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Just like a bunch of teenagers with snazzy rings the forces of Sega, NIS America, Idea Factory and Compile Heart have combined their powers to summon Captain Planet... er I mean Hyperdimension Neptunia. This dungeon crawling Japanese role playing game (JRPG) draws inspiration from the never ending console war which sees video game fans feud over what is the best gaming system on the market. The game is set in the fictional world of Gamindustri which is broken up into four regions - Planeptune (based on the cancelled Sega Neptune) Leanbox (Xbox 360) Lowee (Wii) and Lastation (Playstation 3.)
In Gamindustri each region is protected by a Goddess who are bickering amongst themselves to see who should be the supreme Goddess that rules the world. The player takes the role of Neptune the deity responsible for Planeptune. When the game begins the three other Goddesses gang up on her sending her crashing down to the human world. The less than spectacular landing on her cranium results in Neptune losing her memory. Compa a nurse in training, finds her and heals her physical injuries, but is unable to cure Neptune's amnesia.
A short while later Neptune begins to hear a voice from someone called Histoire who asks Neptune to rescue her from the prison she is in by searching for key fragments that are scattered across the land. It's always a good idea to go along with the voices in your head so Nep decides to set off on a quest to recover the key fragments. Compa the sensitive nurse joins her and during their travels they team up with Iffy a cynical guild member. Their search will be hampered by monsters who are wrecking havoc in Gamindustri as well as Neptune's rival Goddesses who won't be too pleased to see the purple haired lass traipsing across their kingdoms. Can Neptune recover her memories, find the key fragments and put a stop to the evil force behind the monster invasion? That will all depend on your skill as a player.
The game uses a menu system whenever you are not inside a dungeon. By navigating the world menu you can visit the shop to buy equipment and items for your party, watch events which advance the story, manage your party (such as their battle formation, moves, gear and so on) and finally you get to pick which dungeon you want to tackle. There are story dungeons which need to be completed to progress further in the adventure along with a host of optional dungeons that you can beat to make cash or level up your characters. Each dungeon has an objective (beat a boss, search for the exit, find a hidden treasure chest etc) and after beating it you get ranked based on how quickly you accomplished your task. For those competitive players out there you get the option to upload your completion time on the world leader board to see how well you fare compared to other Hyperdimension fans across the globe.
Dungeon exploration has you controlling one of the heroines. There isn't much to completing your missions other than making your way through a maze and opening the odd treasure chest you come across. At anytime you can switch between the party's characters to take advantage of their unique skills such as Neptune's mallet that can smash obstacles that block your path. Iffy's special ability allows her to locate invisible chests whilst Compa has a bell that can be rung to summon a number of monsters to attack you. That may not sound like a good idea, but if you beat the monsters you call you won't have to contend with random encounters for a while (you won't see any creatures inside the dungeons, but in true JRPG fashion whenever you take a step there is a chance of being thrust into a battle.) The bell can also be handy for quickly completing dungeons which require you to beat a certain number of beasties.
COMBAT & HEALING
Battles in this game are a turn based affair. A queue at the top of the screen shows the attack order for the party and enemies. Every character has a number of action points which they spend to execute moves. The moves at your disposal include weapon attacks, physical moves, elemental shots and defence which reduces incoming damage. By chaining moves together you can pull off special combos which deal extra damage, replenish action points, switch out active characters with those in your reserve team or transform Neptune into her powerful Goddess form. This sounds deep, but it really isn't. I just found myself performing the same combos over and over. There really isn't a need to vary things up unless your characters level up and unlock a move that is more powerful than the one you are currently using.
One thing a lot of players have complained about this game is the usage of items. In most RPGs you can use items to heal your party whenever you wish. Unfortunately in Hyperdimension Neptunia healing and buffing your characters is automated. You are given points to allocate to each healing/buffing move you have which determines the frequency of when a move activates. For example you can set it so Neptune has a 50% chance to use potions to heal if her health points drop below a certain level when she gets hit. Once you level up enough you will be able to allocate enough points so the best moves trigger all the time, but the biggest problem is ending combat with characters close to death. You cannot heal outside of combat which forces you into the risky situation of going into action with hurt characters.
CHARACTERS & PLOT
As the combat revolves around doing the same combos over and over the game relies on the story to break up the repetition. Unfortunately the story isn't really all that great. It's nothing special when compared to other anime themed games. The idea of basing things on the console war is a good one, but they didn't utilise the idea to its fullest potential. You get some jokes that will make you chuckle (such as the Xbox Goddess collapsing when she overheats, poking fun at the infamous red ring of death) but a lot of the other jokes are just referencing games and fall flat. As with many NIS games the comedy also resorts to boob jokes which I no longer find funny (the flat chested lass who gets annoyed when people make fun of her breast size was funny the first time I saw it, but it's been overused in every NIS game I recall playing.)
I think having a bigger cast of characters would have helped. You spend most of the game with the same three characters and I didn't really like any of them. Neptune was a carefree heroine with a large appetite whose antics I found annoying. Compa was the typical sweet airhead you see in many an anime and Iffy's sarcastic remarks lacked punch as they went over the heads of the dense duo she travels with. You get two other travel companions (Gust and Nisa) later in the game who I liked more, but they are only playable if you get the game's downloadable content which was disappointing. It really felt like they were in the game originally and then taken out just so they could sell you extra content. The three rival Goddesses were, in my opinion, more interesting than the main characters and can be recruited as part of a second ending. Their cut scenes are entertaining, but you have to wait until the end game to get them which is too little too late.
PRESENTATION AND DIFFICULTY
In terms of challenge the game isn't too hard. There isn't much strategy to the combat as I mentioned earlier. If you get stuck on a tough dungeon your best bet is to find an easier level, run through it a few times to level up and then return to the dungeon giving you trouble once your characters have gotten stronger. One thing I found puzzling was the order in which the optional dungeons get unlocked. There are times when a new dungeon becomes available that is way below your level making it a breeze to run through. Other times you'll get dungeons that are way above your current level making them impossible to beat at that point in the game. There's no logic to it which gets frustrating. Why can't they just start low and increase in level as you progress through the game?
Graphically we get a mixed bag of quality. The story gets told via still pictures which are nice to look at if you are a fan of anime artwork. The in game graphics are however primitive by modern Playstation 3 standards. The game seems to have been built using the same engine as fellow RPG Trinity Universe which means you have to contend with a wonky camera that often had me walking past treasure chests due to the poor viewpoint used. Speaking of Trinity Universe, if you have played that game you will notice that they have reused enemies and backgrounds from that game in Hyperdimension Neptunia which is rather lazy. Another complaint I have with the visuals are the text size. If you don't have a HD television it is hard to make out the writing which I don't get. The screen is hardly crammed with stuff so why couldn't they have made the text a bit bigger?
Sound wise I don't have any complaints. The J-pop tracks they used for the opening and ending theme are decent if you are into that sort of thing. The background music that plays inside the dungeons can get annoying if listened to at length, but that isn't an issue as most dungeons can be cleared in under ten minutes. The dialogue was delivered well by the voice actors they hired and for hardcore otakus who dislike dubs there is an option to switch to the original Japanese track.
I'll give Hyperdimension Neptunia three stars out of five. It has a lot of faults, but I liked it enough to complete it and view the two different endings. It lasted me for a few weeks (playing a couple of hours a day) so I would guess that the main story has around thirty to forty hours of gameplay which is pretty good. If you really enjoy the game you can purchase downloadable content which raises the level cap and gives you tougher dungeons to beat, but given the repetitive combat I was content with beating the in disc adventure and leaving it at that.
Really this is a niche game. If you like dungeon crawling JRPGs you can overlook the faults and enjoy the game, but anyone else should probably give this a miss. To me it just feels like an inferior version of Trinity Universe. The cast isn't as likable as what we got in Trinity Universe and the dungeon crawling isn't as rewarding. In Trinity Universe you could farm dungeons for items to make better weapons and power up your characters. Here you only get what you buy from the store so replaying dungeons is just for people who want to record the quickest times on the leader board. A sequel is in the works so I hope that they address the issues mentioned in the second game. With more varied gameplay Hyperdimension Neptunia could develop into a popular series, but right now it will only cater to a limited audience.
Review also posted on Ciao.