I couldn't write a stranger story than Hyperdimension Neptunia, a world known as Gamindustri that parallels our own, ruled over by four goddesses who are constantly at odds with each other. Banishing one of their own, the fallen goddess recovers as an amnesiac who's just ditzy enough to go out on a crazy 'save the world' type of adventure while she attempts to regain her memory. Along the way she'll cross paths with the goddesses she once fought, each modeled after the current generation of video game consoles. With plenty of tongue-in-cheek references to the world of video games as a whole, including an enemy who's name is a direct reference to a certain Nintendo DS piracy device, it's safe to say that when NIS gets together with developers, Gust, Compile Heart, and Idea Factory, they'll come up with some of the most off the wall scenarios in gaming. But is an abstract humorous story enough to cover the technical flaws within? I think this might be one of those games that you have to look beyond the superficial to find the real beauty.
I don't want to come off harsh on the developers, but it's kind of hard not to these days. This is their third foray into making a PS3 game together, and while the game is solid in that there are no game breaking glitches or serious bugs, there are still a ton of technical issues that really hold this game back from being an overall success. The graphics are definitely a step up from Trinity Universe, but the framerate is terrible. The controls are at times less than responsive, which I wonder how that would occur in an RPG. The presentation of missions and story is clunky and confusing, and the gameplay is at best acceptable but also can be boring. Yet in spite of all of this I found myself enjoying Neptunia quite a bit. I don't know what it is about this game, but it charmed me quite a bit, then it lost me, then I was back on board.
Graphically this game is unimpressive, with locales that look less than inspired, full of repeated scenery and weak texture work. This would be a bit less offensive if you weren't running along the same locations constantly. I can only take looking at the same cave and ruins so many times before it gets old. The characters themselves aren't too much to be impressed by, except for the goddess characters in their battle form, who look pretty good. The animation is rough in most places with stiff movements and recycled actions for all but the flashiest of attacks. The worst offense out of all of this though is how the game runs. The framerate is inconsistent at best, and really holds this game back from being passable from a graphical standpoint, and it actually feels like it has an effect on the controls of the game, causing them to respond slowly when the action dragged the framerate down. It is actually somewhat mind boggling that a game that looks so basic runs so poorly. Outside of combat though, the development team has put together some fantastic looking characters that seem even better than what Trinity Universe had to offer. The characters have this weight and movement to them, seeing them breathe, get flustered, watching their hair move as they idle about, it looks impressive and you can't really appreciate it until you see it moving in front of you. Those who have seen Odin Sphere
will have a rough idea of what I am talking about.
Gameplay is your standard RPG fare, and comes with all the bad and good of that distinction. Random battles will haunt you wherever you go, though if you summon and fight a few groups of enemies all at once you can halt the random battles for a set period of time which is a nice addition, and great for trudging through dungeons where you just want to search for items. The battle system is where the most depth lies with combat that closely resembles Trinity Universe, using the face buttons of the PS3 controller to determine attacks. Initially you'll have four moves available, both physical and ranged that can be strung together for combos, and as you progress you'll unlock moves that will serve to extend these combos and unleash devastating attacks, which is not much of an overstatement, some of these moves that you'll learn as early as level twenty can absolutely demolish a group of enemies in just one turn. To create combos takes quite a bit of planning and a little bit of memorization on what attacks you lined up, since you only have so many action points in a turn you need to pay attention to which attacks you want to use. While normal combat is pretty easy to figure out, the weaknesses of enemies is difficult to track, and you might not always have easy access to a spell or attack that will help you out. The same could be said for item usage. There is no item menu in the game, rather there is a system that is similar to the gambits of Final Fantasy XII, where under certain conditions an item will be used. As you level up you'll be given points that will increase the percentage chance of using an item in the required situation. The problem here lies in the fact that overlapping scenarios don't trigger multiple items for use. Let's say I wanted to restore my parties hit points but also needed to revive someone. In most cases the revival would take place instead of healing my party, so rather than have two capable party members, I am instead left with three weak party members. Of course you've also got to make sure you have the necessary synthesis items on hand in order to make use of items in battle. I think I like this system more than the typical synthesis that Gust titles normally have, since it doesn't require me to go on wild goose chases for items, since they are simply dropped after every battle.
The story is definitely one of the most interesting aspects of this game. As Neptune, an exiled goddess with a serious case of amnesia, you'll run around the four worlds of Gamindustri (yes that's an intentional pun, which you can say about all future puns as well) hunting for key fragments to unlock and save the tome that makes up the whole world of Gamindustri. You'll traverse across Planeptune, Leanbox, Lastation, and Lowee and meet the representative goddesses along the way who are definitely confused by this turn of events. You'll progress through the story by exploring each of the worlds, and selecting from a list of events, which is a rather inefficient way of doing it, rather than just give you the pertinent information you're instead forced to examine each possible story piece which can by a silly little side story, a new dungeon, or actual storyline material. The story is typically delivered using the nice high resolution character sprites with plenty of voice acting, though curiously the English dub track is missing dialog for some characters, like the side story radio DJ who likes to detail your exploits with fan letters. I think this is one time where I might have preferred the English language track just because the Japanese track takes some of their acting a little over the top. Though English attempts at “moe” styled dialog typically fall flat and this case is no exception. It really comes down to personal preference, and I actually found myself switching between English and Japanese throughout the journey.
While the story is definitely unique and interesting it also has really awkward pacing thanks to the four different worlds, I found myself sticking to one at a time, not sure when it was safe to branch out. I then hit a wall where enemies were simply too strong for me, and as a result I finally moved to a different world, only to find I was ridiculous over-powered. Had the dungeons actually scaled to my level I think I would have experienced a bit smoother transition between worlds. Instead I am forced to experience a fragmented story since I have to constantly be moving between worlds. This also had me spending a lot of time wondering where the hell the rest of my party was. I spent over twenty hours in the game learning skills that were useful for switching out characters in the midst of battle, but didn't have anyone to use the skills with.
I really appreciate NIS taking a chance on Hyperdimension Neptunia, since I honestly could not see any other company trying to release it in America. It's a shame that the collaboration with Idea Factory and Compile Heart has so many technical flaws that were present in past games that keep rearing their ugly heads here. The less than impressive graphics, the horrendous framerate, and the story that starts to fragment once the game gets rolling, it all adds up to an experience that is close to being good, but just falls short ever so slightly. I wanted to like Neptunia, and for a while I was enjoying myself, but once the story started to get fragmented I started to lose interest, which really seems like a shame, since you can tell a lot of love went in to the characters and the world they inhabit. But even then I was compelled to get through this game just to see where the story would go. Part of me loved Neptunia, and part of me loathes it, here's to hoping that if NIS teams up with these companies again they're able to get around all of their technical shortcomings to deliver something truly spectacular.