The Hyperdimension Neptunia series is an odd one. Presenting the current console generation as seen through anime-tinted glasses is a bold move and one that holds more potential than is actually realised. Primarily a turn-based RPG of sorts, Hyperdimension continues the franchise trait of including as many copyright-baiting references as possible. Your protagonist, Nepgear, heads up a team of female clichés including the well-worn anime stalwarts such as the feisty one, the overtly cute one and the pair of twins. The game is aimed directly at gamers who indulge in the less subtle anime series that occupy a genre in Japan, filled with simple humour and hamster-voiced heroines. The game isn’t the problem – it’s the presentation that causes problems.
Things get off to a conflicted start. The intro movie is a dazzling spectacle of flashy graphics, well-drawn anime characters and upbeat music injected directly into your retina and tortured eardrums. Before long, however, you might feel the need to close the doors and curtains and not just to keep the blaring J-pop contained. It’s a contentious issue but the depiction of a few characters is outright unnerving – blatantly underage girls in skimpy outfits which straddle the line between cute and sexualised. Couple that with the opening cutscene, featuring a few motion-comic stills where all the motion revolves around the chest area and you’ve got the idea. This level of fan service permeates the title; potentially a plus for some or consignment to the void for others. Games with this content are commonplace in Japan but rather conspicuous when brought to Western markets, thanks to a cultural difference that doesn’t translate particularly well. Whilst shops full of risque anime line the streets of Akihabara, the UK passes a law that restricts such controversial depictions - something that might highlight the average gamer's reaction to this title.
The lolicon style (cute girls who look younger than their age) and tacit sexualisation acts like a gateway to wean out those who will not like the rest of the game. If the art style isn’t to your liking then you’ll feel like a vegetarian at a Sunday carvery. Hyperdimension Neptunia Mk2 is all about the grind – be it quests, pointless discussions or outfitting your team with the latest weapons, potions and maid clothes. Overlaid on top of all of these distractions is a convoluted yet guility enjoyable story, a thinly disguised comment on the problems facing today’s game industry. The villainous Arfoire crime syndicate (say the name out loud) are threatening to destroy the world of Gamindustri and it falls on your characters – so-called CPU candidates – to avert chaos. This rather in-your-face naming convention continues to the three major areas of the world map – Lastation, Lowee and Leanbox. This method of finger-pointing, in-your-face parody is awkward and not wholly successful – a more subtle comment on the state of gaming would come across as a far more sophisticated way of deriving humour at the expense of console fanboyism. Instead the references seem throwaway, existing entirely in the form of names. Certain enemies evoke console mascots but changing one letter in their name seems uninspired, especially when it’s simply the name that evokes recognition. A black teddy-bear named Pirachu only calls Pokemon’s electric mouse to mind because of its name, rather than its appearance.
Aside from the hit-and-miss humour, the game hides a competent battle system. Battle events are turn-based, instigated by walking up to enemies wandering through each area with pre-emptive strikes offering an initial advantage and a chance of defeating the enemy outright. By the end of the second chapter you’ll have a team to command, with each member matching standard RPG skill types. Battling earns you Skill Points, which accrue until you have enough to initiate any skills your squad member has learned. It’s not a unique system by any means – Final Fantasy has been doing this for a long time – but the ability to activate HDD mode encourages conservative use of these points. HDD mode – the letters standing for Hard Drive Divinity – boosts the damage your character can inflict but constantly drains Skill Points, making it a balancing act between exerting damage and maintaining a Skill Point reserve. Factor in the use of various potions, boosters and items and you’ve got a solid battle system that treads the right line between difficult and unfair.
However, to reach a high enough level to battle some of the more fearsome opponents you’ll have to contend with a lot of grinding. Each of the main cities on the world map feature the same set of menu options – Guild, Item Synth, Chirper and Store. Item Synth allows the combination of found miscellany to form useful items while Chirper is an in-game parody of Twitter, opening up extra dialogue between characters improving their inter-team relationships. It’s little more than a series of pop-up dialogue boxes, ultimately starting up a short vignette. The Guild of each city features a gamut of quests to peruse and complete, often revolving around collecting items or defeating a set number of enemies. It’s telling that, upon completion, these quests are immediately refreshed in the Guild for you to repeat ad nauseum. At least Hyperdimension Neptunia Mk2 doesn’t hide its grinding monotony – there’s even an item that will resuscitate all of the enemies in a particular dungeon for you to beat all over again! Quests often come with a tongue-in-cheek description – one such mission risking the ire of the internet by baiting the Anonymous hacking group – but it’s highly unlikely anyone will read each and every one. Once you’ve completed the quest the small amount of fun derived from the task is removed and it becomes a chore. You’ll have to endure the same quests over and over in order to reach the appropriate level for later, mandatory battles. With little in the way of extravagant cutscenes it is once again down to your fondness for cute girls squabbling as to whether you judge your time fit for grinding. Again, grinding is an accepted and desired style of play in Japan - the process of levelling becomes more important than the result itself. Western audiences aren’t averse to constant toil to level up but the reward - raunchy anime vignettes - may not come as much of a reward to bemused gamers.
It’s a good thing that the battle system is solid enough, given that the game has trouble rendering the noticeably under-par graphics. The exploration parts of the game see you navigating Nepgear around sparsely populated areas. These areas are recycled throughout the game and recall the same cel-shaded look of Valkyria Chronicles, albeit without the nuance and detail. Nepgear runs around in an overly girly manner, the camera given just the right degree of movement to allow sneaky upskirt shots. Chugging along at under 30fps it doesn’t look particularly smooth, with some densely populated battles shooting the framerate down to jerky levels of unplayability. Aside from the battle and exploration parts there’s a certain charm to the hand drawn stills that act as area backdrops during dialogue although they suffer the symptom of repetition as well. The lipsync is abysmal unless you have the language set to Japanese (a nice option that is included) and there’s randomness as to which dialogue scenes have recorded audio and which do not. Thankfully, cutscenes can be zipped through using a dedicated ‘skip’ button the developers mercifully chose to include.
There’s a lot to like about Hyperdimension Neptunia Mk2. The ‘Mk2’ in the title is well-deserved – the first game was nearly unplayable – and the art design will delight fans of lolicon anime. Even the beginning of the game has a brief yet endearing video clip of the developer giving you a spirited thumbs-up amidst words of encouragement. However there are litanies of niggling problems that compound the feeling that this is a very niche budget title. Combat utilises a dual menu system, switched via the right trigger, unfortunately featuring both the ‘item’ and ‘standby’ options mapped to the same button. More than a handful of times a battle would be lost by accidentally skipping the turn with the intention of consuming a healing salve. Certain tracks of the score are equally irksome, their chirpy blandness leaving you begging for earplugs. A lot of these problems will be magnified or appreciated depending on your tolerance to J-RPGs, but even the genre’s most staunch admirers will soon tire of the shameless grind.
Hyperdimension Neptunia uses its one gimmick to stand out from the crowd of J-RPGs available but the parody is so wafer-thin it might as well be served to Mr Creosote. The solid battle system does offer brief moments of dynamic spectacle but the technical limitations never allow them to achieve awesomeness. Anyone looking for an RPG with similar and more explosive battles will find plenty of other, less obscure examples on the market. Those who are looking for something a little more niche – and you’ll have to appreciate the anime styling for all its shrill exuberance – will likely treasure Hyperdimension Neptunia Mk2 for its unashamed fan service. However, these panty-flashing, breast-jiggling winks and nudges alienate your average gamer – while it’s been done in other games like Dead or Alive, the character models here are just too juvenile. It’s rare to play a game that necessitates discretion from others, but this title might warrant a closed curtain or two. In the end, you’ll know from the cover whether this is your type of thing, but hours of grinding for a poorly scripted bit of dialogue and implied lesbian kissing is an uneven exchange. Yes, there are thrills to be had but like a lot of the game they are cheap and lacking substance.