In the future, all wars will be fought by Japanese anime women wearing revealing battle suits. For the console wars the future in now, thanks to Hyperdimension Neptunia.
The goddesses of the lands of Planeptune, Laststation, Lowii, and Leanbox have been locked in battle for ages. When one goddess falls from grace, she and her newfound friends uncover a plot that could spell the end of the world of Gameindustri as we know it. What follows is a gaming culture reference-riddled turn-based role-playing game romp through the console-coded continents, as Neptune, Compa, and IF attempt to free the magical tome Histoire from her prison, plagued at every turn by the other console goddesses and an ancient evil known as Arfoire.
The fate of Gameindustri is in my hands. That's a terrifying thought.
Hyperdimension Neptunia is the console war brought to life through hot anime characters wearing skin-tight outfits. It's also a big shout-out to the fans of Japanese role-playing games in general, with characters personifying developers like Gust, Idea Factory, Compile Heart, and Nippon Ichi Software.
Video Game Culture? You're Soaking In It: What an amazing idea. Take the three major consoles, transform them into plug-suit wearing anime babes, and commit them to battle in the turn-based arena. While the main story of the game is little more than your standard fantasy role-playing game fluff—find the artifacts to unlock the mystery to battle the final boss—the game's true charm lies in the video game culture references sprinkled liberally through the adventure. Along the way I ran into hordes of fast-moving hedgehogs rapidly escaping a developer's offices, an overeager teen acting out his favorite imaginary battles from Cogs of War, console fanboyism as a religion, and more. When Leanbox's goddess invited me to her Red Ring table, I nearly fell out of my chair. Even when a reference falls flat, there's another right around the corner to make up for it.
Complicated Combos: Buried within an otherwise dull battle system is an extremely deep and flexible combo system that allows for ridiculous flexibility in the way your characters do battle. The game's three attack buttons - X, Triangle, and Circle - each branch off into combinations of up to four button presses. Once past the initial attack, the player can assign different combat skills unlocked as the characters level-up, as well as a finishing bonus for each combo. You want IF to fire her guns three times and then string the combo into the next? You can do that. Want Neptune to perform an elaborate sequence of moves, swap out to allow another character a chance to fight, and then swapping back to Neptune was the sequence ends? No problem. It's one of the deepest RPG combat mechanics I've ever seen. It's a little hard to pick up, but once you've gotten the hang of it the fighting can be quite satisfying.
Breaking the Fourth Wall: Here's an excellent example of why Kotaku uses the loved/hated system in its reviews. For some, having a character in a video game wink at the player by openly referring to raising stats, gaining experience points, or battling sub-bosses is an inexcusable offense. I find such moments in Hyperdimension Neptunia to be charming. The game often uses these moments to call out its own faults. For example, during a late-in-the-game fetch quest, the characters openly complain about having to visit yet another dungeon. Somehow having the characters experiencing the same exasperation as I am made the drawn-out experience a little more tolerable.
A Visual Novel: Hyperdimension Neptunia's story is presented as a visual novel. Colorful character sprites given life through an image-warping breathing technique appear above text boxes, either speaking or mouthing the words that appear within. All but the most important non-player characters appear as black silhouettes in portrait boxes, a technique the game pokes fun at during one of its many side missions. "He looks like a black NPC silhouette, you can't miss him."
Opening up new areas to explore is done via text as well. New quests and story events will pop up in a simple list. Opening an item on the list brings up a text box describing what is going on, leading to either a visual novel-style cut scene or the addition of a new area to enter under the game's search menu. Blogs from each of the game's three enemy console goddesses and a radio station that textual reactions to your exploits feel like padding for a game already bursting at the seams with text.
Explored There, Killed That: When I wasn't busy scrolling through text I could be found exploring Hyperdimension Neptunia's cookie-cutter dungeon environments. There are only ten or so different dungeon themes spread across the game's dozens of missions, sometimes recolored to reflect which console goddesses domain i was adventuring in. These bland, repetitive landscapes were built for speed, not looks. Each non-story dungeon has an objective - kill X amount of creatures, defeat the boss, find the treasure - and players are urged to finish as quickly as possible, with larger monetary awards and a spot on the online leaderboards awaiting those that excel. Players not keen on competition (like myself) will find the repetition tedious, especially at higher levels when the game forces you to traverse the same low-level dungeons to move from one world to the other.
The repetition carries over to the game's enemies as well, notably the bosses. On a quest to recover four portions of a magical key, each dungeon ended with the exact same massive creature. I must have fought the game's final boss at least six times during my play through, only to have to fight essentially the same battle twice over again during the big climax.
A Buyer's Market: Throughout the game I constantly found myself purchasing the latest weapons, accessories, and CPU pieces to keep my party functioning at peak efficiency. With newer, more powerful items showing up in the game's stores on a regular basis, I soon found myself with an inventory filled with items I had absolutely no use for and no way to sell it back to the vendor. It's an odd design decision the oddness of which is compounded by the fact that each weapon in the game is specific to a certain character, and you can find duplicates of these items in dungeons, leading to having two copies of the same thing in your inventory, only one of which you will ever need.
Eventual Healing: Another puzzling game mechanic, healing in Hyperdimension Neptunia is based on percentages and chance. Each character learns item skills and gains ability points that can be placed in those skills. The number of points allotted to an item skill is the percentage chance that the character will execute that skill once a specific condition is met. Say a character has 40 points in a simply healing spell that kicks off when their health drops below 30 percent. That means there's a 60 percent chance your character would rather die than heal itself. Even at 100 percent these item skills aren't reliable, and each requires an amble amount of any combination of five medicine types earned by adventuring and bought through the store, so relying on items is a crap shoot, at best.
Hyperdimension Neptunia is an amusing diversion filled with charming characters and hilarious situations sure to strike a chord with anyone that's even remotely followed the game industry over the past decade. The cost of experiencing the game's charms is likely too high for most, and even the innovative combo system can't save Neptunia from becoming a dull and plodding exercise in repetition and recycling. The hardcore Japanese role-playing game fans have likely already played it. Everyone else should just ask them how it went.
Hyperdimension Neptunia was developed by Idea Factory and published by NIS America for the PlayStation 3, released on February 15. Retails for $59.99. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the main scenario on default difficulty, giggling at the game references. Spent hours fiddling with the combo system to get my party just right. Died four times on the final boss, that jerk. Played roughly 30 hours.