The Neptunia series may only have been with us since 2010, but it’s already a mainstay of the modern Japanese gaming landscape.
It wasn’t an entirely smooth ride for the series in the early days, though; in many ways, given the extremely poor critical reception the first game, it’s surprising that we’ve seen as many Neptunia games over the years as we have done.
It’s clearly a series that creator Naoko Mizuno and developer-publishers Idea Factory and Compile Heart believe in, though — and one that fans have resolutely (and sensibly) ignored the mainstream critical opinion of in favour of making their own mind up.
And those who choose to engage with the series over the long term will discover both a franchise and a developer willing to learn from its mistakes, evolve over time and reboot things when necessary.
The original idea for what would later become Hyperdimension Neptunia was originally intended to be a collaboration with another company.
The concept for the original Hyperdimension Neptunia was first floated around the Idea Factory offices in 2009. The company was keen to produce a new title based around the character designs of Tsunako, an artist that had been on the company payroll since 2007; Tsunako had previously worked as a sprite designer on Japan-only PlayStation 2 strategy RPG Spectral Gene and PlayStation 3 crossover RPG Cross Edge as well as Hyperdimension Neptunia’s spiritual predecessor Trinity Universe. The time, it seemed, was right for her to take the lead role on a new project’s art direction.
The original idea for what would later become Hyperdimension Neptunia was intended to be a collaboration with another company. Speaking with Dengeki PlayStation in 2015, executive producer Norihisa Kochiwa revealed that, had that collaboration ever actually come to fruition, Neptunia as we know it today wouldn’t exist at all. Instead, Tsunako revamped her original character designs — three princess sisters and a more traditional self-insert player-protagonist character — to become the recognisable figures we know today, and the company also worked alongside Nippon Ichi Software, Gust, Sega and Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune to incorporate a host of other characters and guest appearances from various other recognisable Japanese properties.
The first Hyperdimension Neptunia game took a somewhat unconventional approach to the typical Japanese role-playing game format. Rather than unfolding in the standard world map, town, dungeon formula popularised by franchises like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, Hyperdimension Neptunia instead unfolded with somewhat more like a visual novel than a regular RPG. Largely menu-driven, the game’s central structure allowed you to choose from a series of event scenes to watch, some of which would open up new dungeons and others of which were purely for entertainment value.
It’s these event scenes that helped endear Neptunia to its audience in the first place — and they’re a big reason the series remains popular to this day. Bursting with character and satirical in-jokes about gaming and otaku culture, the event scenes were filled with such charm and wonderful characterisation that it was hard not to like the game, whether or not you found it engaging on a mechanical level. Some scenes introduced new characters — many of whom put in appearances in subsequent installments — while others simply depict day-to-day life for Neptune, her friends and the inhabitants of Gamindustri. There was no obligation to watch all of them, by any means — those that were important to story progression were clearly marked — but once you started to get a feel for who these characters were and how they fit into the world, it was hard to stop clicking through all of them.
The mechanical meat of the game came from its quests and dungeons.
The mechanical meat of the game came from its quests and dungeons, meanwhile. Accepting quests would open up dungeons, which would be based on one of several different tilesets. Upon stepping into a dungeon, a timer would start and you’d have to complete whatever objective the quest had set for you as quickly as possible, be it finding a particular item drop from an enemy, beating a boss or simply clearing out a specific number of enemies.
The dungeons themselves were fairly simple in design and, being tileset-based rather than uniquely designed in every instance or randomly generated, rather predictable. But there were some interesting exploration mechanics attached that made it more than just a simple dungeon crawl. Neptune, for example, was able to smash through obstacles, while her companions IF and Compa could locate hidden treasure and deliberately call strong monsters respectively. This core feature of switching the “leader” character in the field to fully explore a dungeon made it a lot more interesting than simply running from one end to another, engaging in random battles along the way.
Like the rest of the game, Hyperdimension Neptunia’s combat system was interesting and unusual. Taking some inspiration from Square Enix’s classic Xenogears, characters had a pool of action points to spend each turn, with different attacks — each worth varying amounts of AP according to their power and effect — being mapped to different face buttons on the controller. Some attacks would inflict status effects; others would chip away at the enemy’s Guard bar, which, when depleted, would cause them to take more damage from normal attacks; others were simply powerful blows that might have an elemental affinity or hit multiple opponents.
What was really interesting about the battle system was how much it opened up as the characters progressed through the levels and unlocked more moves. A frighteningly comprehensive combo setup menu allowed you to completely customise how each character fought, and even set up some immensely satisfying chains with characters swapping out with their back line counterpart, then back in again to deliver a devastating final blow. Different moves would be more effective when preceded by certain other moves, so putting together a suitable combo to maximise your damage became something of a puzzle to figure out. It was time-consuming, but immensely satisfying.
Hyperdimension Neptunia used a somewhat baffling system that combined a rudimentary crafting mechanic with the Gambit system from Final Fantasy XII.
A less effective aspect of the combat system was how items and healing worked. Rather than characters being able to freely use items on one another when their turn rolled around, Hyperdimension Neptunia used a somewhat baffling system that combined a rudimentary crafting mechanic with the Gambit system from Final Fantasy XII. In other words, you’d set “conditions” for item use to trigger on a per-character basis, and then assign a pool of points (that expanded as the characters levelled up) to determine how likely it was that this trigger would, well, trigger. Yes, that’s right; unless you set the trigger chance to 100% — which took a significant amount of points — you wouldn’t be guaranteed to see the characters do what you’d told them. Given that this was the only real way to heal in combat, it was… not ideal, to say the least. It was far from an insurmountable obstacle, however, and it was eminently possible to game the system somewhat — particularly if you set up characters to specialise in various aspects of item use rather than try to make everyone mediocre generalists.
Hyperdimension Neptunia had its flaws then, both mechanically and technically — the game ran well under 30 frames per second, despite what many saw as substandard, low-resolution graphics — but it had enough appeal about it to spawn a sequel. And it was with that sequel we started to see the Neptunia series as a whole start to take shape properly.
mk2 introduced the CPU Candidates — the younger sisters of the original cast members — and even took the bold step of centring the game’s narrative not around title character Neptune, but her younger sister Nepgear.
Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 followed its predecessor a year later in 2011, and was intended to be taken as a reboot rather than a direct sequel. Later, this would be justified in a narrative sense as the two games unfolding in different parallel dimensions to one another: Hyperdimension Neptunia, despite its name, takes place in the Super Dimension, while mk2 takes place in the Hyper Dimension, which is the focal point for most of the subsequent mainline installments.
The complete reboot of the fledgling series allowed the Neptunia team to come up with some new ideas without having to worry about continuity. Most notably, mk2 introduced the CPU Candidates — the younger sisters of the original cast members — and even took the bold step of centring the game’s narrative not around title character Neptune, but her younger sister Nepgear.
mk2 brought about a complete mechanical reboot as well. While the game still had a stark delineation between its world map (where events unfolded, you could accept quests and buy items) and its dungeons (where you could explore and fight), there was a much stronger sense of geography to the game world. While dungeons were still based on a handful of maps — arguably as a somewhat obtuse visual reference to Phantasy Star Online’s reuse of maps with minor variations for its various quests — they were more varied and interesting to explore, taking Nepgear and her friends everywhere from lush green forests to Tron-inspired computer dimensions with hexadecimal codes floating through the background.
mk2 eschewed the traditional “line up and hit each other” format and instead allowed free movement similar to that seen in Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter and Phantom Brave.
The biggest change was to the battle system. Streamlined and simplified somewhat from Hyperdimension Neptunia’s Xenogears-inspired combat, the game now eschewed the traditional “line up and hit each other” format and instead allowed free movement similar to that seen in Capcom’s Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter and Nippon Ichi’s Phantom Brave. Characters would be able to move a certain distance each turn according to their Movement stat, and were then able to unleash moves using a combination of Action Points (AP), which regenerated every turn and would carry over if unused, and Skill Points (SP), which charged up through normal attacks and taking damage.
mk2 also further subdivided its basic attack skills into three types, two of which are still used in today’s Neptunia titles. Rush attacks concentrate on maximising the hit count — enemies take more damage the deeper into a combo they are, plus more hits help charge SP quicker — while Power attacks have fewer hits but do more damage. Alongside that, there were also Break moves, which focused on knocking down the enemy’s Guard Points bar as in the previous game, though in Megadimension Neptunia V-II, these have been replaced with Normal attacks due to the abandonment of the Guard Points system.
mk2’s combat allowed for some interesting tactical situations thanks to the addition of positioning to the mechanics. Different weapons and abilities had different ranges and areas of effect, so it became possible to catch multiple enemies in a single attack if you had the right weapon. Characters and enemies alike would also take more damage from the back and sides, so making sure you positioned your characters effectively to avoid large cleaves through their backsides was essential, particularly when fighting the game’s tougher opponents.
mk2 was a definite improvement on its predecessor, but still needed a bit of work. The AP and SP systems still overcomplicated matters a little bit, and the way that AP worked in particular was unnecessarily obtuse. The way that SP worked, too, also meant that it was very difficult for many characters to stay in their HDD goddess forms for very long; given that these girls were supposed to be all-powerful beings, seeing them get too exhausted to use their “true” forms for more than a couple of turns at a time was a little jarring.
Pretty much all of mk2’s issues were fixed in third mainline installment Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory, the last of the series on PlayStation 3.
Fortunately, pretty much all of these issues were fixed in third mainline installment Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory, the last of the series on the PlayStation 3, and, for many people, one of the most mechanically sound installments.
Victory didn’t deviate too significantly from mk2’s format; superficially, the two look very similar, both on the field screen and in combat. Victory’s abandonment of the AP system in favour of stronger limitations on what combos you could “equip” on a character gave combat a better pace, however, and while it was closer in execution to a traditional Japanese role-playing game — something which the series had very obviously been trying to steer away from since the very beginning — it certainly worked a whole lot better. The best bits of mk2‘s combat system were kept intact, though — most notably the Dragon Quarter/Phantom Brave-style ability to move around the battlefield.
The crucial addition to Victory’s combat was the EXE Drive meter. This charged up similarly to the Limit Break, Trance or Overdrive meter in past Final Fantasy games, and allowed characters to unleash extremely powerful attacks once a segment had been completely filled. As the game progressed, the meter expanded from one to four segments in total, giving a strong sense of character progression through the narrative as well as through level-grinding. The EXE Drive meter persisted between battles, so an effective approach to the game was to spend a number of regular battles “charging up” in combat with normal enemies, then take on a more powerful Dangerous, Risky or Tough monster — essentially world bosses — with a fully charged meter, leaving you able to unleash at least one EXE Drive immediately after starting combat.
That wasn’t the only use of the EXE Drive meter, however; filling at least one segment also allowed characters to use special EXE Finish moves when performing their normal combos, and these were often the main ways of generating high hit counts, inflicting status effects or breaking down the enemy’s guard. On top of that, the EXE Drive meter could also be used to trigger Coupling skills with a girl’s partner in the back row and a Formation skill with one or more other girls in the front row, making for a strong incentive to mix up your party formations if you wanted to see all the extremely silly, entertaining special moves on offer.
Victory was very mechanically sound, on the whole, then, with its combat system being particularly solid.
Outside of combat, Victory added a new system called Scouts, which were recruitable characters you could send off to dungeons around the world while you explored elsewhere, and they’d bring back items and money for you. Occasionally, they’d unlock new dungeons or be able to change aspects of existing dungeons such as the enemies or harvestable items in the field. In order to see everything Victory had to offer, making use of the Scout system was essential; it’s how you’d unlock the most challenging dungeons, the most powerful bosses and obtain the best items.
Victory was very mechanically sound, on the whole, then, with its combat system being particularly solid. So solid, in fact, that it remained the mechanical basis for the three Re;Birth games on PlayStation Vita, with the only real change to the formula being the dropping of the EXE Drive meter in Re;Birth 3, with that game instead making the former EXE Drive moves consume an entire SP bar.
While the Re;Birth games didn’t do a lot with Victory’s combat formula, they did revamp the structure and overall metagame of the series somewhat. This is most obvious in Re;Birth 1, which self-consciously re-tells the story of the original Hyperdimension Neptunia with the engine and mechanics of Victory, but it’s also in evidence in the subsequent two.
Core to the Re;Birth games was the Remake system — in essence, a crafting mechanic. Unlike normal crafting systems in RPGs, however, the Remake system allowed players to not only craft consumable items, but also new game mechanics or balance tweaks. As you progressed through the games, acquired new Plans, expanded your memory capacity and obtained the raw materials required to implement a Plan, you could do everything from breaking the normal 9999 damage limit to unlocking new dungeons or causing the EXE Drive meter to fill more quickly. The Remake system in Re;Birth 1 even formed the canonical basis of how the CPU Candidates Nepgear, Uni, Rom and Ram were all born — in the Super Dimension, anyway.
Series creator Naoko Mizuno noted that she was not at all averse to the Neptunia series as a whole diverging into wildly different genres.
In the case of Re;Birth 2 and 3, meanwhile, the Remake system unlocked a brand new real-time minigame called Stella’s Dungeon, in which you’d send a young girl called Stella and her cat Felis — together a reference to Re;Birth developers Felistella — into various dungeons and hope they’d bring you back something nice after a certain period of real time (which would continue to elapse even if you weren’t actively playing the game) had elapsed. It was, to be honest, a pain in the arse and not really worth the effort, but for those of you out there who like your Platinum trophies, be prepared to swear at the message “Stella did not make it…” a whole lot.
Alongside the Re;Birth games, we started to see a number of Neptunia spinoff titles, beginning with idol management/dating sim Producing Perfection in 2013 and continuing with strategy RPG Hyperdevotion Noire in 2014, brawlers Hyperdimension Nepunia U: Action Unleashed and Megatagmension Blanc and Neptune vs. Zombies in 2014 and 2015 respectively, and spinoff RPG Superdimension Neptune vs. Sega Hard Girls in 2015. Each of these games are regarded as non-canonical in a narrative sense — Hyperdevotion Noire unfolds in the most obviously different dimension to the mainline games, with a whole cast of characters not seen anywhere else — but act as a means for the Neptunia team and their development partners Sting and Tamsoft to explore these characters in different mechanical contexts. Speaking with tech-gaming in January 2016, series creator Naoko Mizuno noted that she was not at all averse to the Neptunia series as a whole diverging into wildly different genres such as open-world adventures, roguelikes or VR titles, so it’s clear we’ll see many more of these spinoffs in the years to come.
Neptunia’s heart is with its role-playing roots, though, and Megadimension Neptunia V-II provides the most significant mechanical step forward for the series since mk2 totally abandoned the mechanics of the first game.
V-II features some of the most explicit mechanical references to other games that the series has ever seen.
V-II perhaps isn’t as radical a reinvention to its predecessors as mk2 was to Hyperdimension Neptunia, but it’s still clear that the team wanted to mix things up a bit rather than making another game based on Victory’s basic formula. And so we see a number of different additions to the basic formula: bigger, more interesting dungeons with greater variety; a building metagame on the world map where you have to pay to connect locations together with roads and upgrade the facilities available in towns; and the Hidden Treasure system, which challenges you to fulfil a specific objective in a dungeon in order to uncover some unique goodies.
Combat is an evolution rather than a revolution, but thanks to the smoother, more fluid animation (thanks to the more powerful PS4 hardware) and the revamped sound effects, it feels both snappier and more weighty. The EXE Drive meter has been re-implemented to only charge in battle and reset at the start of each new confrontation, discouraging the EXE grinding of earlier games but encouraging more frequent use of special moves. And most notably, the addition of “Giant” enemies in their own unique battlefields allows for some of the most visually dramatic confrontations in the series — something that previous installments fell a bit flat with, even when it came to their final boss encounters.
V-II also features some of the most explicit mechanical references to other games that the series has seen; previously, most of the references tended to be in the script or in the form of visual gags, but with the addition of the two Neplunker dungeons and the sprawling Senmuu Labyrinth to V-II, we’re finally seeing some satire through the mechanics rather than just through the script. Neplunker, for example, pokes fun at the ridiculously unfair nature of the questionably “classic” platform game Spelunker by challenging you to avoid bat poo, steam vents and falling from a height any higher than your knees, instantly killing you and sending you back to the start of the area if you make one misstep or even ending the game altogether if you run out of lives. Senmuu Labyrinth, meanwhile, is a retro-style wireframe dungeon designed to evoke visions of the old Wizardry dungeon-crawlers — and just to add to that old-school feel, it doesn’t allow you to use the auto-map, so you’d better get the graph paper out.
“On a technical level, I like to think that Compile Heart has grown up along with the Neptunia series,” said executive producer Norihisa Kochiwa to Dengeki PlayStation on the series’ fifth anniversary in 2015. “Not just from an art or game system standpoint, but it’s had quite a big effect on other Compile Heart games as well. Just looking at screenshots of the original Hyperdimension Neptunia gets me all nostalgic, and I can really see how we’ve progressed since then. I get pretty emotional.”
Deservedly so, I say; the Neptunia series is that rare thing in gaming: an example of a series that has consistently got better and better with each subsequent installment, and attracted more and more fans over time. While it’s still undoubtedly a niche-interest title — some people simply can’t get past that anime-style aesthetic, no matter how beautiful Tsunako’s artwork might be — it’s fair to say that Neptunia is one of the most recognisable franchises in Japanese gaming today, and, based on the mechanical and narrative strength of its most recent installments, long may that continue!
In the next article, we’ll take a more in-depth look at the narrative of Megadimension Neptunia V-II: what its themes are, how the series as a whole has always emphasised characterisation and its… interesting approach to continuity.
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Megadimension Neptunia V-II is available now for PlayStation 4, with a PC version coming later in 2016. Find out more at the official site.