I write a lot about the Neptunia series, I know, and make no attempt to hide the fact that by now I probably very much fall into the “fanboy” category. But it’s not blind allegiance, by any means; I’ve stuck with the series since its original installment because that original installment resonated with me on a primal level. The characters were strong and interesting, the story was enjoyable, the battle system was fun, the structure was quite unlike previous JRPGs I’d played prior to that point and it was so clear that the experience was packed with love and soul that the technical issues the game suffered from — notably an atrocious framerate, copypasted dungeons and some mechanics that were just straight-up broken — simply didn’t matter to me.
When Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 came along and completely revamped the systems, I was delighted to discover that there was a much more solid game system backing up the strong characters and fun setting. When Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory came along and refined the systems introduced in mk2 to their pinnacle, I spent well over a hundred hours devouring the game and trying to see everything it had to offer. And when the Vita-based Re;Birth games came along, remaking the first three games with the refined mechanics from Victory and introducing numerous new systems in their own right, I was ecstatic to play them through again — though I must confess I’m still yet to even start the remake of Victory, Re;Birth3.
Neptunia has become developer Compile Heart’s headline franchise, replacing the Agarest series that was once their frontrunner. When the original Neptunia released, I doubt anyone could have predicted this, particularly with the poor review scores it attained from the press. But the characters were strong enough to attract a dedicated fanbase of players who loved them and wanted to see more of them — and slowly but surely, we did start to see more of them, firstly with more role-playing games and later with more adventurous exploits into other genres such as dating sim, strategy RPG and arena brawler.
Ultimately, the Neptunia series has been what’s driven Compile Heart to continually develop and improve themselves. The mainline games since mk2 have been iterative rather than truly innovative — and I count the Re;Birth games in here, too, since they’re essentially using Victory’s core mechanics at heart — but the series as a whole is a brilliant example of a developer cautiously and carefully examining what works and what doesn’t, and sensibly moving forward with those things that do while abandoning the things that don’t. What we end up with is a series that is fascinating to play through from start to finish, as you can actually see how it’s developed slowly and surely since its humble beginnings.
And this, among other reasons that I’ve explored at length in many thousands of words prior to today, is why Neptunia is important and worthwhile, and why it shouldn’t be rejected automatically by either players or critics.
I had the misfortune to stumble across an old tweet by a former colleague earlier in which they expressed the belief that giving a positive review to a Compile Heart game was likely to make a reviewer “lose the respect of [their] peers” and that JRPG fans should “pick a better hill to die on” than the Neptunia series. These comments — and others like them — are just so extraordinarily ignorant as to make me genuinely angry. Not because I’m a series fanboy, but because they show a fundamental unwillingness to even attempt to engage with the series on anything more than a superficial level. Said former colleague — supposedly a JRPG specialist — hasn’t reviewed the latest installment Megadimension Neptunia V-II, and going by those comments, that’s probably for the best, particularly if their habitual partner in crime’s review of Fairy Fencer F from a while back is anything to go by. You don’t have to like every game, but going into something with the assumption it’s going to be bad before you even start is not good criticism.
Which brings us, then, to Megadimension Neptunia V-II, which arrived here today and which I’ve spent a considerable amount of time playing since it was delivered.
Remember how I said Neptunia had been mostly iterative rather than innovative? Well, MegaNep (as I shall refer to it hereafter) is the biggest shakeup the series has had since the changeover from the original game to mk2.
It’s still recognisably closer to Victory than anything else, but the core mechanics have had a huge shakeup, even going so far as to incorporate some of the best ideas from the original game — yes, it did have plenty of good ideas, even if they weren’t always executed perfectly.
It being a JRPG, the core of the experience is exploring dungeons and fighting battles. Both counts have been improved considerably in the series’ jump to PlayStation 4. Dungeons are completely new rather than the reused and tweaked assets found in previous games, and much more complex in their layout and geometry. Dungeon Actions make a comeback from the original game, though here they’re tied to craftable key items rather than individual characters, allowing you to unlock various abilities to access new areas and retrieve new treasures.
The battle system is where the biggest changes have come, though. Still allowing limited free movement during a character’s turn, the combo system has had a rethink. Rather than simply spamming your best combo abilities as you unlock them, you can now only “equip” each combo move once. Plus, each weapon has its own particular layout of combo slots, making some more appropriate for multi-hit Rush attacks, while others are better for hard-hitting Power attacks. On top of all that, special conditions (such as “all previous attacks were Rush” or “haven’t used Power attacks”) can trigger if you use combo abilities in an appropriate order, which guarantee hits and crits if you use them effectively. This makes arranging your character’s abilities somewhat puzzle-like, and while it’s not taken to quite the same ridiculous degree as it was in the original Hyperdimension Neptunia — wherein setting up combos was practically a game in itself — it both adds considerable depth to the combat system and provides a reason to use all your different types of attack rather than just the “best” ones.
There are other changes and tweaks, too. Certain enemies have breakable parts, the shattering of which will generally provide you with favourable conditions in the battle. This mechanic is introduced to you with a boss that is barely possible to damage until you break his protective wings; other uses allow you to prevent devastating special attacks from occurring, or inflicting conditions on enemies.
And then there’s the odd complete shake-up, such as the Giant battles, in which you fight, well, giant enemies. Here, you can’t use your combo skills and must rely instead on SP skills, which regenerate a little each turn. Formation becomes particularly important here as your characters arrange themselves on floating islands around the boss, since surrounding or sandwiching an enemy allows you to trigger powerful formation attacks with multiple characters. It’s immensely satisfying, and gives some much-needed cinematic flair to Neptunia’s battles, which, while fun in the previous games, have sometimes lacked the drama of more spectacular JRPGs.
I’m about 6 hours in so far and if Compile Heart’s previous PS4 JRPG Omega Quintet is anything to go by, I haven’t seen a fraction of the game’s mechanics and systems yet. I’m looking forward to discovering more, and am delighted that the game is everything I hoped for and more so far. It’s vindicated my belief that the series is emphatically my favourite in all of gaming, and made me a little sad that there are supposed JRPG experts out there who simply won’t touch this on principle. Neptunia crossed the barrier between “it’s good, but…” and plain ol’ “it’s a good game” quite some time ago, but early impressions very much seem to indicate that MegaNep is comfortably and confidently in “this is really good” territory now.
Pick a better hill to die on? Fuck you, I like it here. It has pudding.