Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth 1 is a game of two parts. One of those parts is silly, lighthearted, and occasionally cringeworthy, and the other is a white-knuckle struggle fought on the edge of a blade. You’re either watching your party of moefied game consoles and companies joking around and slowly progressing through a story, or you’re in a dungeon fighting for your life. There’s no real exploration to speak of, since your destinations are chosen from a top down map that’ll either take you into a menu, a visual novel section, or a dungeon.
Neptunia’s story is so focused on being silly that it uses Neptune, its knowingly-hapless protagonist, to defuse any situation that borders on serious with jokes or simple interruption. Whereas Disgaea breaks up its zaniness with heavy character moments and LucasArts adventure games stories through their twisted humor, Neptunia has no such aspirations. Yes, there’s technically a an overarching story about an unending war between four goddesses who each represent various consoles that are being manipulated by the evil with Arfoire, but that’s quickly brushed aside with a shot of amnesia.
Once Neptune loses her memory (about 4 minutes into the game), she’s more interested in referencing videogames or eating pudding than remembering that she’s an all-powerful goddess.
There’s a deliberate weightlessness to everything that happens in these segments. Characters representing various companies and franchises are introduced, say a couple of reverence heavy lines, mention being friends with Neptune in another timeline, and disappear with no impact upon the storyline. Even attempted murder is treated with all the nonchalance of a walk in the park. It’s strangely refreshing to play a game that has no intention of taking itself seriously, but it’s hard to care enough to sit through the mounds of text when your party members are teasing one party about her perceived attraction to another instead of being impacted by the world-changing events taking place.
Unfortunately, the localization also feels a little bit like nobody cared. Considering how much dialogue the game contains, it can be frustratingly stilted and only further detracts from the story. Some of the slang and game jokes are pretty well put together, but a lot of text feels like it was written by someone who had a sturdy grasp of English as their second language, but wasn’t quite native-level. English voice actors do their cheery best to make up for it, but you can tell that some lines even give them pause. An extra editor could have done wonders.
When you first enter a “dungeon,” you’d be forgiven for thinking that this part of the game was just as laid back and happy as the rest. Most of the time, when you enter a new dungeon you’ll end up in a bright forest or sunny field (even the caves and abandoned factories are pretty cheerful and well-lit in the game’s pastel art style), and be pitted against everything from a Tetris block gone wrong to a two-color version of a Mario pipe, to a visual novel. Why do you have to fight these things? Because they’re monsters. How did an unmoving-yet-sentient visual novel become an enemy? Who knows! The game looks like it’s just being silly until you enter combat.
Neptunia’s battle system is labyrinthine and insane. It’s like they crammed a speedy SRPG into every random encounter. Spacing is everything. When it’s one of your characters’ turn, a ring will appear around them displaying their range of movement and a shape in front of them displaying the area their attack will cover. This area will be based on the character’s weapon type, so you’ll want to equip your toughest characters with as big a weapon as possible. Highlight as many enemies as you can with your attack area, and then attack to start a combo, which has you choose from your preset attacks with a series of button presses.
Combos are based on three types of attacks. Power Attacks (mapped to Square), Break Attacks (X), and Rapid Attacks (Triangle). Power attacks are pretty self explanatory, dealing as much raw HP damage as possible. Break attacks will eat away at the opponents guard gauge, which can be broken to deal bonus damage. Rapid attacks will build up the EXE Drive gauge, which, when raised high enough, will allow you to add highly-damaging finishing moves to your combo (for no cost, strangely) or can be spent to use an ungodly special attack.
Regular enemies are pretty simple to take care of, as long as you don’t position your teammates in such a way that enemies can hit them simultaneously. If you keep your characters too close to each other, NPCs are capable of wiping you out in just a couple moves. There is no mercy in Neptunia. Death will send you right back to your last save point, without anything to show for it.
Bosses and the larger enemies that populate Neptunia’s (often frustratingly reused) dungeons bring all of these aspects of combat to a head. You’re constantly balancing your attacks between Breaks and Rapids to decrease the enemy’s guard gauge while filling your EXE Drive meter, all the while keeping your healer just far enough away from the boss to keep her alive but close enough to your attackers to be useful. Maybe you’ve arranged your party the way you did because your assist characters decrease the amount of wait time between turns for your strongest attacker and decrease your healer’s magic use for her heal spells. You know your enemy can drop any one of your characters in a single hit, so you’ve stocked up on revival items, just in case.
You don’t want to see that game over screen and lose all you’ve worked for… and you really don’t want to have to skip through that lengthy visual novel segment where everyone has trouble pronouncing “Neptune” again.
Food for Thought:
1. For a game that’s so lighthearted and cheerful, the fact that the game’s “event” scenes are only animated to the extent that they add jiggling breasts weirds me out.
2. The writers of the game really liked names that ended in “oire,” There game has a Noire, an Yvoire, a Histoire, and an Arfoire…