Most of my exposure to the Hyperdimension Neptunia series was through reviews which took offence to the game’s “questionable sexual content and JRPG tropes”, both of which are rather easy targets in modern videogaming culture so were hardly enough to put me off; in fact, they only helped to pique my interest!
Of course this means that I was largely ignorant of the series; I didn’t really know what to expect beyond fan service and traditional JRPG gameplay, so I was somewhat surprised when I was greeted by a bald Meijin Takahashi delivering the obligatory gaming hygiene message with much gusto pre-intro.
This was soon followed by a detailed, semi-animated anime panel featuring bondage, jiggling breasts and a mixture of heavy breathing and painful grunts; a rather disturbing juxtaposition, but a highly amusing one that perfectly set the tone for the rest of the game—a mixture of self-aware humour, amusing social commentary, farce and parody.
But even more surprising was the combat system; admittedly it took me a while to comprehend what was going on, which was as much testament to the rather limited tutorial system as it was to the complexity of the battle system itself.
You are drip fed the combat mechanics at a painfully slow pace in simple, but sometimes obtuse, instructional screens mid-battle which makes it a little hard to put all the principles explained to you into practice; especially when you are combining different mechanics. Some simple principles are simply forgotten about completely; it took me a few hours to figure out how to use items!
Admittedly there’s every chance that I missed this vital information in one of the tutorial screens, but the point is that I should not be able to miss it. This might sound like pandering to the casual, but when you are playing a digital re-release then you do not—at least at the beginning of the game—have access to any sort of manual, so it stands to reason that things must be explained to you in-game in a very simple, and very clear manner.
At times the whole game suffers from the same feeling of confusing convolutedness. It actually begins smoothly; you’ll almost never have to grind, which means you can flow easily from dungeon to dungeon, and story event to story event. This allows both the story and the gameplay to never get in the way of each other, and both progress satisfyingly.
But the relative ease with which you can progress through the game soon becomes detrimental to the overall flow due to it simply becoming too easy. It’s not long before you’ll be able to slaughter every boss you come across in but a matter of turns, which removes all satisfaction from the gameplay, and due to the length of some of the story scenes, sometimes makes it feel like you’re hardly playing at all, and then when you are playing, you’re just going through the motions.
It’s a damn shame too as mk2’s combat system is one of the most interesting in the genre. There are two things you have to worry about to support your offensive output in battles: action points (AP) and skill points (SP). You gain SP from everything you do—except for using skills or items—be it normal attacks, simply skipping your turn, or even being hit by the enemy. AP is effectively a complicated mana system that must be managed in a similar manner to SP. You need to boost your SP because you can’t use skills, items or cast spells just with just AP—you need enough SP as well!
This adds another layer of strategy to consider not just in the context of when to use your skills but also how and when to attack; should you concentrate on breaking down the enemy’s guard meter—when it’s broken you deal extra damage to them—or should you concentrate on using combos so that you gain as much SP as possible?
It’s an excellent system that is made more complex still by the command system; you can attack an enemy as much you like, so long as long as you have the SP to do so, and you’ll want to set your commands so that you can not only unleash special attacks and pull off combos, but also get in the most normal attacks so that you do the most damage whilst also boosting your SP, and all the while considering which type of attack is the most effective for the situation.
It’s further complicated by Hard Drive Divinity (HDD) mode and the territorial awareness required in battles. The former is the state which Console Patron Units (CPU) characters—the goddesses that rule over each nation—can enter; when in HDD mode they get a hefty stat boosts at the expense of 100 SP points and the risk of being sent back into normal mode if their SP reaches 0; it decreases by 15 with each turn, so if you don’t keep knocking off combos while you use your offensive skills your 100 SP can easily be wasted. It’s a risk utilising HDD mode, but the benefits of the stat boosts is significant enough that taking such a risk must be considered in the tougher battles.
Territory is important because each character can move around mid-battle—and will need to; be it for the sake of moving characters close enough for a group affecting healing spell, to get them out of the attack range of an enemy, or to take up an offensive formation. In fact, attack range is very important; there are weapons or skills with which you can damage multiple enemies at once. Hell, even with the normal attacks it’s possible to damage multiple enemies; so long as you’re clever enough to manoeuvre your team into positions that result in the enemies effectively being herded into congested groups that are ripe for the picking.
While the occasions that all these elements come together are far too rare, the battles can be not only incredibly intense affairs, but require a good amount of strategy too. You must take into consideration all the elements that I have gone into, from the most basic things such as command order and combos to skill use, and the strengths and weaknesses of your adversary.
Oh, I almost forgot! While you can have four people on the battlefield at once, you can have four people in reserve; the people in reserve each have a unique effect on the person that they are partnered with; affecting their stats or giving them special abilities, and some are even capable of performing a special move with their partner in a brief, mid-battle cameo.
So not only do you have to make sure you know what you’re doing on the battlefield, but off it too. It may seem like a lot to consider, but that’s why it’s such an excellent system; it’s just a pity that it’s so rarely put to use.
The exploration of the dungeons themselves does not provide much distraction from the sometimes lacking battles, but rely on them entirely. Most of the time the dungeons are aesthetically boring—for the sake of the satire they are bland, linear affairs; for the sake of the budget they are technically dated and unspectacular—and each dungeon is repeated several times throughout the game with the same sets of enemies and few variations even within each set of dungeons’ tropes. Even the mini-bosses within most dungeons are repeated in their look and their moves; nevertheless they are often the highlight of the dungeon in which they appear—sometimes they are even more powerful than the often lacklustre bosses at the end of most dungeons which tie-in with the story.
The visual design of the enemies ranges from parodies of JRPG tropes, to parodies of other videogame characters, and even levels and mechanics—you actually fight against pipes from Super Mario, and blocks from Tetris; it’s farcical, but it’s charming, and highly amusing.
The personalities involved in the videogame industry are not above reproach either; from Dr. Kawashima who makes for one of the most amusing enemies you’ll ever fight against, to a rather self-deprecating—and a little disturbing—cameo by Inafune-san himself!
That might give you a sense of the farce, the self-aware humour, and the parody, but what about the social commentary? Like all good JRPGs, mk2 opens with you attempting to rescue a kidnap victim who is dear to the protagonist and then spirals into a story about saving the world; but what is one of the major problems with the world in mk2? Videogame piracy.
The denizens of Gameindustri (the world of the Hyperdimension Neptunia series) have been seduced by the Arfoire Syndicate of International Crime (ASIC) into buying mod chips so that they can pirate their games and, bit by bit, the whole world slowly slips into a state of moral decay and degradation; though in a wonderful duologue between one of the villains and one of our heroines it’s clear that the motivation for and against piracy is one in the same—they just want children to be happy.
The difference of opinion and practice comes in how that happiness should be obtained: should they be allowed to play any game they please and the poor not miss out, or should they find true satisfaction in saving all their pennies so that they can finally buy the game they so desired, no matter how long it takes? Sure, it’s terribly tongue in cheek but it’s a refreshing—and rather fitting—subject of discussion for a videogame.
Though there are a few cutscenes, the story is primarily presented as a radio play; albeit a radio play acted out by simply animated CGI portraits on painted backgrounds. It may seem like a strange way to tell the story in a JRPG, but thanks to the witty and affecting script that is translated exceptionally well, and the excellent voice acting, it just feels right. The fact that you’re reading so many subtitles does little to take away from the emotion and humour of the scenes due to the high quality performances that the entire cast give; from the lone male voice actor who voices most of the extras, to the gal portraying Nepgear—mk2’s protagonist, and little sister of Neptune; the series protagonist—they know when to over act and ham it up, but also when to put in a subtler performance for the more serious scenes in the story.
The English cast is, as you would expect, always over the top. In a way it suits the humour of the game, however you’re also losing a lot of emotional nuance and gravitas present in the Japanese performances; luckily you can pick whichever you prefer: the refined and the illiterate are both catered for!
Of course there’s still that scantily clad elephant in the room. Depending on where you live you may be uncomfortable with post-pubescent girls wearing bikinis and being the victim of dogoo molestation along with their adult sisters, but the truth of the matter is that these moments are just as much satire as everything else in the game; the whole notion of fan-service is made fun of and played with and—if such a thing can be—it’s all done in good taste.
The youngest characters are actually some of the most likable: they are endearing, and it’s hard not to become as protective of them as the rest of the cast are; sure all the characters (including the much older and younger ones) might have a crush on the young Nepgear, and just how strong their crush is might have an effect on how the ending plays out, but it’s a crush with the most honourable of intentions—to protect a young girl on the cusp of womanhood who has been burdened with the fate of not only her sister, but the entire world.
I can’t help but wonder if those who find the idea of a young girl in a bikini uncomfortable may just appreciate the choice of outfit as much as they claim to be disgusted by it; it’s hard to find something uncomfortable for its perceived sexual content unless you yourself perceive it to be sexual yourself.
All of this makes mk2 a rather interesting mix—the worst things about the game are never far away from the best things. Sure, the pacing is sometimes off, but at other times it’s effortless. It might look as if it’s several years out of date, yet still suffer from severe frame rate issues and poor load times, but the characters are all well drawn, likeable and chirpy, and the enemy designs are mostly well observed, astute parodies. The combat may often be too easy, but the combat mechanics are clever, innovative, and deep, yet—if there was a better tutorial—instantly accessible.
The story is sometimes overly-convoluted, but that’s partly the point: it must adhere to its source material if it is to be an accurate, well observed parody—and yet it still manages to break new ground in terms of content. The fan service might too much for some to take, but the characters are endearing, genuine and highly entertaining. As a whole the game may have its fair share problems—and some of its finest points are never allowed to develop completely—but in spite of all that it’s impossible not to fall in love with it.
Besides, when was the last time you played a game where all the strong, powerful and most important characters were female; and the males were all just comic relief or villains? Perhaps it has just as much merit as a feminist work as it does as an exercise in fan-service.