Back in 2011 I played/reviewed the original Hyperdimension Neptunia, a Japanese dungeon crawling RPG, which I thought was decent even though it failed to live up to the promise raised by its intriguing concept. Set in the world of Gamindustri, which is ruled by goddesses based on video game consoles, the story detailed how the four rival deities put aside their rivalries to take on the threat of Arfoire (the embodiment of video game piracy.) My love for the anime art style and plot allowed me to forgive the game's biggest failings which included some clunky combat mechanics, unpolished controls and rough 3D visuals. Despite not being a big hit it seems like the original garnered a cult following because a year on we get treated to a sequel which does its best to polish out its predecessors weak spots.
In terms of story it seems like the producers adopted a policy of "if it ain't broke don't fix it" because the plot shares elements lifted from the first game. A criminal syndicate known as ASIC is doing their best to revive Arfoire by selling counterfeit copies of video game software/hardware. At the start of the game we see the heroines from the last Hyperdimension Neptunia attempt to stop the evil doers at the Gamindustri graveyard, but after getting overpowered by ASIC's powerful leaders they are captured and held hostage (bound in cables in a scene that eerily reminds me of something you would see in a hentai.) It's now up to the player to control Nepgear, the younger sister of the first game's main character, and her pals who set off to battle ASIC's minions and ultimately save the goddesses from the wire bondage predicament they find themselves in.
As with many NIS America released games the story features a lot of humour and thankfully the gags are more palatable than the jokes we got in the first game. Gone are the overabundance of unfunny boob jokes and this time round the writers have wised up to the fact that making random video game references alone isn't enough to amuse audiences. Although I cannot say that I was laughing out loud throughout the adventure I did find myself chuckling consistently at the random antics of the cast and how they poked fun of video game clichés. The absence of boob jokes doesn't however mean that things stay classy. The creators couldn't resist having the all female party appear in pervy pictures or skimpy garments, but hey this is a Japanese game so you have to accept that this kind of titillation comes with the territory.
In keeping with the format of the first game players will be expected to navigate menus to get things done. Whilst in town for example, by clicking on the relevant options you'll be able to purchase equipment from stores, craft items with the materials you pick up on your travels and visit the guild to take on repeatable side quests to earn some extra goodies. You can also select the "Chirper" box to chat with your characters and townspeople who are represented as tiny 2D avatars (perhaps too tiny as I found it hard to read their miniscule speech bubbles on my small TV.) Interacting with your party in this fashion increases your affection levels which plays a part in which of the game's multiple endings you will get. Once you are ready you can head out by clicking your destination on the world map. This streamlined approach to travel beats the pointless walking/waiting around which plagued the first game whenever you wanted to visit a different region.
The dungeon crawling feels smoother this time round thanks to improvements to the camera and character animation. As you explore each level you'll collect items needed for crafting and completing quests. Most of the collectibles are easily spotted although it is also possible to locate hidden items by emitting a sonar pulse. To speed up play random battles have been eliminated and replaced with visible monsters which you can choose to engage, by bumping into them, or avoiding altogether if you happen to be in a hurry. If you time things right you can inflict a pre-emptive strike on hostile creatures which gives you a slight edge in the upcoming fight. Attacking low level beast in this manner may instantly kill them which is handy for bypassing pointless fights whenever you revisit an area for material farming.
Combat is another aspect that has been tweaked in this sequel. Instead of traditional turned based duels we get a more strategy RPG like fight were you move your party of four active characters within a small arena. It's fairly basic, tactics wise, but it adds some extra depth to proceedings as you think about how to position your characters. Ideally you want to place your characters so they can hit multiple foes at once, but you also want to avoid bunching them up together as that makes them susceptible to area effect attacks. When striking the bad guys you get three moves to choose from. Pressing square inflicts a powerful strike, triangle unleashes a flurry of weak hits and x deals out a break attack that is designed to lower a target's guard (which increases the damage they take.) By performing combos with the trio of moves at your disposal it is possible to score some extra punches which becomes invaluable in building up your SP meter.
Why is the SP meter so important you may ask? Well you need a certain number of SP points to perform a character's array of special moves. SP points are accumulated by taking damage and whacking the bad guys which is why combination attacks are an effective way of replenishing them. The special moves vary from character to character and range from heals that restore health or remove status ailments, buffs that boost anything from accuracy to strength and devastating signature moves which deal out considerably more damage than the regular attacks you can perform. SP is also used to power the transformation of the goddess characters. Changing from human to CPU form makes the goddesses a powerful combatant, but every turn that passes drains their SP so you have to manage them carefully.
Visually Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 trounces the first game. The creators, who are known for utilising 2D sprites in their older titles, seem to have finally got to grips with 3D models. Although not stunning, the cartoony graphics are much better in the sequel and no longer resemble something you would see in a PS2 title. Although everything is more polished there are still areas that could be improved. The environment's textures could use a bit more detail and the artists responsible for the game's look are guilty of reusing enemies/backgrounds in certain levels (with the only thing changed being the model's colour.) Sound wise the music and effects are decent although nothing stands out aside from the J-Pop track that plays when the game loads up. The voice acting is for the most part adequate, although the poor delivery of Nepgear's lines is cringe worthy in parts. The actress in question was so terrible that I found myself relieved to discover that not all the cut scenes are voiced.
I gave the original Hyperdimension Neptunia three stars so I'll award the sequel four to reflect the fact that it's a marked improvement. JRPG fans who disliked the original may like the follow up thanks to the gameplay tweaks that have been implemented, improved graphics and larger selection of playable characters. It's far from a perfect game though and will only appeal to a specific audience. Personally I would like to see the combat system refined even further as it gets repetitive once you suss out a winning strategy that can get you through the entire game. Adding obstacles to navigate around, during the battles, for example would have made things more tactical than simply walking up to an enemy and unleashing the same combos over and over.
The game's length is also disappointing. Using the in game timer I clocked in thirteen hours before beating the final boss which is rather poor for a role playing game. Even if you choose to take advantage of the new game plus feature to replay the game and grab all the trophies/endings it still works out as being weak value for money. Because of that I would probably recommend renting the game or waiting for a price drop, although that is always a dangerous idea with NIS releases as not many copies get printed out. Due to limited stock their games are notorious for going up in value as they become harder to find. Alternatively you could pirate the game, but be warned that adopting Arfoire policies will likely get you arrested or beaten up by teenage goddesses in jailbait clothing.