Review: Hyperdimension Neptunia
Hyperdimension Neptunia has been an interest of mine for the better part of a year, not just because it fits snugly into a genre I know and love, but because of the interesting story and characters that play off of real-world video game industry tropes. I’m infinitely thankful that NIS America picked up the game and was able to localize it fairly quickly, so those of us in the West could see what all the fuss is about. How does the game stack up – both in terms of story and game play? I guess you’ll just have to read on to find out my view on things.
To start off with, the game is a collaboration between many different Japanese RPG developers – Compile Heart, Idea Factory, Gust, Nippon Ichi and Sega, just to name the major ones. It was published by Sega in Japan, and I’m ultimately unsure why they themselves didn’t bring it over to North America, but I’m kind of glad NISA was able to pick the title up.
The game follows the travels of Neptune, a fallen goddess, who used to rule over the island of Planeptune, which is part of the world of Gamindustri. Also making up this world are the floating islands of Lastation, Ruwii and Leanbox. When I say Neptune used to be a goddess, the story goes like this: She and three others ruled over these individual worlds, except they couldn’t get along and a conflict called the Console War raged on for quite a while. Somehow (and I don’t quite understand why) the other three goddesses get it into their heads that Neptune is the cause of this and all will be right with the world if she’s expelled from their realm and put down to Planeptune, the island she used to rule over.
So, she’s deposited there in her human form – which is represented by a much younger-looking, less developed (yes, that means what you think it does) character model. She has lost most of her memory and wakes up in Compa’s house. Compa is a ditzy nurse who takes care of Neptune and joins her on her journey. From here, Neptune is contacted by Histoire, the one who created these four goddesses and set them up to rule over their individual realms in the first place. Apparently some mistakes were made and the four goddesses were never intended to fight against one another, so she needs Neptune’s help to right the wrongs of the past and make the world one big, happy place where all the consoles can live together in peace.
Now, you’re probably picking up on the subtle connotation here that this entire story is a parody of the real-world conflicts between console manufactures, and you would be right. Primarily, Neptune is a reference to the unreleased Sega Neptune console, which was a two-in-one console that Sega planned on releasing back before the Sega Saturn. It never did make it to market. If you want to stretch things, in the game Neptune is kicked out of the realm of the other three goddesses – or consoles – by their combined power. This could be taken to also refer to the Sega Dreamcast, a beloved console by many gamers, which was basically pushed out of the market by Sony’s PlayStation 2, but the game throws the other two console manufactures of modern day in there, as well.
Let me just come out and say this before I get any farther into this review – the story, dialog and characters are the best thing about this game. If you’re more of a game mechanics person, you probably won’t last very long. I’ll explain as we move along.
With all that being said, the dialog and characters are surprisingly addictive, informative and hilarious all at the same time. The game does have its fair share of boob jokes, I’m not going to lie. However, many of the events – both story-related and side events – have dialog that is masterfully crafted to refer to a wide variety of games, game characters, publishers, developers, news items and just about everything else that the real-world video game industry has seen throughout the last 30 years or so. There are references in dialog to everything from Mega Man to Street Fighter to how big publishers seem to be overtaking the indie scene to vague, almost unknown references to modern publishers and how they began.
The point is, this game goes above and beyond to parody and vaguely refer to many things throughout the last three decades of gaming, and it is an absolutely joy to read and listen to the dialog as you move along. The characters are also, in my opinion, very well written, even to the point where the goddesses seem to, in some small way, reflect the general attitude of the big console manufacturers that they represent.
The English voice acting is done very well. While a couple characters are a little on the annoying side (like Compa, for example), the majority of them are pretty well done. Human Neptune’s voice originally was a bit grating to me – just because you hear it the most during the early sections of the game – but eventually it grew on me, especially if you listen to the inflections and emphasis the voice actress uses while reading her lines. It’s actually done very well. In her goddess form, Neptune takes on a more mature and ear-pleasing voice, but also, in my opinion, loses some of the character that I eventually grew to love from her human voice.
Ultimately, the vocal localization of this game is on the higher end of the scale, and frankly, I wouldn’t expect anything less from NISA. Although, if you do prefer the Japanese voices, you can easily switch to those, as well. The thing that I still don’t understand – and this isn’t the only JRPG I’ve played in recent memory with this issue – is that the dialog that is voice acted seems to be hit or miss, and by that I mean that some lines that you would think would have voice acting attached to them, just don’t, and you have to read them.
Now we’ve talked about how much I enjoyed the story, dialog, characters and voice acting, so let’s break the news to those of you who are hoping for a typical JRPG – this isn’t. This is a heavy visual-novel-style RPG. When I say heavy, I mean it. All the dialog scenes are with semi-static character images on-screen, and there are loads and loads of these. Every event scene in the game takes place in this manner. Let me reiterate – there are a lot of them. So, there is a lot of you sitting there for minutes on end just hitting the X button to progress through dialog.
This didn’t bother me, because I actually enjoy games that rely heavily on the visual novel style, but I thought it was something to bring to your attention if you’re expecting a “typical” JRPG. Of course, if you’re familiar with and a fan of the stuff Compile Heart and Idea Factory does in the first place, this won’t be an issue for you, because the majority of their games are done in this manner.
Also worthy of a mention is that the story itself seems to want you to jump around a lot, hopping from landmass to landmass, instead of going from one to the other, finishing each however you please. The good thing, though, is that you have the freedom to choose how you go about hitting the various story events on the various landmasses. However, for many, story and dialog can’t support the entire game, so let’s now focus on game mechanics. Unfortunately, this is where things suffer.
There are four floating islands to explore and traverse to complete the entire story. When you’re on each island, you have several options available to you from the main screen. Most prominent of these are Shop and Explore. Naturally, you can shop for new gear and items, just like a typical RPG. Exploring is all done through menus, however. When you explore, a list of places and things to explore comes up, which can include any or all of the following.
Landmass Info shows how close the current landmass, or island, you’re on is to the three others. This determines when you can hop from one to the other. You can also explore your current landmass, which brings up a list of dungeons or events. As you click on each one, you’ll either be sent to a description of the dungeon, which gives you a level range that your characters should be at to safely explore it, or you’ll be sent to a dialog screen with the characters discussing things either relating to the story (if it’s a story event or scenario dungeon) or random talk (if it’s a side event or dungeon).
After you find out a little info about the location, by whichever means, it will be available to you to explore on foot. So, for example, once you go through a little dialog sequence about a side dungeon, you’ll be thrown back out to the menu screen and you can choose whether or not to actually go into that dungeon to clear it. This is nice because you don’t really know the difficulty of the dungeon before you “explore” it through the menus; it gives you the chance to back out if you don’t think you can handle it just yet.
In essence, there is no overworld exploration, you explore a landmass purely through menus. The only on-foot exploration you do is inside dungeons. Speaking of dungeons, unfortunately they’re pretty bland and boring, as far as the aesthetic quality of them goes. They may seem vastly different at first, but you’ll quickly see that there are only a set number of visual styles for the dungeons, even though the actual corridors inside them are randomly generated. All the dungeons tend to have large corridors and rooms that aren’t used, but occasionally you’ll find a treasure chest in them.
I got to the point where I loathed side dungeons, simply because many times their requirements take way too long to meet. I didn’t mind the dungeons that have you kill a monster at the end, or get from point A to point B, but the ones that had you collect a certain amount of an item, or kill a certain number of a certain enemy were so tedious I wanted to just shut the game off. One in particular, about 15 hours into the game or so, was when I realized I was going to skip most of the side dungeons that required me to kill a certain number of a certain enemy. I went into the dungeon thinking, “I only have to kill five of these things, it shouldn’t take long.” Twenty minutes and probably a dozen battles later I was at 3/5.
Needless to say, at that point I stopped doing any optional dungeons that required multiple mob kills or item drops, and scenario dungeons typically didn’t involve either, thank the goddesses.
The non-scenario/story dungeons, while annoying sometimes, do have an online component in the form of leaderboards for fastest clear time. The game also, of course, keeps track of your own best clear for each of these. The only issues here are what I mentioned above – some dungeons have ridiculous clear requirements, not in the number of items to get or enemies to kill, but of sheer randomness.
You know what made those type of dungeons even worse? The battle system. Now, before I get too far into this, let me just say that it isn’t horrid, however it isn’t great, either. The focus of the battle system is setting up and creating your own attack combos, which work kind of like they do in a fighting game (even though these are obviously turn-based battles).
Your combos use any combination of the four right face buttons on the DualShock 3 controller, each is assigned to a different type of attack for each character. One is a punch, one is a kick, one is a weapon-based attack and one is a ranged attack. This is pretty much the same for all the characters, they just have different weapons and obviously some are stronger than others. In fact, you will quickly find that, in the early game, at least, Neptune is the strongest of the three characters you have by far.
So, in the menus for each character’s skill set, you can see a huge list of all possible combos. Here you can also assign a “finishing move” to each combo. What finishing move you assign to a combo depends on what you want to do with it. For example, the goddesses can transform from their human self into their goddess self after a four-button combo. So, you set up a combo you like you use and attach the “Transform” finishing move to it. After you complete that combo successfully, an option will appear on the screen to transform your goddess.
Combos can also be chained, so one of the “finishing moves” is to chain a combo. After the successful completion of the combo, you’ll be asked if you want to chain it. Saying yess will allow you to go straight into another combo with the same character. You can also set it up so that it will switch to another character, so you can chain combos from two separate characters together. The more hits you have on an enemy, the more damage you do to them.
Enemies also have break points, and if you break and enemy, they take more damage and the character that does the break gets a huge boost in AP for the rest of their attacks, allowing you to go for quite a while with the combos.
Speaking of AP, each character has a finite amount each turn, which is usually enough for two full, four-button combos and some smaller attacks near the end. Various things affect the amount of AP you have during a character’s turn, like the aforementioned enemy breaking, which gives you a huge boost. The typical thing to do with harder enemies or bosses is to have the weaker characters in the group hit them with as many combos as they can, so that their break gague is low, then take your powerful characters (typically transformed goddesses), break them and then get the AP boost so they can combo several times.
Now, I can understand the desire to want to change things up a bit and add a bit of a spin on your typical turn-based battle system, but eventually the combo thing just gets too much. First off, you have to remember the combos you assign finishing moves to, otherwise it’ll just be four attacks in a row that hardly does anything to the enemy. Secondly, there is a lot of micro-management in setting up the combos, deciding which ones to do and possibly even adjusting them in battle if need be (which you can do). Plus, executing the combo isn’t in real-time, and things like breaking the enemy’s guard, transforming and switching between characters to continue a series of combos takes way too much time.
You can skip many of the attack sequences by hitting L2, but you really shouldn’t have to. All this stuff adds together to make the battles way longer than they really need to be. I would much rather have had a typical menu-based Attack/Ability/Item system than all this extra stuff. Sure, add combos in when special abilities are performed, but all this extra stuff is just too much. But, again, I do understand why the developers felt the need to try to spice things up a bit, I just don’t think it was executed as well as it could have been.
Another aspect of the overall battle system is, not only can you equip your base human characters, but you can equip the goddesses in their powerful form, as well, with various parts that improve or change stats or give you one type of elemental attack that’s more powerful than the others. Enemies have various weaknesses and you can exploit these by equipping different items and abilities to your regular characters or their goddess forms that focus on those weaknesses.
Speaking of other actions during battle, try this on for size – item use is relegated to the RNG (random number generator). Here’s the deal: Each character has one pool of item points, which increase based on character level. This pool has to be used to govern the CHANCE of using an item when that particular character is in need of it. So, let’s say Neptune has the ability to use items to heal herself, as well as to make an antidote. Each item has a slider in her character menu. If you only have 100 item points available and each item has 100 item points max to make it a 100% use rate, you have to decide how to split those points up between your healing item and your antidote.
If you give the healing item 85 point, giving it an 85% chance to be used when she’s at 50% health or less after an attack, there is a 15% chance she won’t use an item to heal herself. This gets very, very annoying, because you feel powerless sometimes, especially during boss fights when characters are pummeled pretty hard. I’ve had characters set at 80-90% use rates before and they have been killed without using a single item to heal themselves.
To make things worse, each character can only heal themselves and apparently don’t like spreading the love. On top of that, you need to expend reagents each time you use an item. Granted, the healing reagents are plentiful and drop after every fight, but still…it kind of adds insult to injury.
Ultimately, this is a horrid system, especially being the sole way to keep your party’s health up. Granted, it is worse earlier in the game when you don’t have enough item points to even give you a 50% chance of healing yourself. It does get better later on…but only to a point. Eventually you’ll have over 100 item points for your characters, so if you wish you can make one item have 100% chance of being used. This alleviates the pain somewhat, but when you do that, you have to slack on your status curing items (which can kill you pretty easily in boss fights), as well as items that can bring back a character from K.O. status. Please, I’m begging whoever came up with this idea, never use it in an RPG again. Ever. Evereverever. I firmly believe the player should always have options and some form of control over healing their own party.
But, enough about the battles. They are mediocre and they can get tedious. The good part is that, typically speaking, battles are paced very well for being random encounters. Exploring a typical dungeon, you may end up fighting six to eight battles, including the possibility of a boss. Boss battles actually feel about right, aside from the frustration that comes from healing your crew. They’re longer than a typical battle and actually take some strategy and extra consideration to get through, even on normal difficulty.
There are a few extra perks to this title, as well. As you progress, various pieces of artwork are unlocked – either full, rendered artwork or rough sketches. These can all be accessed in an art gallery after they’re unlocked. This is pretty cool, and a fun extra feature. On top of that, the artwork itself throughout the game is well done, fun and cute. The characters are lovable and you will quickly pick your favorites, especially of the four goddesses. There is a fair bit of fan service – including the aforementioned boob jokes, risqué dialog and the like, but it doesn’t seem to go overboard. You can also customize the look of your characters eventually. Unfortunately, you don’t get to play with any of the other goddesses until way later in the game and the variety of battles and even party members early on isn’t so hot. Aside from the battle mechanics, things may just get boring to look at. Also, you can’t heal yourself outside of battles, which I find rather annoying.
I love Compile Heart for what they do well, and that is great dialog and visual novel story progression, also fun, likable and adorable characters. I hate them for what they never change from one game to the next, and wish, to some extent, they would put a little more effort into improving the quality and variety of the game play mechanics themselves, especially the battles and dungeon crawling.
Let’s sum this title up: You’ll definitely love it if you’re a story, character and dialog sort of person. If you don’t mind a visual novel style of game, this is actually a very smart, unique and enjoyable narrative that uses word play and dialog in a way you may never have thought about. I seriously got to the point where I was thinking through each piece of dialog to see what reference it or its context was going to make to the real-world video game industry, and I was rarely disappointed.
It’s a shame the mechanics of the game themselves don’t live up to the narrative aspect, because then it would be a truly great experience overall. Unfortunately, those things kind of knock Hyperdimension Neptunia down a notch and send it into a bit of an awkward direction. This definitely isn’t a game for everyone, but PS3 owners who are fans of quirky Japanese RPGs might want to check it out, if for nothing else than the story, dialog and artwork. It is still one of the most unique RPGs around, based solely on that, and I’m certainly proud to have the title in my game library.
- Title: Hyperdimension Neptunia
- Platform Reviewed: PS3
- Developer: Compile Heart/Idea Factory
- Publisher: NIS America
- Release date: 2.15.2011
- MSRP: $59.99
- Review copy info: A copy of this title was provided to DualShockers Inc. by the publisher for the purpose of this review.