Sometimes, a game has a concept that seems interesting enough that you're almost willing to overlook the flaws in the gameplay. Psychonauts is a great example of a platformer that probably wouldn't stand so well on its own, but the unusual concept and interesting world help you overlook the sometimes frustrating gameplay. Hyperdimension Neptunia is a game that is clearly in love with its bizarre and intriguing concept. From beginning to end, it believes that the player will find the concept just as endearing and wacky as it does. Unfortunately, Hyperdimension Neptunia is a great example of how an interesting concept alone isn't enough to make a good game.
Hyperdimension Neptunia is the about the adventures of a girl called Neptune. A former goddess, Neptune was cast out of the heavens and into the mortal realm. Injuries left her with amnesia, so she sets out on a quest to figure out who she is. Along the way, she discovers that the mortal realm is under attack by mysterious monsters. The only forces that can stand against them are the remaining goddesses, but they're busy dealing with threats to their own island homes. Neptune has to convince the goddesses to work together if there is any hope of stopping the monsters and their evil creator. She also has to figure out her identity, as Neptune is one of the four goddesses and is just as necessary as the other three. Her only help is Histoire, a mysterious voice who tasks her with finding the "Key Fragments" to free her from imprisonment.
What makes Hyperdimension Neptunia stand out from other JRPGs? Well, the land in which the characters live is called Gameindustri, the various islands are called Planeptune, Leanbox, Lastation and Lowee, and the mysterious war from long ago was known as the Console War. The evil Arforie's plan involves burning game discs in an evil plot to destroy Gameindustri. That's right: The entire story is basically about humanoid versions of the various video game consoles teaming up to fight piracy. From beginning to end, the game is a giant video game in-joke. You can expect references to everything from Halo: Reach to Blue Dragon, and you'll even see cameos of popular characters from older Sega games.
Hyperdimension Neptunia's humor is cute, but it quickly gets old. A lot of the jokes are heavy-handed game references instead of humorous jokes. Many extended jokes are slightly altered references to an existing game, such as the "Cicada Horde" popping out of the ground in "Cogs of Battle." When Neptunia is subtle, it's quite clever, but when it starts shoving references down your throat, it starts to lose its effect. This might not stand out so much if Neptunia had more going for it, but the humor is quite possibly the game's sole redeeming feature.
Hyperdimension Neptunia has an interesting combat system. You have three party members at a time, each with customizable combos. You can set up various combo strings and use them to attack enemies. Each attack takes a certain amount of Action Points, and once you run out of AP, your turn is over. Depending on the combo string, you can also gain extra bonuses. You can create ridiculously long attack combos, and as the game progresses, you'll get new combos that you can gradually work into your attack strings.
Your characters can also use their guns as part of the combo for a ranged attack. You can switch the bullet element at any time, allowing you to customize a ranged attack to any element at your discretion. Also, like Final Fantasy XIII, there is a Guard Break mechanic. When you attack enemies repeatedly with multi-hit attacks, you'll drain their Guard bars. Once the bar is depleted, they take substantially more damage from attacks for a brief period of time, and your character regains some AP.
However, to put it bluntly, the combat system is a mess. It's overcomplicated but manages to offer little depth or challenge. The ability to create your own combos is a neat idea, but the execution is botched. There's little reason to bother customizing combos because the characters only need a couple of moves to defeat every opponent in the game. Filling your entire chart with those moves is more effective than trying to create a complicated attack string. You don't even need to worry about hitting elemental weaknesses, as the equipped bullets do that for you. Combat devolves into mashing buttons as quickly as possible to get past every challenge in the game. Things get even worse when you hit level 20 and earn the Neptune Break ability, which trivializes every single encounter in the game. It is a powerful hit-all attack that can be used in every round. As soon as I got it, most enemy fights lasted until Neptune's turn came up, at which point the fight was over. This trend continued for the rest of the game, with every non-boss fight being over in a matter of seconds due to this single overpowered attack.
The only challenge that the game offered involved its healing system, which is likely the worst that I've seen in an RPG. To facilitate faster combat, your characters don't have healing spells or healing items. Instead, you have a series of passive skills that have the potential to heal your character. Neptune begins with Nep Bull, which has a chance to heal your character for 30% of her HP when it drops below 50%. The actual activation chance of the spell is determined by how many Skill Points you've allocated to it. In order to heal, you also need materials because when your passive skill activates, it uses up some of your items. The only way to get more items is to defeat monsters or buy them from a shop. Even the cheapest skill in the game takes five materials to use, and the stronger the ability, the more of your precious materials it'll utilize.
It's possible to work around the healing system, but it is frustrating. It's impossible to heal outside of combat, so you must fiddle with the various combat settings. Even then, the best you can do is hope to trigger the activation conditions for a healing spell in a reasonable manner. There's little you can do to actively control how or when you heal, aside from a few passive abilities that can be triggered by switching or defending. When I lost characters in battle in Neptunia, it was because they were at the perfect threshold of 51% health, which is too high for me to heal but too low to survive an attack. It just made the battles more annoying instead of more challenging.
Neptunia offers multiple difficulty modes, but they don't make a lot of sense. Easy and Hard adjust the overall damage done by both you and your enemies. On Easy, you do less damage, but so do your enemies. On hard, both sides do more damage. This leads to the bizarre side effect of Hard being easier than Easy. On Easy difficulty, battles take longer and you're more likely to trigger item activations and waste your materials even though the enemies can't kill you. On Hard, your characters do so much extra damage that they're more likely to kill an enemy before he can even initiate an attack. The only reason Hard is slightly more challenging is because you can't heal outside of battle, so you risk going into a boss fight with less than full health.
Neptunia's focus on speed turns what should be simple combat into a tedious chore. Aside from the main story missions, every mission in the game is timed. Any rewards you get from the mission are determined by how quickly you can complete the mission. The timer continues to run in battle, and perhaps more importantly, during attack animations. Sitting and watching the lengthy attack animations of a battle can add minutes to your overall time and easily drop your S-rank to a B or lower, even if you're playing well and efficiently. The game punishes you for watching the fancy attack animations, so if you don't skip them at every opportunity, you're hurting your score. This also applies to the Guard Break mechanic. Once an enemy's Guard is broken, the meter refills in real time and continues during attack animations. Thus, watching attack animations can also decrease the damage that you inflict on a boss character during a Guard Break. Unlike Final Fantasy XIII, which used Stagger Mode as a chance to show off cooler attack animations, Hyperdimension Neptunia wants you to turn every battle into a bunch of still models.
The icing on the cake is the terrible implementation of DLC characters. Neptune, Compa and IF are your only playable characters for most of the game. You don't get another playable character until just before the final dungeon. Considering that the game has mechanics for character-switching attacks, this is almost inexcusable. Most of your abilities are worthless unless you intentionally stick a party member in the back row. Two characters, Gust and Nisa, join your party if you complete sidequests; well, they actually show up on the menu screen and you can see their equipment, but you can't do anything with them. They'll only join your party if you buy the DLC for these characters, but it was unavailable at the time of this writing. I'm not opposed to DLC, but it's frustrating to have characters join you but be unavailable unless you pay for them. They stay on your menu screen as a glaring reminder that you would have a bigger and more interesting party if you'd only pay extra for it.
Dungeon exploration is as bland and straightforward as it comes. Every level is pretty much identical; there's a small maze with random encounters, and there's either an exit or a boss at the far end. Occasionally, instead of a boss or exit, you'll be asked to farm an item that enemies drop or is hidden in chests. The dungeons are just hallways with slightly different textures. In theory, your characters have dungeon-specific skills, but they're all quite boring. Neptune has a hammer skill that can be used to break objects in her path, but this only causes the path in front of you to occasionally be blocked by an object. You press Square, it is broken, and you move on. Compa's Monster Call is the most useful skill of the lot; it lets you fight a series of random battles in a row, followed by turning off encounters for a set period of time. This makes dungeon crawling much less tedious, although it's still not enjoyable.
Hyperdimension Neptunia is a budget title, and it shows. There is a lot of recycling in the game, such as the few dungeon textures being repeated over and over again. Most of the levels are so bland and unmemorable that a game character expresses disappointment that an important plot location doesn't even have a unique design. The still artwork for the main characters is reasonable, but there is a shockingly small amount of art in the game. A few characters have artwork, and other characters are represented by a small black silhouette. It looks weird and lazy, especially when it comes to important plot characters. The combat animations are simple but are charming. As mentioned, though, the game punishes you for watching any attack animations, so you won't see them very often.
The dub isn't too bad. Some of the voices are a tad odd, but they fit the characters reasonably well. After a while, I preferred the English voices to the Japanese ones. The soundtrack is unmemorable, and I would be hard-pressed to point out a song that stuck with me for more than a moment.
Hyperdimension Neptunia sells itself entirely on its wacky premise. The story is silly and lighthearted, but it's not fun and enjoyable enough to stand on its own as a selling point. The wacky antics of Neptune and her pals might be more fun if I didn't dread going back to another copy-and-pasted dungeon and fighting another group of the same monsters that I've battled for the past 15 hours. The laughs that you'll get from the characters don't make up for the gameplay. Hyperdimension Neptunia could have been great, but even die-hard RPG fans would find little to like here.
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