spilledmilkfactory's Super Dimension Game Neptune (PlayStation 3) review

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My Friend Moe

NIS games always tend to remind me of bygone eras in gaming. Their games on the PS2, like Ar Tonelico and Disgaea, for example, bring to mind the Super Nintendo. Hyperdimension Neptunia, in turn, reminds me of the PS2 and Gamecube days, days that I consider somewhat of a golden age for JRPGs thanks to franchises like Xenosaga, Persona, and Kingdom Hearts.  
However, unlike many of those classics, Neptunia displays a self-awareness that separates it from the pack. The game takes place in a fictional world called Gameindustri, in which four goddesses, called CPUs, vie for control. These deities are avatars for modern gaming consoles. Three of the CPUs are based on the Wii, 360, and PS3, with the fourth representing the PC. The Wii CPU is tiny and immature, the Xbox CPU is busty and arrogant, and the PS3 CPU is refined and serious. It's kind of predictable stuff, but it works well enough to set up a few amusing jokes.   
After years of warring in the heavens, it becomes apparent to the CPUs that none of them can overpower the others alone. The consoles form a shaky alliance in order to banish the PC CPU, called Neptune, to the human realm. As it turns out, the console war raging in the heavens is tearing the mortal realm up, too. The four continents, again based on the consoles, have been succumbing to vicious monster attacks as of late. With the help of a few busty heroines, Neptune must stop the war and save both worlds. Tons of cleavage jokes and video game references ensue. 
The story is certainly cliched, but to its credit, it recognizes this fact and capitalizes on it with some funny dialogue that pokes fun at the genre's norms. Simply pointing out the flaws in your game doesn't make them excusable, though, and Neptunia does little else to make the experience interesting. All of the plot information is conveyed through heaps and heaps of dialogue, much of which is cleverly written, but some of which just goes on for too long. New subplots frequently surface, but fail to go anywhere interesting. The same can be said of the main plot line, which, while certainly funny, is far from unique when boiled down to its basic elements. 
At least the characters remain charming and the voiceovers are relatively strong, so the seemingly endless conversing isn't exactly the end of the world. Also, the character portraits that appear during the conversations, while sparsely animated, look positively gorgeous in high definition. Unfortunately, the rest of the game doesn't look so hot, with the dungeon crawling adopting a more simplistic look reminiscent of a mid-generation PS2 game. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; it can actually be fun to look at in a nostalgic way. But when compared to the current standards, it certainly isn't great. 
The same can be said of the gameplay. Combat plays out nicely and is supported by an interesting combo system that allows for dozens of devastating attack permutations. Guard breaks are in, a la Final Fantasy XIII, as are mid-battle transformations that result in the characters becoming much more powerful. The foundations of this turn based battle system are rock solid. The framework built on those foundations, on the other hand, is a little shaky. It will quickly become obvious that by stringing your four strongest moves together (a process that simply consists of pressing the same face button four times in a row) you will be able to steamroll a lot of the encounters in the game. 
The only real exceptions are some of the boss fights. These battles can become annoying thanks to Neptunia's...interesting healing mechanics. Instead of allowing you to heal manually, like just about any other RPG out there, Neptunia places all of the character's lives in the hands of the AI. It's possible to influence this AI in one direction or another by going into the pause menu and assigning a list of behaviors based on if/then statements to each of your characters. For example, you can tell Neptune that if she has below 50% health, and if she gets attacked, she should automatically use a health item. However, reviving characters and curing status ailments work the same way, and you can't set you characters to obey your parameters 100% of the time. This can result in situations where you could heal yourself or revive a downed character, but the AI won't let you. One boss battle in particular frustrated me because I had literally hundreds of healing items in my inventory, and yet my characters refused to heal. This problem isn't game-breaking, as you can always level grind or mess around with the parameters some, but it feels like it's taking too much of the control out of your hands. 
Outside of battle, there really isn't much to do in Neptunia. World exploration is entirely menu-based, and although there are tons of side quests available, they all consist of running through a dungeon to grab an item or kill a boss. At least the dungeons, story-centric ones included, are all short, so it's easy to get that "just one more" mentality while playing the game. The most entertaining thing to do outside of battle has to be the optional cutscenes, though. These frequently contain loving references to classic games and/or some awkwardly funny sexual innuendos, making them some of the best moments of the game. 
Its funny story, charming characters, and nice artwork set Neptunia a step above many of this generation's mediocre JRPGs, and the game's willingness to shatter the fourth wall certainly doesn't hurt things. Sure, the game frequently uses its weird mixture of nostalgia, charm, and libido as a crutch to get past the weak gameplay. But somehow, this concoction kind of works, and makes the worse portions of the game easier to bear. The healing system can seem baffling at times, a lot of the side quests are simplistic, and the PS2-caliber presentation might turn some off, but for those looking for a quirky dungeon crawl, you could certainly do worse. 

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