In my many years writing about videogames, I have to say it's rare to come across a game concept that gives me pause. Hyperdimension Neptunia, the new RPG from SEGA and Idea Factory, is one such rarity. The game's general concept is so wacky, and its execution so over the top, it's hard not to at least take notice.
The wacky concept in question is hard to describe without sounding completely insane, but here goes: imagine that all of the current videogame consoles were personified as cutesy anime girls. Now, also imagine that these cutesy anime girl-console-goddesses are at war with each other for dominance of a planet (called "Gameindustri"), and that one of them represents a semi-fictitious console from SEGA called the "Neptune," who is also the main character, and... Confused? Yeah.
The concept is certainly original, and it will no doubt tickle the funny bones of cooler-than-thou hardcore gamers, but Idea Factory clearly struggles with communicating all the details. Hyperdimension Neptunia has an unflattering amount of static dialogue, to the point where it feels more like a Japanese dating sim or a radio show than a traditional video game.
Countless, unskippable dialogue sequences pervade every inch of the main story, from the first moment you pop in the disc until the final conflict for console supremacy. It doesn't help that the English-language voice acting is, as we've come to expect, God awful. The Japanese voices are far better, especially if you speak Japanese, but they don't do much to salve your boredom-pickled brain after hours of slogging through the interstitials.
When you actually get to play the game, you’re unlikely to be impressed by the graphical acumen of its art team. Sure, the visual style could be argued as a tribute to the older generation of console games, but when the game is so aesthetically unappealing that excuse only goes so far. Neptunia also tries to obfuscate its graphics by chucking a whole lot of flesh at you in the form of its all-female cast of characters, and the result feels both patronising and oddly sinister.
Unfortunately, the gameplay isn't going to redeem Hyperdimension Neptunia, either. It, too, is decidedly old school: linear dungeons patterned with drab, repetitive textures, simplistic puzzles, straightforward enemies, predictable boss battles, and not a whole hell of a lot of imagination.
The combat system initially seems robust and ambitious, featuring an apparently action-oriented interface in which you choose from a series of different button presses to execute different combos on enemies. The problem is that this system is inadequately explained by the game, and very confusing in its implementation.
Neptunia tries a similar approach to the vastly superior Persona series, where trial-and-error in battle is necessary to expose certain enemies’ weaknesses. But the enemies are boring, the pace is frustratingly slow, and the way the game handles special abilities and items severely limits your options.
Rather than allow you to directly use a characters' special abilities, you assign each special a priority in a separate rankings menu. The AI will automatically use specials according to their priority ranking, when certain criteria have been met. This means it's impossible to heal your characters at will, and as the game goes on, these abilities become so powerful that battles give way to nearly automatic victories.
In basic terms, the actual game here isn't very good. But let's be honest, not everyone’s interest in Neptunia will be tied to gameplay. A lot of folks are looking for a slice of Japanese otaku life as a video game, or just some anime fan-service, and if that's the case you won't be disappointed. But if you're hoping for the next Final Fantasy, or some genuinely funny or interesting writing, Hyperdimension Neptunia is not the way to go.
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