Review: Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2

Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 is a game about video games. And Transformers. And legendary popsicle men.

As the sequel to last year’s Hyperdimension Neptunia, Idea Factory and Compile Heart seek to deliver an analogous experience by taking jabs at piracy and parodying their very industry with references just begging for litigation. NIS America handles coaxing the Japanese language into something us sleazy westerners can make sense of.

The tale is centered—initially, at least—on the bubbly sailor scout Nepgear, a representative of the Sega Game Gear; yes, that handheld we’d all be better off forgetting. Suffice it to say, the thistle-tressed lass serves better as hardware personified than her derivative device served gamers’ downcast digits.  Similarly, console patron unit (CPU) candidates representing the big three console behemoths are also thusly personified hardware heroines. Like the game’s “mk2” suggests, these vanguard protagonists are little sisters in training to one day fill their big sisters’ stilettos and become full-fledged CPU goddesses.

While Nepgear’s candy cane knee-highs would suggest otherwise, affairs are not gum-drops and lollipops in the video game world of Gamindustri. No, oh no, come the dirge wails of one-thousand altruist game developers cut low by piracy. Because according to the sometimes cloyingly preachy theme and plot, the malignant Arfoire is the demimondaine behind all of Gamindustri’s woes. And the player is charged with extirpating the rot of piracy. Bothersome hyperbole aside, there isn’t much more to the plot than that.

Unfortunately, that also means veterans of the first game will be in for a largely familiar experience. Expect to endure roundabout heroines who refuse pragmatism in light of personal battles. Newcomers will likely snarl at the planeteers’ cantankerousness, only to begrudgingly submit that it does accurately reflect the conflict between Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft; returning players will mutter an agonized, “Again?” This will happen multiple times, and it will be brooked just as well.

“But why?” ask the already downtrodden fans. “Why?”

Mk2 follows the legacy of the first game, spending vital points on character while scarcely pumping two or three into the story binding them. Throughout the adventure, a flurry of fantastical filles will flay the player with manifold personalities. It’s in this spirited discourse and pell-mell interaction that the game makes everything luvverly-jubberly.

This is where the localization shines. NIS America injects the characters with some black market wonder drug and poof: individualization. The brew is potent, too, for there aren’t really any niggles to quibble or carps to quip—which is how all carping should be expressed. Ram and Rom, the candidates of Lowee if my memory serves me right, represent the typical twins: rantipoles united, polar apart and altogether entertaining. Gust, one of the many developer incarnations, is a savvy alchemist-merchant intent on employing her skills for maximum remuneration! Maximum! Nisa, the fiery-eyed heroine, flaunts her zipper-bound billboard of a bosom and warns evil everywhere to beware her mighty heel of supreme justice.

These personalities are drawn upon chiefly through skits exercised in visual novel format: participants on-screen with dialogue below. While many scenes will appear merely by story progress, some are limited to the Chirper. Each of the four capital cities has the option to inspect the chirruping social media element intrinsic to modern gaming. The Chirper works as an aggregate NPC engine without the town exploration. Characters will tweet—let’s just call it what it is—thoughts and sometimes notify the player of possible events which entail special skits.

When discussing mk2’s personality, I’d be remiss to go without mentioning the array of video game references; it is a game about games after all. Unlike the firstborn, mk2 seems to understand the idea of subtlety. Monsters are a mix of indirect and direct references, such as the slime-like Dogoo, celestial Pixelvaders or Piranha Flowers; events are scattered with video game dialogue and parody instead of saturated as before. Though there’s no missing the colossal Inafune Brand. Imagine Keiji Inafune as a popsicle as a blade, because that’s exactly what you’ll be wielding: a vorpal Japanese stallion-mansicle.

All the righteous rear reaming has to take place somewhere, right? Else how will you extinguish piracy? And what purpose will this speculum, spanking horse and funnel gag serve without a dungeon? That bit of prurience is acceptable, requisite even, because it gives the reviewer a chance to go about his wayward mention of how this game is, sometimes but not explicitly, sexual. That “M” or “16” rating is not the offspring of brutal violence and gore. So there you have it: salacious content advisory warnings. If you’re an open-minded individual, the sparsely visited scenes and mostly murky references should pose no problem. At any rate, back to dungeoneering.

Mk2 has been revamped, and when contrasted with its predecessor, the difference is glaring. Claustrophobic dungeons give way to capacious environments that, while in absolutely no way impressive, are a breath of fresh air to any who’ve traversed the stuffy areas of the first title. Even its outside environments were like navigating a rusty ventilation system with a bed of broken glass.

Speaking of traversing shards of misery, let us sit down and talk about game design and the developers’ two-step-forward-one-step-back policy. That is the only way of explaining what the company develops. Surely, someone approached the team producer and said, “Listen, chum. This makes me scratch my noggin’.” To which the producer must have chortled while clutching his potbelly.

Each map is home to an invisible treasure that is in a different location every visit. In order to find the cloaked item, the player must flap around like a bat in heinous misery, bawling limited echolocation in repeated taps of the circle button until you find the blighted treasure. Someone realized this was an asinine idea, because there’s a Dowsing Rod available for purchase as DLC that remedies the problem.

Random encounters have been replaced with field monsters which make dungeoneering less travailing. Hats off to the dev team for that. Players with initiative can even fwap monsters to gain the upper hand in battle—unless the beasties are many levels below the party. Then you outright obliterate the creatures. This would be well and good, but it utterly erases any chances of initiative on monsters a few levels lower than you. When leveling or attempting one of the game’s many quests, the impact becomes quite clear.

There’s no arguing these quibbles are small, but they’re far from insignificant. One after another, they begin to eat at you and leave you wondering whether the game itself is a statement within a statement about the state of the industry. Once swallowed, it’s hard to climb one’s way out of that repulsive craw. Take it from your friendly neighborhood reviewer: it happens. It happens even with the difficulty curve spreading and closing like an indecisive streetwalker. Even with you wanting to beat that streetwalker with a broom and find six unholy locations to bury its severed corpse. That, readers, was an absolutely sane way to introduce the topic of combat.

When the fisticuffs come out and you’re finally embattled, well, that’s where mk2 truly sets the record straight: it is the superlative Hyperdimension title. Players move around the battlefield in a fully turn-based system that enables you to tactically position cohorts. This allows the beefy lasses to take the hits while the glass artillery cries havoc from the rear, surround your foes or simply sally forth and hack them to pieces.

That considered, much of the tactical value fails if your friable cannon doesn’t have the AP or SP to put their ranged volley to use. AP regenerates every turn, but SP must be acquired through use of attacks that, even when wielding an M249 light machine gun, generally bring a player within pistol-whipping distance. When you’re forced to that, lambasting a foe is done in an agreeable system players of Xenogears may recognize. You execute skills to diminish a monsters guard with X, powerful attacks with square and multi-hit attacks with triangle. When strung together in the correct order, bludgeoning, lancing and running an enemy through will activate an EX Finish: super-dynamic combination techniques that build SP faster and incur greater damage. The concept works well to make combat more engaging than the trappings of your typical turn-based affair while retaining the freedom to move at your own pace.

The labyrinthine and principally useless customization system for combos found in mark one has been scrapped for a simpler but more effective mechanism. Now, the player can choose a basic offense for the three tiers each attack button executes: from heavy blows to elementally charged staffwork. This results in a total of nine choices per character.

Mk2 disposes of the widely jeered and poorly understood healing system of the first game. I thought it was brilliant: remove the necessity of giving characters healing roles by having certain skills trigger under certain circumstances at certain rates. Yet many could not properly wrangle the probabilities, so that was scrapped and replaced with the traditional item system. Prepare to quaff a potion, pop a pill and, uh, embrace the syringe.

Idea Factory and Compile Heart haven’t discarded everything from the initial system, however. They’re fond of the back row bandits, those clandestine partners whose preferred position is not parallel but perpendicular. Those guys. By placing a heroine on the bench, they will supplement the power of the corresponding front row fighter by imparting bonuses such as nulled ailments, increased experience, fortified physical defense and similar run-of-the-mill advantages. Additionally, the active combatant can tag in the posterior to switch mid-battle—changing positions to keep it fair and lively. Again, I prefer to think my dusting of licentious comments is preparing you for the game.

At this point in our parodiable peregrination, magical mech girls should be more than expected: they should be demanded. Lo’ and behold, it’s about to get Sailor Strike Witches in this piece. CPU and CPU candidates can roll out in the war on piracy and transform into their Hard Drive Divinity (HDD) forms. These are, as one would suspect, more powerful; however, I never found much point in transforming. Not only does it expend 100 SP—no paltry sum—but it uses SP for fuel every turn. They’re neat and all, customizable through changing and upgrading chassis; you can even replace the texture of Nepgear’s body with your own which appears when transformed. I refused to apply a lewd skin to her frame. Refused!

There is an item synthesis system, but it isn’t very robust. And for folk who don’t spend hours grinding, only a negligible number of items will ever be available for synthesis. Players will stumble upon plans and blueprints for sundries galore that cannot be crafted without dutifully visiting and revisiting the coliseum (It’s a coliseum: what more is there to say?) and surrounding areas in search of materials.

Those long-winded explanations and opinions leave only the areas of graphics and sound. There’s a reason why I’ve been negligent. It isn’t that mk2 is an ugly duckling: it’s that dull-colored duck that only occasionally quacks and listlessly nibbles the crumbs you, the harbinger of moldy bread, offer. Like it’s sorely aware of its pedestrian condition.

Visually, mk2 is acceptable, satisfying yet unimpressive. Models and portraits portray the characters well enough. Environments are not unattractive. Albeit, the difference between heroines and their surroundings vividly illustrates the priority of the former over the latter. There’s a downright chasm in appearance.

Where ear-parts are concerned, mk2 is acoustically humdrum. There’s a melodically buoyant opening song “Kirihirake! Glazy☆Star”orchestrated by the musically gifted Nao and 5pb. Otherwise, the tracks are largely forgettable. They fit the video game theme, but nothing stands out. They’re hardly worth mentioning.

Mk2 is a dangerous balance of flaws and counter-flaws, though the winsome flashes of charisma throughout may very well be the triumphant riposte for many gamers. That speaks more of the industry than any witty wordplay or evangelical scapegoating could ever hope to achieve.

By following similar narrative and polishing, addressing or doing away with an array of mechanics, Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 is most likely to please players who either haven’t played or didn’t like the first game. Returning players: after some deliberation I will suggest you purchase it if you’re on the fence. I found the witty and light-hearted demeanor eventually—eventually—penetrated my heart’s chastity belt.