Long time readers know I generally regard licensed games like an extremely loud party in the neighbor’s apartment; I never asked for it, don’t really want it, and when I’m confronted by one I end up spending hours of my life thinking, “Isn’t there something I’d much rather be doing with my life?” We all know what’s wrong with them: low-effort design that replicates popular games that have preceded it while simultaneously stripping away all the best parts. They’re rushed jobs with very little thought or care into making them fun, selling themselves solely on the idea that people will pay $50 to have a plastic disc or cartridge with the same name as that movie they saw last summer. But honestly, why even wait for a movie or TV show to come along that needs to be licensed before? Couldn’t we develop a game with the same lack of effort, without the need to pay expensive licensing costs?
Hyperdimension Neptunia answers that question with a resounding, triumphant, “Meh.” This PS3 RPG offers overly simplistic design and gameplay that make NDS games look like virtual reality. The story, which I can only describe as “The 50 Shades of Grey to Sailor Moon’s Twilight,” is so shallow you couldn’t drown a hamster in it. The opening scene establishes four goddesses have spent the last few aeons fighting each other in “The Console War,” a conflict explained with all the clarity of a Loch Ness Monster photo. After a fiercely intense battle, three of the goddesses descend to the human realm of “Gamindustri,” while Neptune, the fourth goddess, plummets head-first into the ground, inflicting her with a pretty severe case of Writers’ Convenience Amnesia. Neptune, named for the canceled Sega Neptune console, bears a striking resemblance to another air-headed, ditzy, immature, meatball-haired young girl named for a heavenly body. She soon begins to collect a posse: Compa, named for the game’s partner developer Compile Heart; IF, named for another developer, Idea Factory; Gust, another developer; and Nisa, named for Nippon Ichi Software of America–who all follow Sailor Moon archetypes: Compa, the demure smart one; IF, the strong-willed, competent yet independent one; Gust, the weird one of notably unusual stature; and Nisa, the exuberant, capable heroine who has been fighting crime since long before Neptune’s quest began. Together, they travel through the four nations of Planeptunia (Sega Neptune), Lastation (Playstation), Leanbox (XBox) and Lowee (Wii). I honestly don’t know whether to chalk this game up to Sailor Moon Fan-Fiction or Sega misconstruing the audience who would enjoy such a grandiose inside joke.
Because ha-ha! Isn’t it funny that we’re talking about corporate competition satirically–except without the wit, humor, or even enough subtlety to catch a dead cow unaware. Hyperdimension Neptunia clearly wants to be funny, but resorts to humor that wouldn’t meet the standards of a 10th-season episode of the Big Bang Theory. If one of the easiest ways video games introduce levity is by breaking the fourth wall; Neptunia treats the line between game and audience like a piñata filled with wine glasses. Cut scenes are almost as lazy as the humor, consisting of character art over dialogue boxes, much like common fare in a DS game. At first, I thought something seemed off about this, but then I realized that the artwork was moving, although after finishing the game I still can’t be sure if they meant to give the illusion that their game was animated, or if they just wanted to see the girls’ breasts jiggle; however, far from wiggling like appealing sacks of jello, the animation swells and fades slowly. Far from coming off as sexualized or even resembling a character’s chest rising and falling as they breath, the sprite animation moves slowly and subtly enough to induce a faint sense of nausea, perhaps in attempt to sicken any players not yet turned off by the story or gameplay.
The game itself follows the trope of “Heroes traveling the world to help people, who all coincidentally have problems that require monsters at the center of dungeons to be slain.” Honestly, RPG worlds must be wonderful places, where no one ever needs a ride to the airport, someone to feed their cat while on vacation, or their grandchildren to figure out how to get their computer’s display right-side-up again. If a problem can’t be solved with excessive amounts of fantasy violence, then damn it, it isn’t a problem! Unless, in this case, it’s something easily resolved in a cut scene. Furthermore, if the quest doesn’t involve a crystal cave, chances are there’s nothing worthwhile inside it, as at least 25% of the dungeons visited are modestly labyrinthine crystal caves.
And it’s not just dungeons that suffer from less diversity than the NHL; if the player isn’t selecting quests and cutscenes on the world map or navigating miniature labyrinths, then you’re in battle. Unlike Cross Edge, Neptunia’s battle system isn’t quite plagued with enough problems to make the Black Death look like a mild pollen allergy, but it’s easy to tell that the same team of developers had a hand in both games. The most notable problem is that depending on what phase of attack you’re in, the cancel and attack keys can switch between the circle and square buttons. These are never things you want to get confused. I have a black belt in Korean kendo, and I never once learned that the best way to sheathe my sword was to embed it in the nearest esophagus, nor has anyone suggested that the best way to ward off murderous samurai is to sheathe my sword and toss it to the bottom of a lake. What’s worse, those are pretty much the only options for action in battle. Yes, you can change the technique used for each attack in the menu, but you can’t cast magic or use items. Healing and support effects are limited, and require possession of a certain amount of any number of four distinct items, and every effect uses a combination of the same four items, which not only requires a huge supply, but makes as much sense as using Windex for glass, counter tops, floors, strep throat, gasoline, cat food and geometry homework. But assuming you have stocked your bomb shelter with enough of the stuff to last a nuclear winter, you still have a certain number of points you use to raise the percentage of time each skill is used, and then only if a certain condition–like taking damage or defending–is met. In short, combat is dull and repetitive, and has pretty much the same result as a chemistry field trip to a casino to learn about limiting reagents. The cherry on top of this sundae of bland is the option to skip attack animations. While some of them are fun to watch once or twice, specific battle timers still run through the animations, including the length of time before an enemy restores defenses. While skipping the animations saved me from playing this game well into the summer of 2017, I don’t think battles where numbers magically fall away from combatants’ life totals would entertain me if I had a a briefcase full of pot.
Let’s see…what else can I complain about? Because both battle and the story give you fewer options than your average presidential election, most items you collect do little more than make your inventory look like the floor of a nine-year-old’s bedroom. Except for Neptune, Compa, and IF, you have to purchase the right to use additional characters as DLC, along with costume items and probably a handful of weapons and accessories. The bosses are as boring, simplistic, and repetitive as an Earth Wind and Fire album. Except for the playable characters and literally only two others, all other dialogue is spoken by generic silhouettes. Oh, and the five or sicks music tracks repeated through the game generally make as much sense as syncing up the Ride of the Rohirrim and the Battle of Pelennor fields with the Benny Hill theme. Except, unlike Hyperdimension Neptunia, I’d probably play it more than once.
What the hell does hyperdimension mean, anyway? They use the term in Disgaea, too…
(Sorry guys, but I’m going back to posting every other week for a while. In addition to being swamped with work, I’ve also taken on a stage manager position for 42nd Street, which will take up the next six weeks of my life…also, I’ve started playing Disgaea, which could easily take up the next six months.)