Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Review: Hyperdimension Neptunia mk 2 (PS3)

Within five minutes of kicking off, Hyperdimension Neptunia mk 2 makes sure you know this is a game all about the fan service. From squeaky cute anime girl voices, to running gags about the heroine’s chest size and a camera that is strategically placed to take advantage of any skirt movement, this is the kind of game that gives the whole “otaku” thing a bad name.

It is, of course, part of a broader game that is constantly poking fun at, not only itself, but the entire games industry. One of the tragedies of modern gaming, so bred as we are to appreciate the ultraviolent, ultraserious tone of the Skyrims and Call of Duties of the world, is that gamers have largely forgotten how to sit back and laugh with a game. It’s either the object of derision, or something to take seriously. It’s a discussion for another time, but that’s the real problem facing JRPGs now, the industry has left the likes of Nippon Ichi, Gust and Idea Factory behind because it’s forgotten that games can be cheerful, stupid fun, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Hyperdimension Neptunia mk 2 kicks off as a direct sequel to the previous game, though it’s a plot that’s easy to pick up without understanding how the last game played out. Like the last game it’s also a running allegory for the games industry itself. The game world is called Gamindustri, and the “Gods” that look after this world are thinly-veiled personifications of Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft and Sega (ie the dominant hardware manufacturers over the years).

The big threat facing the world is, essentially, piracy, and the organisations that facilitate that. Rather than be heavy handed on the moralising (which is just as well, since the game has rather loose morals itself), Neptunia is just having a bit of fun with the theme. Anonymous is a recurring faceless villain that you’ll complete quests to quiet, the game’s monsters are riffs on everything from Space Invaders and Pac Man ghosts to Square Enix’s Dragon Quest Slime monsters. There’s even a “Twitter” (called “Chirper” in the game), that you can use to find bits of juicy information and rumours. And just like Twitter, it takes a lot of wading through crap to get to the good bits of information.

Sitting underneath that completely off-beat premise is a traditional turn-based JRPG combat system that is generally well balanced and fun to play with. Characters have Action Points, and the more powerful attacks and abilities use more action points. Enemies have gauges that work a little like they do in Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2; once you deplete the gauge completely the enemy’s guard is down and subsequent attacks do more damage. Characters have some attacks that don’t do much raw damage, but can deplete the gauge quickly.

So there’s a nice system there that rewards some strategic thought without being too complex. Battles do sit a little on the easy side, especially if you spend the time doing all of the side quests, which will level your party beyond the capabilities of even the boss fights. Side quests are a nice way of wrapping up the traditional JRPG grinding structure by giving it a bit of a purpose, but when the side quests don’t amount to more than “kill x enemy” or “collect y goods,” there’s not much variety there.

It’s a long quest, and there’s plenty of DLC out there to give you even more to do. The presentation is as you would expect for a fan service game; sugar-sweet cute accompanied by the happiest music that ears can hear. Generally it’s charming but like marzipan, this is sweet that is best taken in small doses; more than a couple of hours of straight gameplay is liable to give you a headache.

It’s a game of excesses; excess colour, humour, strangeness, content and more underwear than you’ll see in the rest of the games you’ll play this year combined. Cut through that excess and there is a really good, albeit traditional JRPG there, and it’s a pity that many will look at the game once before dismissing it, because it’s actually a lot of fun.

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