Compile Heart, still having not learned the basics of good JRPG design, brings out yet another sub-standard game.
While I can forgive Nippon Ichi Software for the less-than-stellar games they sometimes bring out here due to them not actually having had a hand in creating them, I have to take Compile Heart to task for their incredibly poor quality control and overall laziness in game design. Though they did manage to redeem themselves a bit (in my eyes anyway) with last year's Trinity Universe, the memories of Cross Edge still float close to the top and keep me from totally absolving them of their wrongdoings.
Still, I was curious enough about Hyperdimension Neptunia to pre-order it and give it a chance. I figured it might at least be as decent as Trinity Universe and would probably be a nice way to spend the two weeks between its release and NISA/Gust's well-received Ar Tonelico 3.
Unfortunately Compile Heart failed me yet again.
Like most Compile Heart games, Neptunia has a clever premise...yet also like most Compile Heart games it feels as if it was designed by the company's part-time minimum wage underage interns.
While the idea of participating in a console war and getting all of the other CPUs (Console Patron Units) to unite against a game pirate (Arfoire = R4, get it?) sounds interesting and original enough, the actual gameplay you are required to put up with during your clever little quest makes what little humor or satisfaction the plot may bring you feel like you're walking on hot coals for a few measly crumbs of stale bread. Not to sound melodramatic, but the gameplay is so abysmally bad that you'd have to possess the endurance and patience of a heaven-sent saint to make it through this mess of a game.
Nowhere is this more evident than the combat system itself. Though it looks complex at first glance thanks to the 50+ configurable combo moves you can customize and even name, the need to use that many combos never arises. At best, you can get away with only creating three combo strings, one for each of the system's main battle effects. Simply creating a combo that ends with a link, one that ends with a "Transform" command and one that ends with a "switch" is enough to see you through to the end. As to what these do, I'm not even going to describe them since the truth is the rules of the system are so banal and broken that you don't even need to know what you're doing in order to succeed.
Which is sad when you realize that this time last year I was playing Tri-Ace's "Resonance of Fate" and reloading 2-3 times on every fight...
..and enjoying it.
Neptunia's combat is painfully shallow and even more dreadfully dull than Trinity Universe's own battle system, if THAT can be believed. Though they tried to make it deeper by giving you a ton-and-a-half of customizable combos to work with, they didn't actually create the circumstances where you would need such a thing. The vast majority of the game's bosses can be destroyed by just linking two combos together until you run out of action points, which makes sense when you figure that they are all just palette swapped enemies from other Compile Heart games.
Yes, palette swapping. Even in the era of ultra high density Blu-Ray discs we have to put up with palette swapping. I still don't know why Compile Heart does this with all of their games and hope it's only a tongue-in-cheek parody of oldschool 8 and 16 bit JRPGs that needed to recycle enemies due to size limitations. Sadly, I don't think it is. While Atlus can be criticized for repeating character designs in all of their games at least the models are detailed and never used twice *in the same game*. With Compile Heart's RPGs you're lucky to see more than 30 unique monster models in the game since each individual design is used about 5 or more times and merely given a new color to separate it from its disappointingly indistinct doppelgangers.
Even if the Palette swapping and shallow combo system doesn't bother you, the sheer monotony of the combat itself more than likely will. With very simplistic attack animations, poor sound effects, repetitive battles that don't require strategy and a very slow level progression it didn't take long for me to get used to hitting the "Fast forward" button during every fight. Thanks to that little invention I was able to cut 10 minute fights down to 30-second skirmishes and helped preserve my sanity in the process. I can't imagine what the Japanese version was like, since I heard this feature is unique to the North American release. It's almost like NISA knew we'd need it and felt sorry for us.
Though the combat system is the worst part of the game, there are quite a few smaller gripes that make enjoying Hyperdimension Neptunia more of a chore than an RPG is suppose to be. Chief among these lesser faults would be the way dungeon exploration is handled.
Like Trinity Universe there is no over-world, and instead you merely wait for events to pop up and through the simple act of viewing these scenes you open up new areas to explore. Most are side missions while a few others are important plot dungeons that move the sluggish plot forward. While this is certainly nothing new, the way they gauge your chance to see these events is.
...and boy is it annoying.
Neptunia uses what it calls a "share system" to indicate what events appear in each particular area. To make these events happen you have to successfully complete NPC quests which in turn have the side effect of moving an area's "share bar" up while also moving another area's share bar down. Only after moving an area's share bar up high enough will you see the events that unlock the dungeons which then progress the plot forward. Whew....still following me?
Though it seems simple, this share system is made absolutely unbearable by the fact that you are unable to see the effects each mission has on an area's share bar. Though you do find a character later on who can determine this for you, it will probably be 20-25 hours into the game until you finally locate her. Afterward you will more than likely spend all of your time "correcting" the damage you did on your share bars and finally realize that to get them high enough you have to deliberately fail some quests.
Yeah, none of this made sense to me either. It's downright ridiculous and so counter-intuitive that only the most obsessive JRPG fan would find this enjoyable.
Besides this share bar system you also have a couple other smaller annoyances such as the high prices for equipment and the poor explanation of what each item does. Though these "features" grated on my nerves, nothing seemed so ridiculous as the awkward healing system the game forced upon me.
Apparently, you cannot heal manually and must instead use skill points to increase the likelihood that a character will cure themselves. While you eventually learn skills that will heal your characters every time they "defend" in battle, you'll probably spend more than half of your total time going through the game with skills that instead rely upon you being hit for the "heal effect" to trigger. Whatever genius thought it would be fun to have your characters heal after being hit hard enough by an enemy to reduce their total HP to 30% is not only insane but probably not intelligent enough to work for a major RPG development company. Nothing ticked me off more than having two characters walk around with 1 hit point and having them die every time they were hit because they couldn't use the healing potions unless they *survived* being hit at low health. It's utterly ridiculous and has no basis in logic.
If I could use but one phrase to describe Neptunia, I'd probably say "Counter intuitive". This game goes out of its way to needlessly complicate every simple thing we normally take for granted in an RPG. Making this worse is the fact that none of these unusual changes make any logical sense within the context of the game and do nothing other than ruin what could have been a nice throw-back JRPG.
To the game's credit I was very pleased with the excellent English voice track, which includes some of my favorite female voice actresses. Christina Vee (K-ON's Mio Akiyama) plays Compa, Melissa Fahn (Edward from Cowboy Beebop) plays Neptune, and Wendee Lee (English voice of the infamous Konata Izumi) plays White Heart just to name a few. Their work in this game is some of the best I've seen in a NISA game, which is saying a lot since they have are one of the best localization companies in the business. If anything deserves praise it's Neptunia's English voice overs since that alone was responsible for me giving this game a few more points on the final score than it actually deserved.
I could also point out that the main character designs were well done and the silly little game industry in-jokes managed to squeeze a chuckle or two out of me, but when you are constantly being besieged by poor gameplay features it's very difficult to find enjoyment in even the smallest of ways.
In the end that's what makes Neptunia such a horrid game. As a JRPG fan it pains me to see my favorite genre slide so far and as a loyal NISA believer I feel sorry for the bad press and undeserved hatred they'll receive from this game's mere existence in their catalog.
For those wondering if Neptunia is for them I'd ask that they first tell me if they enjoyed Cross Edge. If you did, you'll probably enjoy this as well. Like Compile Heart's other JRPGs it's full of annoying features that prevent forward progress and will go out of its way to turn you off to it. While JRPGs are already considered a "niche" genre, there seems to be another niche within that already small group that finds obtuse, counter-intuitive games to be enjoyable. To those gamers I say "Buy it".
To the other 99% of RPG fans I say: Stay away. stay far, far away.
Or just wait until March 15th when NISA releases Ar Tonelico 3.