Full disclosure: I’ve never played any of the Neptunia games.They were much too niche for me to even be aware of their existence. With the relative drought in regards to meaty content for Vitas in the last couple of months, a JRPG remake could be just the thing to spruce up your handheld options. It worked so well with Persona 4, right? Without ever playing the originals though, I am confident in making the claim that this game is not for me. In fact, unless you loved the originals for some reason and are looking for an excuse to relive some of those moments, you should probably just stay far away from Hyperdimension Neptunia: Re;birth1.
If Persona 4: Golden is proof of how a JRPG can have crossover appeal in the west, Re;birth1 is the embodiment of why “JRPG” is used as a pejorative by so many non-believers. It’s so consumed in itself, and while you watch it laugh at its own jokes and swoon in its own reflection, you realize this title makes no attempt to be anything more than a game that would have been a run-of-the-mill PS2 anime tie-in 10 years ago.
The story is supposed to be a light-hearted and funny satire of the games business, but the joke is almost immediately stale as soon as you’re introduced your protagonist, Neptune, and the world she inhabits, Gameindustri. Neptune goes by another name and form in certain circles: Purple Heart, CPU (read as: goddess) of Planeptune. She is one of four goddesses, all who rule one of four kingdoms who all bear resemblance, in both aesthetics and public perception, to one of the four big names in gaming. (Planeptune is supposed to represent Sega, proving this is, indeed, a fantasy world.) These four goddess are in eternal conflict with one another for control over Gameindustri in what’s called – you guessed it – The Console War. The comparisons never get any less heavy handed than this, and becomes an exhaustingly trite attempt to make the next 40 hour series of RPG tropes seem less banal.
Neptune is cast from divinity after the other three goddesses conspire against her, and in her new found mortality, she can’t remember any details of her fall. She resigns to make fighting monsters and getting stronger her new hobby, and after assembling a party of other like-minded friends, she begins to travel Gameindustri completely oblivious to her higher purpose. The moment-to-moment interactions between Neptune, Compa (like Compile Heart, get it!?), and IF (or Idea Factory. Hilarious!) are like a checklist of the absolute worst elements of narrative design.
Neptune is obnoxiously referred to as Nep-Nep because in a world where everyone has dumb names, the girl with the most normal one is the hardest for everyone to say. Nep-Nep constantly squeals like a small girl who treats everyone she talks to like their face is plastered on her Trapper Keeper. This coupled with the absolutely terrible voice work makes every single moment she speaks a painful experience and turns every dialogue cue into its own little Saw-style torture trap. Nep’s lack of interest in being anything more than a dispenser for stale gaming jokes and overblown cutesy garbage makes trying to be engaged in her journey very difficult. And since the game is mostly played in visual novel-style dialogue chains, there is little reprieve from any of it.
The game at least looks decent. When you’re finally given a chance to do something that isn’t listen to some of the worst writing/acting in games this year, you spend your time exploring dungeons that are modeled and textured fairly well. Layouts of these dungeons are lackluster and seem rather empty, aside from sparse enemies hobbling around. Character and enemy models are serviceably mediocre and do little to offend or inspire. The 2D work is a bit more grandiose, but whenever a character is featured on screen, you can’t help but feel that they are working tirelessly to show you their tits.
This isn’t just me being overly suspicious. Their eyes blink with that lifeless anime girl daze, their heads wobble slowly with diminutive “curiosity”. But then their breasts move… I’m sorry they’re breathing. If their lungs were actually in their boobs, maybe that would be an argument. Then there are the less subtle pervy plays where landscape shots of characters practically naked, save for a few choice bandages, sit on screen for uncomfortably long stretches of time. No, this isn’t really central to the core gameplay experience, but Re;birth1’s significant focus on the sexualization of these characters makes for particularly awkward situations more than just a few times. Especially since these girls are all nebulously young.
Maybe the biggest failure of Re;birth1 is that all of the previously mentioned nonsense will overshadow a combat system that is competent and, at its best, interesting and fun to experiment with. When the battle is on, each of your party members can move (within a set area) and attack. While attacking, your face buttons turn into different types of attacks that can be mixed and matched to create your own combo strings on the fly. Some attacks hit many times and do more damage to life bars, some hit fewer and do more damage to shields, and others add some sort of status altering effect. Each combo can be three inputs long (with an optional finisher), and you’re given ample control over which attacks become available when ahead of time, allowing you to make sure your characters have combos that can have answers to various battle situations.
When targeting, a reticle opens in front of the character, and any enemy caught inside will be hit by the attack. The shape and size of these reticles change depending on the weapon equipped, making it possible to have attack zones big enough to hit groups of bad guys at once. Three different characters, three different targeting areas, three different sets of customizable combos; all a pretty good recipe for a considerably deep combat system. Too bad enemies are never really tough enough to bring out its potential.
Another promising feature, aptly named “Remakes”, allows you to gather plans that can be applied to dungeons, changing the types of monsters you can encounter in them or the kinds of items you find in them. This helps ease the repetition of grinding through side quests that involve visiting these locations multiple times and is a smart tweak to an otherwise rote concept.
All of that promise is hidden under layer after layer of incredibly insipid, overplayed and under inspired crap. I admit, JRPGs nestled firmly in the safe and dated bosom of anime tropes aren’t my cup of tea, but I’d be hard pressed to recommend Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;birth1 to anyone. The only people who will find any real enjoyment from this game are people who loved the original.