Since its original appearance in 2010, the Neptunia series has grown from a niche-interest RPG into one of developer Compile Heart’s biggest success stories.
This is a particularly remarkable achievement, given that the first installment in the series didn’t have a strong critical reception at all — while review score aggregation isn’t an exact science by any means, the fact that the first Hyperdimension Neptunia game sits at a not-so-proud score of 45 on Metacritic should make it fairly clear that this is not a game that the mainstream press liked. At all.
And yet here we are, six years later at the time of writing, celebrating the release of the seventh (or fourth, depending on how you want to look at it) installment in the mainline, canonical Neptunia series, and the tenth overall release to carry the Neptunia name in the West.
How did this happen? How did a series that started with a game almost universally panned by professional critics become one of the most recognisable Japanese franchises on the worldwide market?
Thankfully, those who did dig deep into the first Hyperdimension Neptunia found something that made them want to shout loudly enough not only for developer Compile Heart to keep releasing them, but for them to keep coming West.
The simple answer, is, of course, the fact that we now live in an age where the opinions of professional critics matter far less than word of mouth spread via fans on social media. And the reasons for this should be obvious, particularly when it comes to role-playing games: professional critics have far less time to invest in individual games than those who are just playing for fun.
If a game doesn’t hook a critic immediately or sets a bad first impression, they’re unlikely to spend any more time with it than absolutely necessary, particularly if it’s a niche-interest title with a small target audience. Why should they, when there are big budget, traffic magnet games out there that will bring readers (and ad revenue) in by the droves?
With this in mind, it’s clear to see why the original Hyperdimension Neptunia didn’t sit well with the press. A poor framerate; low-resolution graphics; unmemorable music; repetitive, copy-pasted dungeons with bland scenery; random battles; deliberately obtuse mechanics — none of those set a good first impression, so it’s perhaps understandable why some critics bounced right off it, never to look back.
Conversely, someone who has spent their own money on a game has a vested interest in finding the fun, however deeply it might be buried beneath layers of technical flaws and gameplay issues. Thankfully, those who did choose to dig deep into the first Hyperdimension Neptunia game found something that made them want to shout loudly enough not only for developer Compile Heart to continue releasing them, but for localisation specialists NIS America to keep bringing them West. Eventually, demand for Neptunia in the West became so significant that Compile Heart’s parent company Idea Factory ditched NIS America altogether and set up Idea Factory International, their own base of operations in the West. For a niche-interest JRPG to spark such success and growth for a company is pretty remarkable.
Neptunia is satire at heart, based around the quasi-religious devotion that people express towards their favourite games hardware.
While many of you reading this are likely familiar with the Neptunia series already, there may also be plenty of you out there who have perhaps heard of it but don’t know the details — or maybe you’re completely unfamiliar with it. So let’s explore the basic concept of the series as a whole and, by extension, where its core appeal elements come from.
Neptunia is satire at heart, based around the quasi-religious devotion that people express towards their favourite games hardware. The series represents this devotion literally, personifying each of the main console manufacturers — Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo — as goddesses, each with their own following. Collectively, they, along with title character Neptune, who represents the cancelled hybrid 32X and Mega Drive Sega console of the same name, rule over the world of Gamindustri, which is subdivided into four nations: Neptune’s land of Planeptune; Blanc’s land of Lowee; Noire’s land of Lastation; and Vert’s land of Leanbox.
Unlike many RPGs, where the player tends to start as a lowly individual that may end up consorting with gods and demons by the end of their adventure, the Neptunia series actually casts the player in the role of these powerful beings. Or it’s perhaps more accurate to say, given how often the characters break the fourth wall and address the player directly, that the player is permitted to accompany these powerful beings on their various adventures. Either way, Neptunia’s cast is an interesting bunch to follow, and in each installment of the series we get to see both their human side, with all the happiness, joy, sadness, anger, anxiety and tension that brings, and their goddess incarnations.
In many respects, the Neptunia series as a whole is as much about the divide between personal and professional lives — or, to put it in a more Japanese way, the contrast between a person’s true self (honne) and the front they put up to the public (tatemae) — as it is about overzealous loyalty to gaming hardware manufacturers. This is quite a common narrative theme in Japanese games these days due to what a significant part of Japanese society this concept is, but it’s an idea that resonates quite strongly with otaku gamers in the West, too, thanks to the stigma many critics attach to Japanese games. With otaku gamers facing accusations of everything from simple pervertedness to outright misogyny or paedophilia from press and public alike, it’s perhaps no surprise that some of these enthusiasts choose to keep their interests on the down-low for the simple want of a quiet life.
Part of Neptunia’s appeal is that you don’t have to engage with it on a particularly deep level to enjoy it — though there’s no denying that you’ll probably get more out of the experience if you do.
Neptunia knows what it is, though, and it brazenly, unashamedly embraces everything about the culture that brought it into existence. It acknowledges the inherent ridiculousness of its concept, while simultaneously recognising that concepts such as brand loyalty are, for whatever reason, important to some people. It provides titillating fanservice, while at the same time giving a knowing wink to the fact that everyone knows sex sells. And, throughout each installment, it carries strong moral undertones, be it the anti-piracy messages of the first two games; the reminders that we shouldn’t forget the important influences and inspirations from our past in Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory; the rather biting commentary on the press shaping narratives to their own purposes from spinoff game Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed; or indeed the upheaval that a new generation of products can bring, explored allegorically in Megadimension Neptunia V-II.
Part of Neptunia’s appeal, though, is that you don’t have to engage with it on a particularly deep level to enjoy it. You don’t have to analyse its satire for what it really means — though there’s no denying that you’ll probably get more out of the experience if you do. It’s testament to the game’s clever writing that Neptunia’s characters are entertaining and likeable in their own right, even if you don’t stop to think about, say, how Noire’s tsundere nature reflects Sony’s constant (and sometimes misguided) desire to outdo its rivals, either in terms of aesthetics or technical prowess. Or how Blanc’s tendency towards irrational bouts of rage is clearly channelling the “iron fist in the velvet glove” that was the late Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi. Or how Uzume’s use of a megaphone as her weapon is a reference to how noisy the Dreamcast’s disc drive was. Or how Vert’s blonde hair, blue eyes and enormous breasts are a checklist of every single “foreigner” anime trope there ever was.
No; even if you don’t stop to think about what Neptunia is really saying with its narrative, dialogue and characterisation, it’s an intensely likeable series in its own right. Its characters are colourful, energetic and often relatable, and the games’ stories tend to move along at an enjoyably brisk pace. The villains strike a good balance between comedic incompetence and plausible sinisterness, while incidental characters have enough personality about them to make it a pleasant surprise when they show up in other installments. And the setting, by its very nature, provides scope for a variety of adventures, both serious and humorous.
While Producing Perfection had a mixed reception, it demonstrated clearly that the Neptunia cast had transcended their original medium and were strong enough to be considered a group of “virtual actors” in their own right.
Another interesting thing about Neptunia is that it built up enough goodwill with its initially flawed installments on PlayStation 3 to have the opportunity for a “do-over” via its Re;Birth incarnations on PlayStation Vita and PC. Through Re;Birth 1, 2 and 3, the series was able to not only put its canonical installments on equal footing with one another (as opposed to the first two games being noticeably weaker than third title Victory — mechanically, aesthetically and technically) but also to introduce the series to a whole new audience from the very beginning. Not many franchises have the chance to do that, and it’s testament to the strength of the series as a whole that the three Re;Birth games not only attracted a number of new fans, but also managed to successfully convince existing Neptunia enthusiasts to revisit stories they already knew.
Re;Birth, in many respects, is where the Neptunia series really started to pick up the pace in the West in particular. Re;Birth 1 marked the handover of the series from NIS America to Idea Factory’s new International branch, and the beginning of a flurry of spin-off titles — a process which had tentatively already begun with the Tamsoft-developed Hyperdimension Neptunia Producing Perfection, a non-canonical idol management/dating sim hybrid that made use of the Neptunia characters outside of their usual RPG context. While Producing Perfection had a somewhat mixed reception, even among existing fans of the series, it demonstrated clearly that the Neptunia cast as a whole had transcended their original medium and were strong enough to be considered a group of “virtual actors” in their own right. Indeed, it was around this time we also saw the release of a Neptunia manga (which sadly has never come West in an official capacity) and an anime (which did, via Funimation); going transmedia is usually a good sign for a Japanese franchise, regardless of the quality of its non-gaming incarnations, as it’s another means to pick up new fans.
It didn’t stop there. Alongside the three Re;Birth games we also saw the Sting-developed strategy RPG Hyperdevotion Noire and the Tamsoft-developed brawler Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed. And, following the release of Megadimension Neptunia V-II, fans in the West also have Neptunia U follow-up MegaTagmension Blanc + Neptune vs. Zombies and Superdimension Neptune vs. Sega Hard Girls to look forward to at the time of writing.
We’re looking at a developer that has continually learned, grown and changed with each new installment in its flagship franchise.
Each of these spin-offs not only provides a gameplay experience distinct from the core, canonical RPG installments, but also allows characters other than the eponymous Neptune to take the leading role. Hyperdevotion Noire, for example, came about as the result of a character popularity poll in which Lastation’s goddess Noire performed particularly strongly; likewise, MegaTagmension Blanc and Sega Hard Girls allow Lowee goddess Blanc and recurring secondary character (and Idea Factory personification) IF to take the spotlight respectively. And, at the time of writing, the first details on what looks likely to be a Vert-centric game based on her favourite (fictional) MMO 4 Goddesses Online are starting to dribble out; Cyberdimension Neptune is on the way.
The future is very bright for the Neptunia series, then, both in terms of its mainline installments and its spinoff titles. These characters have become some of the most fondly regarded in Japanese gaming for a reason, and as long as Compile Heart and friends keep making games for them to star in, it’s a sure bet that fans will keep buying them. Thankfully, as we’ll explore in more detail in a subsequent article, we’re looking at a developer that has continually learned, grown and changed with each new installment in its flagship franchise rather than becoming complacent, and Megadimension Neptunia V-II is the biggest step forward the series has taken since first sequel Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2.
In the next article, we’ll take a more in-depth look at the history of the Neptunia series and its mechanics: where it has drawn influences from, how it has refined its systems over time and specifically how Megadimension Neptunia V-II is the most solid Neptunia game to date.
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Megadimension Neptunia V-II is available now for PlayStation 4. Find out more at the official site.