Let’s be honest – the first time round Hyperdimension Neptunia wasn’t any good. The game was plagued with technical issues on the PS3 and it’s fair to say that the combat system was hardly ideal. But there was something about the major concepts that deserved more attention than a seemingly niche fan service game might deserve – a world based on the gaming industry, a party full of heroines who are the anthropomorphised representations of consoles and Japanese videogame developers and publishers alike – these were something special. So special, in fact, that since 2010 a whole host of games, spinoffs and remakes have made it to release, and slowly but surely the gaming quality on offer may well be catching up with the concepts. Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth1 (and no, I have no idea why there’s a semi-colon there instead of a colon – part of me really hopes that it was a monumental translation cockup) sees that original PS3 release shaken from top to bottom and thrown out as a Vita release.
As you can imagine, with Re;Birth1 being a remake (or perhaps I should start using re;make before it catches on?), the general gist of the story follows that which came before. Our world based on the gaming industry (called Gamindustri, naturally) is beset by woe as four goddesses fight out their console war in the land of Celestia above. Each one of the goddesses, or CPUs as they are colloquially known, represents one of the major console manufacturers, and they are all far more interested in their fight for supremacy than they are in the inhabitants of their lands below. Seeing a chance to upset the balance, the CPUs of Lowee (Wii), Leanbox (Xbox 360) and Lastation (go on, guess) team up to beat down on Neptune, the CPU of Planeptune and send her crashing back down to Gamindustri. In fact, she lands with such a bump that she manages to catch amnesia, and suddenly finds herself in a world threatened by encroaching evil, encouraged by the nonchalance of the world’s protective deities.
Eagle-eyed gamers who fought their way through the first attempt will still notice differences throughout, however. Some supporting characters have disappeared, while others have dropped in to help from other games in the franchise, and differences in dialogue are also apparent. More important is the fact that Felistella (the developers responsible for this Vita remake) have done away with the travel and battle mechanics, replacing them with pretty much the same systems seem in Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory – so say goodbye to painful travel and annoying random encounters, and hello to instant movement between the text-based cities and 3D dungeons, now with monster sprites running around for you to avoid if you so wish. Also new is the remake system, a rejigging of the scout system also used in Victory. Through exploration and battle you’ll find various plans – these can do anything from add new weapons to the shop or changing the monsters encountered in a dungeon to modifying the difficulty of the game or even boosting the amount of experience you receive from each battle.
Now, initially the combat mechanics seem quite robust; it’s a 3D turn-based system, with movement and positioning playing a part. Every enemy has a guard bar and a health bar – trying to smack down the health with the guard bar still up will see the evil monster take less damage, but take down the guard bar and you’ll do maximum damage to their health. Attacks are one of three kinds – rush, heavy or break. In general, break targets the monster’s guard bar, heavy attempts to maximise damage dealt and rush focuses on increasing the number of hits dealt. Before you can play with any of these, however, you need to set up your characters’ combo bars. Consisting of a 3x3 grid, you can choose three of each attack type to queue up for use in order during your turn in a fight. Stronger skills cost more combo points, but a good general starting point is to fill the grid up with the strongest attacks you can afford and then go from there.
It’s a shame then that at virtually no point in the game do you ever actually have to return to the combo bar to tinker with your offerings for a specific boss or dungeon; instead, the odd visit to top up options to whatever new fancy attack you’ve just received from levelling is likely to be the major interaction for many. There are places where experimentation with various status effects or elemental damage could yield fabulous rewards, but why expend the effort when you can grind a couple more levels and just smash your way through the opposition? The more powerful supporting moves that your party begins to accrue simply exasperate the issue; from level 25 each heroine will begin to gain access to powerful moves known as their EXE attacks. You essentially spam attacks until you fill your EXE meter (with rush attacks filling it faster than the others) and then unleash your uber-smash at the most opportune time. Once you have access to these moves essentially every vaguely difficult fight becomes the same – start it with a full EXE meter, spam EXE moves, spam rush attacks to refill meter, heal if required. Yawn.
Annoyingly, it gets worse. Do that a few times to some over powered tough enemies you might meet in some of the optional dungeons and you’ll suddenly find yourself over-levelled for the story, rendering most of the scripted events dull. Any party member who joins you after this point is likely to be ignored until the experience free-for-all of the endgame, being too weak to provide any competition to the additional optional bosses you’ll be feverously unlocking so as to return to any kind of challenge. Amusingly, if you decide not to poke the optional dungeons then you’re going to be in for an overly hard time instead, with comedy difficulty spikes (watch out for the end of Chapter 2!) combined with over-easy dungeon mobs that ask you to go through the same boring motions over and over again.
In many ways Hyperdimension is all about the grind; quest text is overly simplified with meaningless stories hidden behind an additional button press, remake plans are often arranged in an iterative way that direct you back to earlier dungeons to unlock a stronger enemy you missed the first time and then kill them for the drop you need now – and let’s not even talk about the frustration of some of the rarer drops. Unless, of course, you’ve unlocked the remake plan that makes item drops more common. There are jokes about the grinding in game, both from the characters themselves and from some of the supporting text found in the plan and quest descriptions, but unfortunately for too much of the game it’s simply not fun to grind. Continuously recycled dungeon backgrounds and slightly repainted enemies take their toll, and you can’t help but begin to wish that the producers had bought into the ‘less is more’ mantra. And your CPU help you if you’ve not flipped on any of the plans that speed up these processes.
It’s not all bad though – far from it. The story is great fun, full of randomness and fourth wall breaking, with Neptune proving to be a great breath of fresh air when compared to most other protagonists you could think of. At points the story feels almost like a visual novel, with the characters nattering on and on, constantly bonding and growing their friendships, even in the face of potential worldwide calamity. The English dub sounds well acted, although the lack of total voice coverage is jarring, and sometimes surprising when you find that certain story sections seemingly missed the grade for inclusion. As you would imagine, there are also a ton of geeky references throughout the entire game, from the aforementioned towns to the dungeon names to pretty much everything else. If you’ve played a lot of Japanese games then you’ll find yourself reaching for a high-five a fair amount as you clock the more esoteric references, and it feels as though that much of the text is a knowing nod to those who have played far too much.
The whole party system is worth a shout too; by the end of the game you’ll have amassed a ton of characters, and you’ll need at least one more run through to catch them all. While you can only have three active in-battle party members, you can couple each one with someone else in your wider party. Doing so gives them access to various passive benefits, the odd special move and also allows them to swop out mid-battle for the other character. It all ends up being a bit situational - if you’re not strong enough to kill something then party juggling usually only makes your painful defeat take longer, but it’s nice to think that that gaggle of heroines you have following you around is doing something when not in your top three.
All these positive story points are balanced out by the boobs, however. Well, the boobs and other assorted general over-moeing; for every great moment of dialogue there’s a boob jiggle, or dodgy comment, or innuendo, or cheeky costume that you can find to dress one of your squad in. And just when you’ve started to become immune to it all and Vert’s mere presence no longer causes you to fear for someone else asking to see what you’re playing, up pops MarvelousAQL to speak and you’re hunched over the screen again, hiding the anime boobs for all you’re worth. For many players used to the Japanese scene this kind of material is all par for the course for many of these games, and nothing here pushes the boundaries enough for you to want to go find a placard and soapbox, but just be aware that there are boobs here, and they jiggle.
Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth1 is a much better game than Hyperdimension Neptunia, but it’s still let down by several failings and issues that probably throw up enough barriers for anyone outside of its niche to feel comfortable enough in staying away from it. And, you know, this is a shame; there’s still a great game here somewhere, and if you can avoid the over-levelling pitfalls and deal with all the moe then there’s something here that will keep you occupied for at least thirty hours and maybe even longer. In many ways the real issue is that the experienced gamer will find it tough to forgive Re;Birth1 for being so close to getting it right – maybe the answer is to forget about over-analysing how all the mechanics mesh together and just let Neptune take you along for the grindy ride.