The premise of the Hyperdimension Neptunia series is intriguing: a world, not-so-subtly named Gamindustri where games consoles are anthropomorphised into doll-like girls. With this console generation dragging itself towards retirement it seems an opportune moment for a slice of biting satire. It’s a shame that the fifth (hence the ‘V’) title in the franchise spends more time leering at young girls than making any such point about gaming.
If you’ve played one of the previous entries then you’ll be fully aware of what to expect: candy-coloured, anime-styled art with a wafer-thin plot attached. Any newcomers will likely be dazzled by the seizure-inducing attract movie, accompanied as ever by an amnesia-triggering J-Pop song, before encountering the true nature of the game: long, waffly tracts of inane dialogue broken up with the occasional boss battle or fetch quest. It’s the most Japanese of JRPGs, right down to the necessary but interminable grinding. The reward for hours upon hours of repetition? Fan-service and lots of it.
Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory has certainly been streamlined, seemingly to accommodate new players to its garish world. Static tutorial screens still present themselves to guide players through various interlinking mechanics but – perhaps more importantly – the plot is recapped to an extent as well. Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 threw players into the midst of world events, unapologetic in reference to characters, affiliations or a discernable plot. Handily, Neptune – the lead protagonist of Victory – reintroduces recurring characters and explains the rules of Gamindustri. It’s a great gesture considering the game isn’t one to garner a huge new following. Unfortunately, it’s also the most succinct portion of dialogue in a game that reads like a Justin Bieber chat room.
Gamers without a predilection towards the smuttier side of Japanese anime will probably see Victory as a mess of schizophrenic contradiction. This is a game that looks like it was designed for the Hello Kitty brigade yet all of the jokes are aimed towards adolescent males. The girls are cute but over-sexualised, switching between lolicon naivety and older, bustier versions. Characters speak of MMOs and CPUs with an off-putting Valley Girl vocabulary, winking at every joke about living in parents’ basements and the preponderance of skimpy outfits. Hidden amongst the dialogue are nuggets of humour – references to other games, snide remarks and fourth-wall breaking comments on aspects of Victory itself – but wading through so much inane, puerile silliness makes it difficult to endeavour. These cutscenes, presented as static character designs with minimal movement and reused backgrounds, are seen as the reward for the grind. It’s like attending a tweenage slumber party as a reward for a long day at the office.
Of course the elephant in the room once again lies with the Lolita-fascination inherent in the franchise and how it feels problematic when viewed through Western eyes. Idolising the archetypal young girl has been a part of Japanese culture for decades; with the current media scrutiny and general disapproval held by most UK citizens, it’s a risky move to follow suit on British shores. The game doesn’t shy away from its overt sexuality either; frequent, tongue-in-cheek references are made to tentacles, ‘playing with yourself’ and special massages. In most cases this could be written off as titillating silliness – unfortunately the slightly rape-y tone, especially when the characters look underage, is just especially creepy. Victory isn’t afraid to up the panty ante either. Unlockable artwork regularly bookends sections of grinding, typically featuring the young ladies in various states of undress.
A deep knowledge of gaming will allow gamers to pick up on the rest of the jokes. However, sometimes ignorance is bliss – one joke about workers jumping off a roof can only conjure images of Foxconn for well-informed gamers. Another joke sees the girls, about to engage in a massage, adopt a bemusing semi-racist diction: ‘Prease rerax! We give you good massage!’ Is it racist when it appears in a Japanese made game? Again, the schizophrenic confusion of the game makes it difficult to parse.
What hasn’t changed too radically is the combat system. When the game allows the player free reign to quest things become a little more traditional, albeit staid in delivery. As with previous titles areas in Victory are small, very basic environments with a handful of enemies vacantly wandering about. Graphically it’s poor, recalling the PlayStation 2 era of fidelity while again struggling with the frame-rate. Assets are recycled from the previous game and animations just look terrible. The newly added jump ability - allowing you to reach platforms whole inches above you! – is underwhelming enough without the character saying ‘Boing!’ every time their feet leave the ground. Enemies are based on gaming icons – Pacman-esque ghosts and Space Invader rejects – but the thrill of parody ends there. Moves are clunky and textures are so underwhelming that there’s no bite to the fights, despite a punishing difficulty curve.
All of this fluffiness belies a combat system that’s deep, interweaving various mechanics into something that requires more than a few attempts to perfect. A mix between turn-based and real-time styles, players can freely move their characters between turns enabling the best possible angle of attack. Choosing between fast, heavy and guard breaking attacks is dependent on the type of enemy and, should things escalate, HDD mode can be activated turning our heroines from little girls to leather-clad, vastly superior dominatrix-goddesses. Each successful attack builds up an EXE meter – once full this can be used for a super-attack, wiping out even the most powerful enemies. Unfortunately it takes an age to accrue enough power to serve any great need. More likely you’ll find yourself hoarding the ability through countless battles, hesitant to use the weapon against any but the most impossible foe.
One new addition includes a ‘TV Channel’ where the characters comment on the game itself as well as hosting banal quizzes and other marginalia. While it makes for a passable distraction from the main plot it feels tacked on. The plot itself isn’t much comparison – parallel dimensions and meeting characters’ younger selves does make for a few amusing situations, but adding even younger girls into the hormone-saturated environment is an even more controversial move in a game already toeing the line of decency.
There lies within Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory the core of a great franchise. Unfortunately, everything surrounding the satirical premise serves to dilute it to the same level as the fluffy nothingness that makes up most of the game. The characters are cute… and that’s about it. In fact, they veer into annoying more often than not, thanks to their screeching verbal diarrhoea. A tolerance to glacial pacing is something an anime fan develops but even the most languid series offsets repetition with high production values or a compelling plot point. Witnessing the twentieth argument about taking a nap just doesn’t cut it. The most ardent fan will likely find the game worth a rental and there is definitely a niche out there who will appreciate the particular brand of humour. For most, however, the game occupies a problematic middle ground in both content and gameplay – glitzy but forgettable, deep yet shallow, a handful of wry observations delivered by sex-mannequins.