While the Neptunia series is primarily known for being RPGs, developer Compile Heart’s frequent collaborator Tamsoft has had a number of shots at bringing the franchise into the real-time action realm.
Over time, the scale and ambition of these “action Neptunia” games has expanded considerably, with Cyberdimension Neptunia: 4 Goddesses Online marking the most convincing realisation of the formula to date at the time of writing, blending elements of the mainline Neptunia games with an appealing and enjoyable real-time combat system.
Let’s look at how “action Neptunia” has evolved over time, and how Cyberdimension Neptunia refines the formula.
As we’ve seen already, the first Neptunia action game was 2014’s Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed. This title featured an original story and two new characters based on popular Japanese gaming publications Dengeki PlayStation and Famitsu. The narrative explored how the press often manipulated events in order to get a better story, and indeed its localisation had more than a few knowing nods and winks in the direction of the “GamerGate” controversy over press ethics that erupted in mid-2014.
The story itself was short, but the game continued after the main narrative had been beaten, firstly with a series of battles between the main characters and subsequently with a 50-floor tower that characters could ascend in pairs, taking on preset enemy encounters along the way. In order to attain a Platinum trophy for the game, you’d have to get every single playable character from the very bottom right to the top, though the fact characters ascended in pairs made this a little easier.
Neptunia U’s combat system was based loosely on that seen in its stablemates of the Senran Kagura series. Adopting the common 3D brawler mechanics of having two attack buttons — one light, one strong — and various moves unleashed by triggering different numbers of light attacks followed by a single strong one, it was easy to pick up and play but provided a certain degree of depth through how the different characters handled. There was also some interesting strategic depth available in the ability to switch between your paired characters mid-battle, giving you the opportunity to let a wounded character rest and continue fighting with their partner.
Much like Senran Kagura, Neptunia U’s playable characters ran the gamut from those that liked to wade into hordes of enemies and slash away at them with wide-ranging area-effect attacks, to those that preferred to pick enemies off at a distance. Each character also had special moves that could be charged up and unleashed, and the “goddess” characters could even transform into their powered-up HDD forms, each of which had their own movesets.
Ultimately Neptunia U was a fairly straightforward game that could be beaten with button-mashing, though like Senran Kagura, it proved particularly rewarding to those who took the time to learn how the different characters handled and what situations they were most useful in. It was a solid start to the sub-series for sure.
Neptunia U was followed up by Blanc’s game MegaTagmension Blanc + Neptune vs. Zombies in 2015. This didn’t deviate hugely from Neptunia U’s formula in terms of its basic combat mechanics, but placed a much stronger emphasis on fighting larger, more powerful enemies, particularly in the game’s new multiplayer mode where up to four players could cooperate against tough foes. There were also a few refinements to the formula, such as making use of support-only characters to trigger special attacks, but for the most part it was still hack-and-slash funtimes — accessible and simple with an interesting metagame involving collecting equipment and accessories, but certainly not the deepest game in the series.
Cyberdimension Neptunia builds on the formula of these previous two games, but wraps the whole thing in a very substantial and coherent overall structure that is much more akin to the main Neptunia games than the other spinoff games. And it works extremely well.
Cyberdimension Neptunia’s basic combat initially seems simpler than that found in Neptunia U and MegaTagmension. There is now only a single attack button, for example, but to make up for the lack of the combos found in the previous games there are now a wide variety of different skills for the various characters to learn, each of which can be triggered by holding a shoulder button and pressing a face button on the controller. These skills cost Skill Points (SP) to unleash, and SP can be recovered by either using normal attacks, items or the powered-up “Awakening” mode, which also allows the use of super special moves later in the game.
Given Cyberdimension Neptunia’s setting of a massively multiplayer online game, these skills tend to correspond to the different classes that the characters have chosen to play in terms of their functionality. Interestingly, each of the regular Neptunia cast has elected to play a character that is somewhat different to their usual form in the mainline games, making for a bit of variety. Noire, for example, who is a nimble rapier-user in the main games, is a spear-using tank here, while Vert, who uses spears in the “real” world, is instead a buff-providing Enchanter.
The different characters play noticeably differently from one another, even within classes that seem related. Nepgear and Uni are both ranged attackers, for example, being a Mage and a Thief respectively, but they contrast strongly in terms of how their attacks function. Uni can unleash very fast attacks while remaining mobile — she uses twin pistols as a conscious change from the sniper rifle she is usually depicted wielding — while Nepgear fires slower-moving but more powerful projectiles. Their skills reflect these differences, too; Nepgear’s spells have elemental effects and many cause splash damage, while Uni’s involve firing her guns in various ways to exploit a single enemy’s weaknesses.
You control a single character at a time and bring three others along in tow. The AI-controlled characters will make use of the skills you put in their hotbars, so it’s worth setting them up effectively even if you’re not planning to play them directly. It’s especially helpful to ensure Blanc, the main healer of the game, has all her curative and restorative spells equipped, though Neptune and Vert can both help out in a pinch since they both have access to the basic healing spell.
Further incentive is provided to develop all your characters by the fact that only those you take with you on an expedition will gain experience; while it is probably possible to run through the whole game with a single party of four out of the initially available eight (and later twelve), it’s much more interesting and fun to both mix up your supporting cast members and the character you’re playing as, too — though doubtless you’ll find at least one favourite you keep coming back to.
Combat on the whole takes a certain amount of cues from the earlier Neptunia games in that enemies have both an HP bar and a “Guard” bar; breaking the latter (most efficiently achieved via magical attacks or special abilities) often staggers, topples or otherwise incapacitates the enemy as well as opening them up to significantly greater damage for a short period. This mechanic applies to both bosses — more on those in a moment — and the regular enemies you encounter.
One way in which Cyberdimension Neptunia differs a little from its mainline counterparts is in how the dungeons are structured. Rather than being places to explore at will for whatever reason you wish (or simply to trigger story events), Cyberdimension Neptunia’s dungeons are, appropriately enough, designed more akin to those you’d find in an online RPG, with a clear path through them (perhaps with a few branches along the way to acquire extra loot) towards a final boss confrontation, which then kicks you back out once you’ve beaten it.
These boss encounters are absolutely a highlight of the game experience; building very much on the good work MegaTagmension did with its large monsters, Cyberdimension Neptunia’s boss fights are challenging and interesting to take part in, particularly when you see how differently the fights unfold from the perspective of different character types.
The boss fights in particular emphasise some of the important aspects of the combat that could otherwise easily be glossed over, in particular the use of blocking, parrying and dodging. Rather than this being taken care of automatically based on your stats as in a more conventional RPG (or something like Final Fantasy XIV, which straddles that line between action RPG and traditional turn-based mechanics), you’re expected to actively block and dodge using the shoulder buttons on the controller, with a parry being accomplished by hitting the block button as an enemy attack hits.
The parry has a certain degree of leniency to it in terms of the timing window required to pull it off successfully, and this helps make it a lot more accessible than many other Japanese action games that demand extreme precision. The nice thing about it is that the exact implementation of it varies according to character, though it usually involves counterattacking somehow. Neptune’s parry, for example, sees her backstep to avoid an attack before charging right back in to strike; Ram, by contrast, who is playing a ninja in the game rather than the mage she is in “reality”, backflips out of the way and attacks from a distance, necessitating closing the gap between her and her enemy manually after a successful parry.
The game doesn’t have explicit telegraphs for enemy attacks in the same way as something like Final Fantasy XIV does, but you can learn the various animations each enemy does to indicate various attacks — and this is true for both bosses and trash enemies found throughout the dungeons. In true MMO fashion, later encounters see some bosses having “instant kill” attacks that may give you a nasty surprise the first time you encounter them, though once you know the animation signal to look out for you’ll know to get the hell out of the way!
Speaking of Cyberdimension Neptunia’s MMO influences, the game doesn’t go too far with trying to recreate the MMO experience. There’s no learning of complex rotations to optimise DPS or waiting for global cooldowns here; this is very much an action game with an MMO-style coat of paint, and given its lack of coherent overworld and emphasis on dungeon-crawling, it’s perhaps better compared to something like Phantasy Star Online rather than the aforementioned Final Fantasy XIV. The Phantasy Star Online comparisons are particularly apt given that much of Neptunia’s environmental aesthetics and structure has clearly been inspired by Sega’s classic over the years — unsurprising, given Sega’s involvement with the very first game in the series back in 2010 — but they’re most apparent here, especially with aspects of the game’s presentation such as the “Guild Card” system cataloguing the “players” you’ve met.
All that said, the MMO influences are a lot more apparent in terms of the game’s overall structure, with the various dungeons you explore being clearly stratified according to the challenge level of the monsters, and more difficult quests and encounters becoming available as you progress through the game. In a nice nod to games like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV offering harder versions of earlier boss fights at endgame, Cyberdimension Neptunia allows you to challenge a number of story bosses from earlier in the game in “hard” and “extreme” variants as later quests, some of which even come after you’ve “beaten” the main story.
The MMO influence can also be felt in how gear is handled. While some equipment can be purchased from shops in the hub town, a gradual but substantial increase in power level can be achieved by engaging with the game’s crafting system, in which the personification of Tamsoft (first introduced in MegaTagmension Blanc + Neptune vs. Zombies) will upgrade most weapons and armour through several stages if you bring her the right materials.
While the mainline Neptunia games have always had something of an emphasis on crafting — especially in the Re;Birth titles, where you could even craft game mechanics and system adjustments as well as consumable and equippable items — the idea of most of your loot taking the form of various twigs, nuts, mechanical detritus and monster body parts rather than actually useful equipment is straight out of your average MMO. This is particularly apparent when you reach the latter stages of the game, where upgrading weapons to their highest level requires confronting different types of bosses several times in order to score their item drops. It’s by no means as brutal (and tedious) as Final Fantasy XIV’s notorious “Relic” quests, but it’s a satisfying grind for those who enjoy engaging with such things.
For those who do not, there’s actually no real need to get the very best equipment in the game to be able to defeat pretty much everything it has to offer, and this, in a way, also reflects modern MMO design. Outside of top-tier raid-level encounters, the majority of progression in modern MMOs tends to involve being able to complete dungeons and encounters more quickly and efficiently rather than necessarily dealing with stiff challenges. And indeed, Cyberdimension Neptunia reflects this by not being a particularly difficult game for its entire duration — though for sure you can make it a lot easier by taking the time to upgrade your equipment as you progress.
To put it another way, the emphasis is not on getting strong enough to be able to overcome an otherwise insurmountable challenge; it is, instead, on powering yourself up to be able to overwhelm those challenges more quickly. There’s a very satisfying and noticeable feeling of “power creep” as you progress through the levels and unlock new skills for each of the characters, and a number of late-game quests deliberately take you back to early dungeons to gather items or defeat foes, allowing you an ideal opportunity to see how much stronger you are now than you were when you first wandered those paths. It’s always fun to one-shot a large group of enemies with a single spell.
In a way, it’s a bit of a shame that the single-player component of the game really lacks a true sense that any of its encounters are “endgame raids”, though the multiplayer quests fulfil this function to a certain degree by tasking you with defeating enemies with considerably larger HP pools than that which you find in the main story. Being able to tackle these is dependent on finding others playing online, however, and as good as the game is, its niche-interest status likely means its online community will be small, and the single player story is the real attraction for most here anyway.
If you have a group of friends willing to schedule a time to take on some of these challenges, however, there’s some fun to be had — particularly with the game’s chat function, which allows you to both use preset phrases (including some voiced lines) from the character you are playing, as well as freely type your own messages. If you ever wanted to make Vert shout “Cock!” now’s your chance.
Cyberdimension Neptunia represents a natural evolution of the “action Neptunia” format, and a direction that I personally have been hoping this subseries would take for a while. The combination of more traditional RPG mechanics and structure with real-time action combat works very well indeed, and the game offers just enough content to keep things interesting and varied without becoming too boring or grindy.
It’s quite a bit shorter than your average mainline Neptunia game — you can easily attain a Platinum trophy in 30 hours or so, a process which involves seeing pretty much everything the game has to offer — but in erring on the shorter side of things, it means it never outstays its welcome and remains consistently fun and appealing.
The narrative and characterisation also have to take some credit for keeping things interesting for those 30 hours, too, but that’s a story for another day!
More about Cyberdimension Neptunia: 4 Goddesses Online
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