Hyperdimension Neptunia has gotten a lot of press for its premise: personified game consoles who stop their war with each other to fight a villain named Arfoire. (Get it?) It’s an interesting concept, and a game full of industry references seems like a recipe for success. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fully commit, and the underlying gameplay isn’t quite as cohesive as it should be.
You play primarily as Neptune, the game’s version of Sega, as she gets kicked down from the goddesses’ realm down to the mortal world (populated by various third-parties). You team up with characters based on the companies involved in development, like Compa (Compile Heart), I.F. (Idea Factory), Gust (well, Gust) and Nisa (Nippon Ichi Software), and fight monsters in dungeons. Eventually you also acquire the other Console Patron Units to use.
The combat is turn-based, and uses a combo system. Face buttons correspond to actions, and you can chain up to four actions together. While the basic moves are simply physical attacks, weapon strikes and ranged shots, each character has a customizable move tree that you can slip special moves and combo link actions into. These special moves are where game references are made in combat, as game logos appear in them. (There are also “R/W Disc” moves, where you can customize the name and image to whatever you’d like.) You eventually gain up to six party members, but only three are active at a time. (There’s a “switch” move to bring in a reserve character.) There’s clearly a lot a player can do here, but it’s unclear why in many situations. Party members have strengths and weaknesses, so most of the time you’ll be constantly using the ranged attack button with the ranged character and avoiding range altogether with a melee expert. (Using special attacks is fun for a little bit, though. It’s just unfortunate that they don’t correspond to elements of the actual games they reference.)
Everything is set in a dungeon environment, with chests, items to pick up and mostly random encounters. (Boss battles are obvious and triggered.) Each character has an in-world ability. For example, I.F. finds hidden chests. This is a 3D world with a behind-the-back camera, and for dungeons so nondescript and spread out, it all seems a bit unnecessary.
Anyway, those who have played Compile Heart games in the past will be familiar with many of these design decisions, and many may find them endearing. The clear purpose of the game is to make game references, and that happens. The game is largely quest-driven, with players crossing back and forth across the four worlds taking care of various missions. Sometimes there are just vignettes, where the characters talk to each other about the world, and these were clearly meant to contain the industry charm.
That’s where the problem is. See, we love the game industry, and some well-timed jokes would redeem any experience. Neptunia, though, just makes references. It’s the difference between telling someone that you’re telling a joke and actually telling the joke. For example, do we like Tetris references? Yeah, we do! But a scene shows the characters talking about some off-screen people efficiently packing a truck, saying they work for a company that makes what certainly sounds like Tetris, and describing how they’re packing the truck. We want to get it. We don’t.
NIS America clearly wants to please its fans, and anyone who likes the game will really like it. They’ve bundled in a hardcover art book, and as they’ve done in the recent past, they made some of the game’s DLC available for free. It’s a wonderful gesture, and it’s something we hope continues, but it’s simply not something that would make someone enjoy the game if they don’t already.
If you’re a fan of esoteric Japanese RPGs, Neptunia has some redeeming qualities, and it certainly provides hours and hours of quests and battles. It’s not the breakthrough hit that will make gamers of all sorts laugh and have a good time, though.
Pros: System depth leads to hours of gameplay, slick visuals can be rare in niche titles
Cons: Tedium abounds at every turn, jokes miss the mark