several unique areas, but there are just as many "grassy plains" and "warehouse" areas you have to trudge through over and over.
Not much in the game is pretty – the aforementioned environments are ugly, character models lack detail, and the framerate dips much lower than it should for a game that's certainly not taxing the power of the PlayStation 3. There is a fair amount of customization to be done – equipment shows up on characters, and almost all of them are anime stand-bys: characters can be equipped with bunny ears and glasses and different colored dresses. It's enough to keep hardcore fans engaged, but not anyone else. Attacks are an exception, but only sometimes. Standard attacks are just as generic as the environments, but some special attacks feature cameos (like Flonne or Inafune) that have some more impressive – but still subpar – animation and graphics. The sound follows the same pattern and ranges from awful to simply okay. One or two characters – like Nisa (can you guess what game company that is?) are portrayed well enough, but more of the characters, new and old, are performed without aplomb. The music has few impressive tracks, and I was ready to scream if I heard the world map theme one more time after about the ten hour mark. For the most part, though, the music is neither memorable nor pleasing; it's simply there.
What's frustrating about Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 is that it's a game with a good concept and a battle system that has the potential to be fantastic if refined. What it ends up being, though, is a game with the smallest bit of quality at its core, surrounded by a suite of atrociously subpar elements. That said, this is an absolute improvement on the original in almost every aspect. I still can't recommend it for anyone but the hardcore fans of the first game, however, and those who find themselves in love with moe anime. When titles like Final Fantasy XIII-2, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Devil Survivor 2, Mass Effect 3, Tales of Graces f and Hakuoki are all seeing release within 45 days of Neptunia, there's more than enough quality to go around for RPG fans of all denominations. The bottom line is simple: even before the last 1500 words, chances are you already knew if Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 was meant for you.