They did it. They finally did it! Though I've long been a fan of Compile Heart's racy dialogue, quirky gameplay systems and art direction that can be charitably described as "colourful" (or more accurately "like a Kill la Kill cosplay competition sponsored by a lingerie company"), I've always had to point out that the boutique JRPG studio stops short of greatness more often than not. They have the talent, yet settle for fanservice over genuine excellence every single time.
But they did it. Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth 1 is a genuinely great handheld JRPG, bringing a PS3 cult classic up to date in almost every way, while the Vita turns its remaining weaknesses into strengths. I'm currently reviewing Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth 2 ahead of its January 23rd embargo, but it's only fair that I give last year's remake the overdue credit it deserves.
All is not well in the land of Gamindustri. Four nations are locked into the bitter 'console wars,' sending out their champions to do battle as invulnerable Godesses. Sadly the 'CPU' of Planeptune is defeated by her rivals (Noire representing Lastation, Vert from Leanbox and Blanc representing Lowee) and crashes out of the console wars, only to discover that Gamindustri is threatened by the villanous Arfoire and her dastardly plan.
So in case you didn't twig: Hyperdimension Neptunia is a parody. A damn good one, if astonishingly top-heavy when it comes to the fanservice.
The whole game is one big send-up of the console wars, from the characters and enemies to the world they inhabit. Neptune's journey takes her into contact with party members personifying the developers themselves (not to mention Falcom and others), plus her deadly rivals who all personify their chosen console -- whether the arrogant feature-obsessed Vert or the enthusiastic yet quietly self-conscious Blanc. Enemies include faux screenshots from famous visual novels brought to life, crazed gamers, Space Invaders or pugilistic X...Boxers... well, admittedly not all of the puns are that clever.
Bouncy dialogue keeps a flood of fourth wall-breaking humour and references in check, presenting likeable characters as well as a few deeply geeky belly laughs. Though, of course, "bouncy" doesn't just describe the writing.
This being a Compile Heart/Idea Factory joint, Re;Birth 1 is fanservice-heavy enough to implode into a jiggling breast singularity. All of the major characters resemble scantily-clad girls or scantily-clad mecha girls if capable of transforming, while there are plenty of otaku-pleasing tropes and archetypes to be found that will understandably and rightfully deter many gamers. However, unlike some other JRPGs (and Compile Heart games) I could mention, there's a level of thought and understanding behind it. Character designs directly incorporate console colour schemes and design elements into outfits and accessories, while personalities are disarmingly well-observed.
After all, Blanc's embarrassment about her modest cup size relative to her rivals might seem distasteful if not disgusting in any other JRPG... but here it's an allegory to the power disparity between the Wii versus the Xbox and PS3. I think. Critically, Re;Birth 1 doesn't lose sight of what it's intending to parody and goes the whole hog, making for a strong storyline and great characters that's well worth sticking with.
But that's just the story. Re;Birth 1 may be a parody, but its progression and combat are deadly serious.
Gamindustri is presented as a static overworld map that's gradually populated with dungeons and city menus over the course of the campaign. You've got all the character building and agonising over stats and gear that you'd expect from a typical JRPG, but shops, bounties and story progression cutscenes are all quickly and instantly accessible, making for an experience perfectly suited to a handheld platform.
The dungeons, too, are perfectly suited for portable play sessions. Despite a vibrant graphical overhaul, Re;Birth 1's many caves and optional dungeons are still undeniably small and basic as you explore them and engage or avoid enemies at your own speed. It's a familiar bugbear with Compile Heart games, which often feel disappointingly claustrophobic and limited on home consoles, but on Vita all is forgiven.
It's bite-sized dungeon crawling, allowing you to reach to a boss or farm a particular quest item and return to the world map within a few minutes, while providing massive quantity and the ability to modify each zone with more difficult enemies and different items thanks to the new game-hacking 'Plan' system. What proved disastrous on PS3 feels smart and streamlined on its new platform, especially since the admittedly enormous amount of level grinding required to beat bosses can be mitigated with clever use of vendor items, Plans that modify enemy strength or several days worth of grinding in varied surroundings against humorous enemies.
The combat is the cherry on the cake, however. Compile Heart have iterated on their trademark battle system throughout the Hyperdimension Neptunia, Mugen Souls and Fairy Fencer series, resulting in what I'd consider to be some of the premier turn-based combat mechanics on the market. Your party can freely move around the arenas to carefully line up and fire off AoE attacks for maximum effect, exploiting enemy spacing and an expanding set of situational abilities, while Neptune and her CPU rivals can transform into powerful new forms at a steep mana cost. New Lily Rank mechanics allow your team to develop friendships with each other Fire Emblem-style, teaming up for new abilities, while the enhanced visuals are crisp, smoothly-animated and packed with personality.
As such, Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth 1 is the best kind of remake: one that genuinely enhances its source material in meaningful ways while retaining its strengths and spirit. We'll find out whether Hyperdimenson Neptunia Re;Birth 2 can make lightning strike twice for the much-maligned Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 on Friday.
- Effective game industry parody storyline and memorable characters
- Spectacularly overhauled combat, visuals and Plan system
- Perfect fit for handheld RPG; numerous bite-sized dungeons and quests
- Grindy despite some helpful items and Plans; repetitious by design
- Fanservice-heavy enough to implode into a cleavage singularity
- Still a parody; deeper stories and characters out there
The Short Version: Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth 1 is an excellent remake, retaining the quirky parody story of the original Hyperdimension Neptunia while bringing everything else up to date. Enhanced combat, visuals and gameplay systems make for a great portable RPG, while the short dungeons work better on Vita than they ever did on PS3.
Can Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth 2 deliver a worthy sequel? I'll tell you on January 23rd.
8 – GREAT: Great games typically provide competent production values with a degree of innovation, personality and soul that's sometimes absent in titles that score lower. Or even just exceptional raw value on top of competent execution. There'll usually be a little something to stop games like these from reaching the very top - innovative but slightly flawed, fun but not groundbreaking - however you can buy games that score 8/10 with confidence.
Platform: PS Vita (reviewed)
Developer: Compile Heart | Idea Factory
Publisher: Idea Factory