The Neptunia series is not only one of the most remarkable success stories in Japanese gaming, it’s also one of the most interesting, diverse franchises out there.
From its humble beginnings as a low-budget RPG with an atrocious critical reception to its current, widely recognised status inextricably associated with Sony platforms, even the most hardened cynic has to admit by now that there’s probably something to this series.
A big part of what has kept Neptunia fresh and interesting over the years is the fact that it’s not afraid to step outside of its traditional RPG comfort zone and experiment with gameplay styles. And, since we already explored the history of the mainline series when we dove deep into Megadimension Neptunia V-II back in 2016, it’s these spinoff games we’ll be looking in more detail today.
With that said, before we get stuck in to said spinoffs, it’s worth noting that Neptunia hasn’t been afraid to do interesting and strange things even with its mainline installments; second game Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2, for example, initially appeared to abandon the cast of the original game in favour of their younger sisters — though the “main” goddesses stepped back into the fray after a lengthy rescue mission — and third title Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory saw protagonist Neptune cast into a different dimension in which familiar characters were just a little bit different from what we were accustomed to.
Interestingly, despite all the dimension-hopping craziness that the series as a whole indulges in — along with the fact that some installments are explicitly regarded as non-canonical — there’s a surprising amount of internal consistency to everything. If you want a bluffer’s guide, it basically goes like this: the original Neptunia (and its Vita remake Re;Birth1) unfolds in the Super Dimension; mk2 (and Re;Birth2) occurs in the Hyper Dimension; Victory (and Re;Birth3) begins in the Hyper Dimension but sees Neptune falling into the Ultra Dimension as its main plot hook. Megadimension Neptunia V-II features the Zero, Hyper and Heart Dimensions. The spinoffs are… well, they’re all over the place.
Clear? No? Not to worry, this isn’t a series where you need to know the lore in order to appreciate it by any means.
Neptunia’s first spinoff was 2013’s Hyperdimension Neptunia: Producing Perfection (also known as Neptunia PP) for PlayStation Vita. In this game, you take on the role of yourself as a self-insert player-protagonist character rather than the Neptunia girls themselves. Accidentally sucked into another dimension, you find yourself confronted by one of the four main goddesses Neptune, Noire, Vert or Blanc, and through a strange combination of circumstances find yourself in charge of their fledgling career as an idol.
The game positions itself as an idol management game but it’s actually more of a dating sim, since although most of what you do involves scheduling your chosen goddess’ time to raise her stats in various areas, the main purpose of this is to develop your relationship with her and see numerous special events.
It’s a very text-heavy game that is light on traditional gameplay mechanics — even the sequences where the goddesses perform on stage see you controlling the lights and special effects rather than taking part in a rhythm action sequence — so some people found themselves bouncing quite hard off this one after the earlier RPGs. But for those who had always found found interacting with the main cast to be one of the primary appeal elements of the series, it was a dream come true; an opportunity to spend some private, intimate time with your favourite character.
2014 saw a flurry of Neptunia releases, including the Vita remakes of mk2 and Victory (now known as Re;Birth2: Sisters Generation and Re;Birth3: V Generation), but more significantly for our purposes here, it also played host to two new original spinoff titles.
The first of these was Hyperdevotion Noire: Goddess Black Heart. Developed as a collaborative affair between Idea Factory, Compile Heart and mechanics maestros Sting, Hyperdevotion Noire was the result of a popularity poll in which the tsundere goddess of Lastation came out in the lead and thus got her own game.
To allow Noire to better take the lead, Hyperdevotion Noire unfolds in an alternative version of the Neptunia series’ setting of Gamindustri, known as Gamarket to distinguish itself from the canonical backdrop to the action. Neptune, Vert and Blanc are still present for much of the narrative, but Noire is the focal point of the story, and she is supported by a large original cast of characters based on popular Japanese franchises ranging from Resident Evil to Opoona via Yakuza, Pac-Man and Monster Hunter. It’s quite the lineup.
Hyperdevotion Noire further distinguishes itself from the mainline series by being an isometric strategy RPG rather than Neptunia’s traditional format of dungeon exploration, crafting and combat. Once again taking on the role of a self-insert player-protagonist who this time is trusted to become a tactical mastermind overnight, it’s your job to help Noire reunite Gamarket against the mysterious forces threatening her and the other goddesses.
Hyperdevotion Noire is noteworthy for providing an extremely enjoyable and accessible take on the traditionally rather challenging and mechanically dense strategy RPG genre. Eschewing the heavy character customisation of games such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre in favour of a huge playable cast, each with their own clear specialisms, this title is well worth checking out, even if you’ve typically found yourself having difficulty with more complex examples of the subgenre.
Later in 2014, we saw a collaboration between Idea Factory, Compile Heart and Tamsoft that brought us Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed. Clearly inspired by Kenichiro Takaki’s successful Senran Kagura series — which was also developed under the Tamsoft umbrella at the time — the game took the form of an arena-based brawler with lightweight RPG elements, hundreds of enemies on screen at once and destructible clothing.
Neptunia U’s narrative concerns how the press often attempts to manipulate stories to its own advantage, and to that end featured original characters based on popular Japanese publications Dengeki PlayStation and Famitsu. It was a timely release, too; 2014 was the height of the “GamerGate” controversy that caused a lot of discussion over and scrutiny of ethics in the video game journalism business, and indeed the localised version of the game in particular makes a few rather obvious references to the situation, albeit without actually mentioning it by name.
The game itself proved to be enjoyable, featuring a variety of different playable characters, each with their own lineup of regular attacks and special moves. Racking up huge combo counts was immensely satisfying, and there was a surprising amount of content in the game; once you cleared the main story, there were two substantial additional modes to clear in which you could test your skills and advance your characters further. Characters could also be customised with equippable items, often with something of a risk versus reward system going on; for example, you might be able to inflate a character’s damage enormously in exchange for dropping their defensive power to zero.
The following year saw Neptunia U get a quasi-sequel in the form of the Tamsoft-developed MegaTagmension Blanc + Neptune vs. Zombies, a response to all the people who felt that if Noire had had her own game, Blanc and Vert should get one each too. The game wasn’t a radical departure from Neptunia U’s format in that it was still a fairly straightforward hack-and-slash arena brawler — only this time with zombies — but it did add a few interesting tweaks to the mix as well as an adorable “high school drama” setting and aesthetic.
MegaTagmension’s main development atop Neptunia U’s basic format was the addition of more complex boss battles, with many of the game’s missions focusing almost entirely on a confrontation between your playable character and a powerful large enemy. This aspect of the game drew some favourable comparisons to the legendary Monster Hunter series — particularly when played in the new multiplayer mode — though MegaTagmension is a considerably simpler game than the titles in Capcom’s classic franchise and lacks its exploration and tracking aspects. That said, it still features a pleasing element of collecting loot and equipping your characters with various combinations of accessories to customise their performance, and there’s plenty of scope to continue exploring the game and powering up your characters after the main story is over.
Later in 2015, popular recurring character IF — the personification of developer-publisher Idea Factory — got her own game (kind of) in the form of Superdimension Neptune vs. Sega Hard Girls, a collaboration between two franchises that explore the concept of anthropomorphised game consoles. The first, is, of course, Neptunia, while the latter is a collaborative project between ASCII Media Works’ imprint Dengeki Bunko and Sega that, besides the Neptunia crossover, also spawned a light novel and an anime TV series.
Superdimension Neptune vs. Sega Hard Girls is, in many ways, the most “traditional” of the spinoff Neptunia games in that it is a relatively conventional RPG. It provides a few twists on the mainline series’ usual formula, however, most notably with IF having a wider variety of exploration abilities at her disposal — perhaps a callback to the very first Neptunia game, where different characters had distinct “field skills” for finding treasure or calling monsters — and the ability to switch “jobs” Final Fantasy-style.
Given the focus on the crossover characters and IF in the leading role, the main Neptunia cast take a bit of a step back in this one, with Noire, Vert and Blanc actually completely absent from the game for the first time in the series. It’s an interesting installment that does something a bit different, however, and a good complement to the mainline RPG entries.
Finally we come to Cyberdimension Neptunia: 4 Goddesses Online, the primary subject of this month’s features. This title, as we’ll explore in greater detail when we delve into its core mechanics, represents Tamsoft’s third attempt at making an “action Neptunia” game, and eschews the arena brawler style of Neptunia U and MegaTagmension Blanc in favour of the action RPG subgenre’s combination of exploration and real-time battling.
Cyberdimension Neptunia marks an interesting moment for longtime series veterans from a narrative perspective, since it’s the first time that Vert’s often-mentioned favourite series of games in the Neptunia universe — the titular 4 Goddesses Online — is actually seen on screen. Well, let’s not sell it short — in Cyberdimension Neptunia you’re simply playing the “latest version” of 4 Goddesses Online as the girls help with its early access beta testing period.
This brings up another aspect to the game’s history that takes us beyond just the Neptunia series, since Cyberdimension Neptunia is far from the first game to provide a “simulated online RPG” experience.
The idea of using an offline single-player experience to simulate something happening online has been explored by a number of developers over the years in a variety of different ways.
The earliest example is probably Activision’s 1985 title Hacker, which produced the illusion of hacking into a remote computer to control a robot and investigate a globe-spanning mystery. Memorably, Activision exec Jim Levy demonstrated the game through what appeared to be a botched attempt to connect to his company’s servers at a public session for journalists, subsequently revealing that the apparent mishap was the game itself; to further add to the feeling of authenticity, the game shipped with no instructions whatsoever, requiring you to figure out what you were supposed to be doing and how to do it.
The idea of using your own computer or console as part of the game’s “set” — to put it in fancier language, making use of the real world in a diegetic manner, extending the game “world” beyond the screen and into your living room or study — has subsequently been built on a number of times since Hacker. Introversion Software’s popular Uplink game is effectively Elite in cyberspace — and one of the most unnerving games in existence — and indie visual novel creator Christine Love’s early title Digital: A Love Story saw you exploring a narrative through early ’90s BBS messages and dial-up networking. And there are plenty of other games that have attempted to recreate these games’ respective successes.
The idea of a fleshed out “game within a game” came a little later, with one of the concept’s most convincing early incarnations coming in the form of the PlayStation 2 series .hack by CyberConnect2, first released in 2002. Unfolding over the course of four episodes, each released as separate games, .hack saw you exploring a simulated MMO as well as certain aspects of the “real world” (primarily email messages and news posts) in an attempt to figure out what it was about the game that was causing people to fall into apparently inexplicable comas.
.hack was supported by four OVAs that came bundled with the games and told a series of parallel stories, as well as a separate full-length anime TV series that acted as a prequel. It was subsequently followed up by a second trilogy of games known as .hack//G.U. for PlayStation 2 in 2006, with a remastered rerelease following for PlayStation 4 and PC some eleven years later in 2017.
Then, of course, there’s the narrative trope of being trapped in — or at least living in — an MMO seen in a variety of light novels, anime and manga. Perhaps the best-known example of this — and arguably the trope codifier — is Sword Art Online, which made its first appearance in 2009 and proved consistently popular following its initial release, spawning manga, anime, movies, merchandise and, of course, video games. Love it or hate it, SAO played a key role in defining the popularity of this type of story.
Other franchises approached the same idea from a variety of different angles, with titles such as Accel World and Overlord continuing literal explorations of the interaction between fantasy and reality through technology, while others like Kono Subarashii Sekai ni Shukufuku wo! (better known as Konosuba), Dungeon Ni Deai O Motomeru No Wa Machigatteiru No Darou Ka (aka Is it Wrong to Try and Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?) and, to a certain extent, No Game No Life, postulate what it would be like for one to live in a world that played by the rules of massively multiplayer online role-playing games.
It’s fair to say, then, that Cyberdimension Neptunia has an extremely broad array of influences to draw upon, both from within its host series and from broader trends in popular media over the years. In many ways it’s an interesting new perspective on the Neptunia franchise and its characters, though at the same time it remains true to its roots and is particularly delightful for series veterans to enjoy.
As will become apparent throughout our further explorations of the game, it’s certainly not shy about drawing on said influences and acknowledging them from mechanical, narrative and artistic perspectives, while putting its own distinctive twist on things.
But then, when has Neptunia ever been shy about anything? By this point, the series’ trademark use of good-natured parody and satire is well-established, and is one of the many things that keeps fans coming back for more time after time. Cyberdimension Neptunia’s setting of the online realm gives it a whole host of new things to take aim at with its humour — and it does so with characteristic aplomb and enthusiasm, continuing the series’ tradition of never failing to make me smile.
More about Cyberdimension Neptunia: 4 Goddesses Online
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