Hyperdimension Neptunia begins with one of the most esoteric plots seen in an RPG. Perhaps, I should say RParody? Four buxom goddesses, symbolic representations of current video game consoles, are deadlocked in a console war in Celestia. Three of them agree to kick one goddess out. A moe version of video game company Compile Heart nurses Purple Heart back to health and she wakes up in our world as Neptune.
While the plot is, well, out of this world, Hyperdimension Neptunia plays like a typical role playing game. Neptune and Compa, who cheerfully agrees to join her, immediately hit the dungeons to level up (Neptune actually mentions this). IF or Iffy, a tsundere type who represents developer Idea Factory, rounds out the group for most of the game. By flipping through a text menus players can watch event scenes to move the story along or select an option to talk to people for side quests. Both paths lead to box-like dungeons with one of three goals: kill a boss, fetch a certain number of items (this usually involves hunting a certain monster type) or finding the exit.
Dungeons may be tiny, but more monsters are crammed inside Neptunia’s dungeons than a GameStop shelf with Petz games. Prepare for a ton of battles. Compile Heart developed a combat system quite similar to Trinity Universe – battles are turn based and each attack uses a bit of AP. As long as a character has AP their turn continues and attacks connect into four hit combos. Hyperdimension Neptunia lets players customize their characters by assigning moves in an extensive combo tree. Every single node can be set with attacks you learn by punching 8-bit characters in the beginning of the game and cybermonsters in later areas. While you can spend hours optimizing your combos, I found two sets of attacks that connect into each other are plenty.
Especially, because the main way of dealing elemental damage is by selecting a bullet (wind/fire/etc.) and mashing the X button. Hit an enemy with their weakness repeatedly to send them into guard break status, which gives you a limited time to deal extra damage. You’ll pick up on this strategy fast since you need to utilize it for most bosses. Guard break status occurs in realtime, so if you want to maximize its length you have to fast-forward attack animations. Hyperdimension Neptunia lets players hit a button to do this, but once you get in the habit of pressing it battles become choppy affairs where Neptune starts a flip kick but suddenly teleports to the ground and numbers fly all over the place. Compile Heart licensed a few retro Sega characters like Alex Kidd and Opa-opa (the ship from Fantasy Zone) to summon from rewritable discs. Players can even create their own summons – Mario, Cloud, your pet cat, Black Rock Shooter – and add them to Hyperdimension Neptunia by importing a photo saved on your PlayStation 3 into the game. Watching a picture of Ponyo bounce around on the screen eventually causing an earthquake… that does less damage than one of Iffy’s slaps is amusing, but so inefficient most players will skip the RW system all together.
Keeping tradition with other Idea Factory titles, Hyperdimension Neptunia has an obtuse healing system. You can’t directly heal characters during or after battles. When you win enemies explode into colorful vials, which you need to grab. These are used to restore HP, but you can’t tell Compa (or her friends) when to use them. Players set healing points, which give characters a certain chance they will use a healing ability when they are below 50% HP, for example. Early in Neptunia points are scarce so you only have a chance of keeping a character alive. This frustrating design makes Neptunia more difficult in the beginning than it probably should be. Later in the game you can set a healing skill’s trigger rate to 100% if you throw a ton of points into it. Points can be reassigned mid-battle, so if you’re low on life your best bet is to temporarily move all of your points into a single ability and keep your fingers crossed.
Most missions can be completed in minutes – if you skip searching for hidden chests with IF’s field ability and fast forward all attacks. Hyperdimension Neptunia has on the fly online leaderboards that track of the best times, perhaps adding some replay value for dungeon sprinters. However, the main draw of Hyperdimension Neptunia is not crawling through another cave/field/whatever. It’s the story.
Neptunia’s bizarre premise of an all-girls console war is realized with a hefty dose of boob jokes and video game gags. Most of video game puns are weaved into the dialogue so well you may not even realize them at first and many references will fly over people’s heads since they’re so specific. However, that’s also why the jokes hit a mark when you can catch them. Neptunia’s moments of brilliance are in NIS America’s clever localization which often plays with spelling to create words that sound the same, but are spelled differently. Take the game’s nemesis Arforie as an example. All of the jabs at Mario, Gears of War, and even NIS America’s titles are told with talking character portraits. Similar to Trinity Universe a breathing effect was applied so characters look more lively, but the dozens of hours of cutscenes are presented with (mostly) static characters. There’s actually a bit more content in our version of Hyperdimension Neptunia than the original Japanese release. 5pb’s radio shows, which were released as downloadable content months later, are on disc.
As I played through Hyperdimension Neptunia, I wondered if Compile Heart’s game design was, in a way, a mockery of RPGs. You have flashy summon attacks that drain AP, but do little damage. Dungeons are designed so players can beat them in minutes instead of hours by making Compa use her magic monster calling bell. A good amount of customization options were created, but players will utilize basic elemental bullets for most of the game. As a contrast to modern RPGs, Compile Heart made some interesting design choices. Perhaps, if the localization wasn’t as witty or used a generic fantasy setting players may have given up on Gamindustri.