I love JRPGs. I love them even when they force me to grind or have characters that boil down to trite stereotypes. I’m not sure how many people who read this are also fans of JRPGs, but if you find yourself looking through gaming sites and fora you’ll inevitably come across complaints that JRPGs have declined in quality in recent years. Some even go so far as to proclaim that JRPGs are dying. While there are definitely some critically acclaimed JRPGs that have come out in recent years (Persona 4 immediately comes to mind), there’s also been a steady increase in fanservice heavy games that don’t pretend to be for anyone but straight male “otaku”.
Hyperdimension Neptunia ReBirth 1 is the perfect example of the sort of decline in JRPG quality.
The Hyperdimension Neptunia series takes place in Gamindustri, which is broken up into four lands, each ruled by a Console Patron Unit, personifications of game consoles, and populated by characters representing various franchises. The CPUs are constantly warring with each other for control of all of Gamindustri, and during one of their fights, one of the CPUs, Purple Heart (representing a fictional Sega console) is defeated by the other goddesses, loses her memory, and becomes Neptune. Teaming up with the personifications of various companies and franchises, Neptune’s journey will take her all across Gamindustri as she fights personifications of piracy.
The very idea of personifications of various consoles, game companies, and franchises going on wild adventures together sounds like a lot of fun and a recipe for a ton of gaming-related humor, and, to be fair, it has that in spades. Fourth wall breaking is commonplace, Neptune will occasionally hum the victory theme after battles, even the monsters are obvious references to many games. Unfortunately, the humour never really goes beyond the self-referential “HA HA LOOK AT THIS ISN’T THIS FUNNY PLAYER LOOK!” and even becomes grating after a time. Neptune insisting that she’s the heroine and should be treated a certain way is funny the first couple of times, but by the fifth and sixth becomes annoying. The script, while not being the worst I’ve ever seen, is far from the worst and is riddled with grammatical errors and lines that don’t make any sense.
It doesn’t help that the characters could all be summed up in a single word or phrase: Neptune likes pudding. Vert is a hardcore gamer. Compa wants everyone to get along. Suffice it to say that I’m willing to bet no one plays this game for its deep characterization, which is not in itself inherently bad (Conception II, one of my guilty pleasure games, does much the same thing, and most JRPGs rely on stock characters and stereotypes) but these characters struck me as particularly vapid, not cute, definitely not endearing.
Now, the character designs are pretty cute, cute in that weirdly sexualized way that is “moe”, but still cute. Unfortunately, the environments and the backgrounds during scenes are bland and repetitive. The music, likewise, is forgettable, although a couple tracks, like the one that plays when you unleash a character’s EXE Drive, had a strong beat and helped me out while I was exercising.
Combat is turn-based and your characters can move around freely within a certain area. Attacks are combo-based and there are three different types of attacks: Rush attacks, which cause less damage but score more hits, Power attacks, which hit less but cause more damage, and Break attacks, which are like Power attacks but break the enemies’ guard. Attacking an enemy fills up your EXE gauge, which can be used to unleash powerful attacks that can utterly crush most enemies and even some bosses. The EXE drives are easily the most satisfying part of combat. Unfortunately, combat quickly becomes a drag, no doubt due to the massive amount of grinding the game makes you do.
To call this game a grindfest is an understatement. The game has a really bad habit of throwing sudden difficulty spikes at you, especially at the beginning. This is coupled with the game’s second bad habit: throwing you into marathon boss fights (or a long scene with a boss fight) without giving you the opportunity to save. In one case, the game sticks you in a dungeon with a series of fights against progressively tougher enemies, no save point in sight, and no way to exit the dungeon. I found a good grinding spot through the use of the Remake System (which lets you add dungeons to the map, weaken enemies, make enemies stronger, change what items you can find in a dungeon, unlock items for shops, and more). There are sidequests, but they are all the find this/kill that fetch quest variety, and the only reason you’ll want to do them is to adjust shares, ditto for the Coliseum fights. Shares are a measure of belief in the goddesses and are required to be a certain amount to unlock the True Ending.
In short, the fanservice is pretty much all this game has going for it and is undoubtedly why it’s so popular, because I can’t see anyone playing this game for its shallow characters, repetitive gameplay, and same-y environments and music. Unless you’re really into that sort of thing, I’d recommend staying far away and picking up The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky instead, or really, almost any other JRPG. Conception II may be a shameless fanservice-y game, but even it’s better than this one, and that’s saying a lot.