Hyperdimension Neptunia Review
JRPGs are few and far between these days. Bigger companies like Square-Enix have gone off in different directions and fans of the sub-genre have turned elsewhere for their JRPG fix. Great studios like Gust, Idea Factory, and Compile Heart can usually be counted on to deliver that which is lacking, and that’s why we were excited to try NIS America’s latest, Hyperdimension Neptunia. Unfortunately, while the hardcore will likely get some enjoyment out of it, we still find ourselves pining for the days of the traditional role-playing setup; it’s something that appears to heave disappeared entirely. Neptunia’s format reminds me most of Trinity Universe but with a slightly tweaked combat mechanic that doesn’t quite work and a set of personalities that are hit or miss, the game tends to wear on you. I enjoy particular elements of it but the end result isn’t quite what I wanted.
As you might expect, we get some nicely drawn anime characters for the cut-scenes, which benefit from a slick high-definition presentation. However, there’s also a less-than-impressive gameplay palette that actually appears somewhat fuzzy and out-of-focus. Wandering around most of the dungeons isn’t all that intriguing; there’s a lot of blandness and a decided lack of detail, and even the special effects don’t really stand out. There are a few instances – especially when Neptune has been transformed – where the game perks up from a graphical standpoint, but anything outside of that remains underwhelming. There’s always a decent amount of quality artistry in such productions, but because we spend so much time exploring the lackluster dungeons and any “exploration” is limited to menu-searching, the visuals fall a little short. In short, the game’s graphical appeal is moderate but erratic.
The sound is highly subjective; it’s really going to hinge on whether or not you like the voices. Obviously, they’re a touch over-the-top as one might anticipate, and the personalities are greatly exaggerated for the sake of comic relief. I like that just fine, but I thought Neptune’s valley girl type persona chafed, and most other characters could be just plain irritating. Furthermore, the writing is suspect and certain words and phrases that are designed to be hilarious – “thunder tits,” for instance – can be downright painful. The music, on the other hand, is an intriguing mix of old-school ditties and solid original compositions, and the effects make the combat bolder and more satisfying. Some of the tracks could get tiresome if you stayed in the same dungeon for too long, but that’s a minor issue. The variety of the music and the significance of the effects really does help a great deal…I just can’t deal with some of the voices.
If you want a gameplay and structure comparison, think of Trinity Universe. You “explore” via menus on a world map, where you just move a cursor about and select a dungeon, a store, or some other location. There’s plenty of side-quests – which is a good thing – and the coloring and design of the worlds (from a bird’s-eye view) is quite pleasant. You play as Neptune, one of four goddesses who have been tossed down to earth in order to stop an endless feud between said goddesses. When she was immortal, Neptune was a strong, confident person, but something happened when she was demoted; she became a cocky, occasionally obnoxious chick with a bit of an attitude. She can be likeable in an adolescent charming sort of way, and she’s good for a few laughs. But in my eyes, she has the type of personality that wears thin fast, and I actually liked a few of the minor characters better. Just a matter of preference, that’s all.
The gameplay is turn-based, which definitely sounds like an appreciated blast from the past; it’s one of the features that old-school RPG followers should enjoy. And I enjoyed it, too, but only to a certain extent. Like I said before, think of Trinity Universe: characters can continue to attack provided they have enough AP, and attacks and skills are mapped to the Triangle, Circle and X buttons. Triangle uses the equipped weapon, Circle is a physical attack of some kind, and X is a magic-based assault. Stronger attacks require more AP and the key to success is the interesting Combo system. This is different than what you’ve seen before, because you manually arrange the skills utilized in any given combo. So this way, you can create all sorts of singular combinations, and these are essential to your success. Most of the game’s depth – and fun factor – resides in this mechanic, and fans can take advantage.
The cool part is that you can finish off a particular combo with a certain skill that extends your turn, or transform Neptune into her CPU or goddess mode. She’s much stronger in this form, and the moves can get all sorts of flashy. You can also finish a combo with the Switch command, which brings in another party member to elongate the turn. It all sounds very cool, and a lot of it is, but things really get a little muddled and awkward once you dive into the system. Firstly, I never quite understood Neptune’s CPU stats; there’s Memory, Clock, and Heat but for the life of me, I never quite figured out what sort of impact these had. Secondly, unless you have one hell of a memory, you’ll have to continually consult your character menu during battle to execute the more complicated combos. I lost count of how many times I had to interrupt battle to check the combo menu. Thirdly and lastly, I really don’t know what the developers were thinking when it comes to items.
You don’t just collect recovery and healing items and use them in battle. Instead, you have to use something like the Gambit system in Final Fantasy XII or the command mechanic in Dragon Age: Origins. Basically, you have to define a situation when the character will use a healing item; you have to pick a character, say when and how, and hope you have the requisite materials. See, you even need specific raw materials to create a healing item and if you don’t have those materials, the character will never be able to use anything, regardless of command. So in other words, for a certain Reflex cost, you can partially heal yourself when your character drops below 50% (just as an example). The problem is, because you have a limited amount of skill points, the character won’t always be able to use that item; these skill points determine the chances of indicated recovery. It’s just plain overcomplicated and takes too much control away from the player during battle. I really hate when that happens.
In dungeons, you can use a few abilities that spice things up, like a hammer that breaks through walls and a bell that calls a bunch of enemies to you. It’s so you can beat on a bunch of foes in a row, because that walloping will cause the enemies to run away after you finish the combat marathon. This lets you explore the area in peace (for a little while) and gets you a bunch of experience quickly. It can be tricky in certain situations, though… But the lackluster nature of those dungeons, the often boring and trivial side-quests, and the combat that suffers from pacing and mechanical issues turns much of the game into a chore. However, all this being said, I have to say I still liked the depth and customization possibilities, and the variety of the locales does change frequently. Plus, if you can really get into the artistry and setting, you’ll probably appreciate more of the theme.
Hyperdimension Neptunia is indeed a JRPG through and through. It has an interesting cast of characters, a lot of solid diversity in the environment, that patented and crisp anime artistry, and plenty of immersive depth. But on the downside, the combat feels awkward because you have to keep checking your combos, the item system is just plain ridiculous, the story is silly to the max, and despite that aforementioned variety, none of the locales really stand out. It’s true that the guys at Compile Heart continue to carry the JRPG flag high and proud, but I’m just not sure why everybody has abandoned the traditional approach to Japanese role-playing. I can’t understand why we’d rather sift through menus rather than actually run around a regular world, with towns and forests and what have you. And I don’t necessarily have an issue with the core battle structure but there is a limit in terms of depth…when you cross the line, things just feel overdone.
I would recommend it to the hardcore JRPG aficionados who fully understand what they’re getting. But even then, they may face some irritating problems they didn’t quite expect.
The Good: Pretty and sharp anime detail. Decent variety in both music and locales. Plenty of side-quests will keep you occupied. Great combat depth and customization.
The Bad: Lackluster in-game graphics and dungeon design. Overcomplicated item system. Awkward pacing due to the combos. Story isn’t all that interesting.
The Ugly: “Neptune, you just have to shut up now. Please."
2/5/2011 Ben Dutka