(PlayStation 3 Review) Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2

Developer: Idea Factory / Compile Heart
Publisher: NIS America
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 6 = Fair

Will the world of Gamindustri ever be at peace? Probably not, as long as there are game references left to be made. After defeating Arfoire in the original Hyperdimension Neptunia, a group known as the Arfoire Syndicate of International Crime (ASIC) has sprung up to spread the evil goddess’s influence throughout the lands. After heading out to confront Arfoire in the Gamindustri Graveyard, where she and the other deceased reside, the CPU guardians are defeated and captured. Years have passed, and Gamindustri is increasingly falling under the influence of ASIC. But the time has finally come for Nepgear, younger sister of CPU Neptune, and friends IF and Compa to set about restoring order and preparing for the final showdown with Arfoire.

To be honest, it’s probably best not to mention the lackluster Hyperdimension Neptunia beyond this point. Considering how different it is from Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2, in terms of mechanics and continuity, the sequel makes for a much better starting point—and game. Suffice it to say, the developers have made great strides in bringing fans a more robust, coherent, and enjoyable adventure. There are still problems, however, the least of which being a creepiness factor that can get a bit too high, but those those wanting an action-packed trip down memory lane should find much more to like.

The main quest revolves around gathering allies and combating ASIC’s influence. To that end, Nepgear, IF, and Compa set about traveling the towns of Gamindustri in search of new gear, new friends, and new ways to woo over the people. The first two come naturally enough, with recipes for item synthesis, new weapons and armor, and new comrades appearing as the story progresses. The latter will take some time, as ASIC has been busy gobbling up shares of influence throughout the world. To that end, each town has a Guild and a Chirper board, an avatar-based online messaging system, which offer ways for the CPU candidates to interact with citizens and slowly gain influence for friendly cities—the base city of Planeptune in particular—at the expense of ASIC.

The most common way to gain influence is through the graded, town-sponsored quests offered by the Guilds. These tend to fall into two groups: killing X amount of enemies or collecting Y amount of goods. Each completed quest can be turned in to the Guild for financial and item rewards, as well to shift the influence levels. Influence is pervasive and cuts both ways, meaning that there will be times when Planeptune might lose some at the expense of Lastation or another of the major cities. Not that that is a bad thing, as raising shares in one of the other cities might lead to a new member joining the party. In general, there is a lot of give and take between the many factors that influence party makeup and quest advancement. Fortunately, much of this can be ignored for those who just want to dive in, since the game’s natural progression arc will see plenty of allies lining up to join the cause and quests becoming available.

Item synthesis also emphasizes party interaction. The downside is that the system isn’t as robust as in other titles, with the end products not particularly powerful and their more common counterparts easily purchasable due to a general abundance of money. The upside is that it offers another avenue for players to be more involved in the party’s dynamics, which is reflected by each character’s Lily Rank, a gauge of their affection for Nepgear. As the girls progress and expand their party, additional characters become available to be used as rearguard members, those who are ‘partnered’ with one of the four vanguard fighters. The system allows for those four rearguard members to offer support in the form of passive bonuses (extra experience, resistance to ailments, etc.) to their frontline partner, offering the friends a chance to lend each other a helping hand. In fact, some items can only be created whenever two specific members are partnered together. Interacting with them in Chirper can also initiate special dialog events that further strengthen their bonds, which adds a nice incentive to take a break from adventuring and engage with the team once in a while.

That said, getting closer to the group isn’t always for the best. For a game around 20 hours long, give or take a few hours for grinding and relationship building, there is a massive amount of chit chat. While the quality of the text and voiceovers is excellent, the content isn’t. There are some good jokes to be sure, including one from a character upset at a fictional model of her NIS included in a collector’s edition, but much of it seems to be based around a cyclical interaction model of whining and screaming in confused fear, causing actual party cohesion to occur at a glacial pace. As the CPU candidate Nepgear, players will have to bear a barrage of insulting remarks about being inadequate, being that she’s a candidate and not a full-fledged CPU. Even after cutting down hundreds of monsters, building up strong rapports, and tracking down and winning over the lands’ powerful mascots to aid in her quest, she still catches grief. It’s exasperating.

This is one of the few games where I actually felt comfortable skipping text; it doesn’t take long to realize when a conversation is turning into another ‘We can do it!’ or ‘Oh no!’ Although, the game does sport plenty of means to tailor the way information is presented, with options to stop, automate, skip, and recap conversations via a log. It’s strange that so many of the interactions become tiresome because the game’s main hook, that it’s a massive homage to gaming, is often used to great effect.

Gamindustri itself is a charming realm, filled with references to present and past Japanese games, systems, and companies. Nearly everything about the game world is a reference to someone or something. The main characters represent the developers and publisher, as well as—in a showing of supreme taste—Golden Age Sega. The original game’s protagonist, Neptune, is a play on the mythical Sega combo system that was to combine the 32X and Genesis, while Nepgear is a play on the company’s Game Gear handheld. Cohorts IF (Idea Factory) and Compa (Compile Heart) represent the game’s developers, with Nisa, a Prinny-themed beast of a fighter, representing publisher NIS America. Adventuress Falcom stands in for the famed Ys developer; Gust for Atelier and Ar tonelico developer Gust Co; and Cave for the studio behind Deathsmiles and DoDonPachi Resurrection. Rest assured there are plenty more, with references to Mario, Space Invaders, and Tetris. Actually, a few of the themed enemies include the green warp pipes from Mario and Tetris blocks. But the two that really had my inner nerd all aflutter were the Chirper inclusions of former Sega super mascot Segata Sanshiro and, by far the most bizarre reference, Mega Man co-creator Keiji Inafune as himself in a television—and his body as the blade of a sword wielded during a special move. Awesome.

Unleashing the Inafune blade is only part of what makes combat, by far the series’ biggest leap forward, so enjoyable. In what is the most addictive element of the game, combat now consists of free-roaming battles as well as area exploration. Locations are traveled to via the world map, with the dungeon locations listing the enemies to be found within—very handy. Once inside of a dungeon, the party member designated as the Leader will be the character controlled, serving as a representative of the entire party. Enemies are always visible, save for when they pop into view upon entering an area, and they can be waylaid with an attack that gives the heroes an early boost. Alternatively, enemies can rush the party from behind and receive a boost as well. Getting those early bonus hits are important, as they are often the difference between a quick finish and a prolonged encounter.

Carefully managing each character’s gear loadout and combos plays a big role in maximizing squad combat effectiveness, and there’s plenty to tweak. Weapons and armor, which consists of several accessory types, tend to require some thought, as stat boosts often require sacrifices elsewhere. Characters are now given the ability to tailor their combos as well, with three attack types to work from: one for breaking an enemy’s guard, a heavy attack targeting their health points, and a rapid attack to up the hit count. In addition, there are special attacks and combo finishers that deal extra damage. What can be performed and how far the character can move is determined by their stats, what moves have been linked in the three set combo paths, and the remaining Action Points (AP) and Skill Points (SP). While players can just bash away, there is plenty of room for optimization and experimentation.

Characters unlock new skills, attacks, and finishers as they level up. Not all of these can be accessed at the same time, however, because, as mentioned above, finishers require that attack types be linked. Each attack type has different variations that consume different amounts of AP, with finishers requiring even more. Weapons and skills also have attack patterns, with some covering a wider space and others having longer attack channels. There is a tradeoff, and that is both attacking and being attacked builds up SP, which means that while one avenue is decreased (AP-based attacks), another is increased (SP-based attacks). For the CPU candidates, and later the CPUs, SP is even more important as it allows for them to activate Hard Drive Divinity (HDD) and transform into their strongest form. HDD requires 100 SP to activate, with SP being consumed the longer the character remains ‘activated’; since attacking also builds up SP, there’s a balancing act in trying to maximize HDD. Since all skills require both AP and SP, there’s a lot to keep in mind when planning what to do. On top of all this is yet another factor: positioning. Since the characters can move within varying radii and their attacks connect within set ranges, it becomes important to position a character so that their attacks hit as many enemies as possible while also minimizing their chances of being mauled by multiple opponents. There is a lot at play here, and combat junkies will definitely get their fix. Oh, and if pummeling ASIC isn’t enough, there’s also a Coliseum that offers up a large variety of grade-based battles for players of all experience levels.

Fighting also has some more trying surprises in store. One that occurs early on is the transformation of enemies into viral counterparts. These will be stronger and regain health points and, if not contained, spread their contagion to nearby enemies. This ability is particularly nasty when considering that enemies often attack farther than expected and multiple times during their turn. So while the turn chart might indicate a single enemy attack during the next phase, that enemy might very well wreak havoc as they attack six or seven times. It can be frustrating in the beginning to be near the end of a battle and have the tide turn when enemies turn viral and go on a rampage. Retreating is possible, but I often found myself having to battle it out (or load a save game), as my teammates constantly failed to beat feet. One strange omission is the lack of a guard feature, which would have been very welcomed. As odd as it is, characters just have to take it on the chin whenever it isn’t their turn, even if they have plenty of AP and SP. Also, as enjoyable as combat is, the repetitive nature of the enemies can make the end game feel like a slog. While Mario warp pipes, in-game screenshots, and killer dolphins are fun enough to smack around for a while, their novelty increasingly lessens as their second and third variations are trotted out, with the only difference being a new coat of paint. Although, to be fair, the plaid-textured dolphin was a classy touch.

And while I would prefer not to end on a sour note, there is a particular story element that stuck out as being overly crass. Ignoring the extended rant on piracy, with ASIC’s popularity based on their production of knockoffs for cheap entertainment, there’s a moment towards the middle of the game that’s flat-out gross. The characters face off against a boss that is one of the most lecherous creatures I’ve ran across in a game. First off, all of the character are young. NIS has often obfuscated the fact that the double-entendres and innuendos of prior titles were frequently between minors, but Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 forgoes any sort of ruse; in fact, the characters refer to themselves as kids. The boss in question, however, targets the youngest two of the group, and it’s just creepy. The other characters comment on how gross he—or “it”— is, but that really doesn’t negate just how disgusting the scenarios are. There’s a fine line with this stuff, and NIS has often done a great job in preserving the lighthearted elements in what might be questionable exchanges, but this is just … blargh. While there is nothing explicit, what’s said is of such a creepy nature that I’d prefer not to quote it here for fear of this popping up in some unsavory Google searches. I will say that those encounters make the moe elements even more striking, and unsettling.

Even with its many improvements, Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 still has a ways to go before matching (much less besting) many of NIS America’s other offerings. The heavy reuse of both enemy and environment assets, occasionally questionable dialog, and lackluster implementation of features means that the world of Gamindustri remains one where only a few will care to tread. And that’s unfortunate, because the theme and combat have a lot to offer, and the developers clearly enjoy paying homage to both their counterparts and the industry’s colorful history.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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