Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth 1 is brilliant. Compile Heart finally managed to back up their trademark cheeky style, titillating art and unbridled fanservice with true quality, turning a shonky cult classic with a great story into a complete package. The result was an excellent handheld JRPG and the perfect opportunity for Idea Factory to reboot the series from a position of strength.
Unfortunately they decided to remake Hyperdimension Neptunia Mk2 instead. This unnecessary sequel managed to completely miss the point in several key areas when it released in 2012, so Re;Birth 2's massive improvements to combat, graphics and gameplay flow can only go so far.
We return to the parody world of Gamindustri, in which four nations based on console manufacturers (Planeptune, Lastation, Leanbox and Lowee) battle for shares and market dominance in a quirky sci-fantasy universe. However, the champions of each nation's console -- our heroines from the original game -- have been kidnapped by the evil piracy organisation ASIC and its overlord Arfoire, meaning that it's up to their little sisters to put things right. In steps Nepgear, loosely representing the Game Gear, who has to team up with the game's own developers and other handheld console avatars to save the world.
The premise has legs. Re;Birth 2 could have pushed forward with the game industry parody of the original in exciting and relevant new ways. Perhaps the PSP avatar Uni could have become corrupted and turned into the main villain, mirroring the hacking and fall from grace of Sony's handheld, or the portable sisters could have taught the industry that graphics aren't everything.
This didn't happen. Instead, Re;Birth 2 (and Mk2, in fairness) simply rehashes the storyline and structure of the original game, but strips it of much of the unique parody humour that made the franchise so interesting in the first place. Beyond some of the pleasingly referential enemy designs, a bit of map screen banter, the names of developer cameos and the occasional earnest chat about piracy, Re;Birth 2 often seems to forget that it's a parody game for long periods, instead rattling through what amounts to a fairly stock generic JRPG setup that's heavy on fanservice and light on real laughs or insightful references. As such, it lacks much of a hook, and squanders its subject matter outside of the occasional tongue-in-cheek quote.
Strong characters might have helped, but there's a problem. Even though I've spent more than two dozen hours in the company of Nepgear, Red, Compa, Ram, Rom and co, I can barely remember anything about them with the exception of
best girl headstrong Idea Factory avatar IF and a surprise cameo from MarvelousAQL. Dialogue may be frothy, unpredictable and entertaining at times, but the cast frequently don't have anything interesting or even particularly funny to say; coming off as forgettable, interchangeable or at worst annoying more often than not. Even Nepgear has a predictable motivation and character arc that's too hackneyed to really enjoy.
It took me a while to work out why. Instead of being arch, hamfisted yet surprisingly accurate parodies of the consoles and manufacturers, the younger sisters subscribe to the same tired moe archetypes we're seen a thousand times before (the "tsundere in training," two little sister heroines, you know the drill). They're just not particularly interesting, meaning that when the story takes a turn for the serious, it's hard to care one way or the other. Even though the well-observed original cast can eventually rejoin the team, they arrive too late to make much of an impact and additional characters tend to be more keen on fanservice than satire.
Oh yes. Fanservice. Criticising a Compile Heart game for racy character designs and erotic content would be completely missing the point, and more importantly, I like to be serviced. A little cheesecake can be a delicious way to round off a satisfying meal, so long as there's not too much of it. Sadly, Re;Birth 2 comes on strong even by Compile Heart standards, giving us bondage from minute one, lesbian kissing by minute thirty and... look, there's no easy way to put this, but the fact that all of the young characters are little sisters was a cynical design decision from the start. The ratio of humour to fanservice is completely skewed towards the latter.
Which is a real shame, because in most other respects Re;Birth 2 is a very fine portable JRPG indeed. It should be, of course, since it's effectively Re;Birth 1 with some cosmetic tweaks.
Overall gameplay flow and progression is perfectly suited for the Vita. It's a deconstruction of the grand old genre traditions -- dungeon exploration, level grinding, bounties, fetch quests, assassination quests and gear -- but all easily accessible from a big friendly world map via a few convenient menus. Perfect for short sessions on the train or tube, followed up by a marathon back at home or on your Vita TV. Dungeons are small and simplistic in terms of geometry and design, but what felt primitive on PS3 feels smart and streamlined on Vita, letting you play the game, explore or grind on your terms in the time you have.
There's a huge amount of grind, both to advance the storyline and to smash through some utterly ridiculous bosses, but once again the Remake system comes to the fore. Re;Birth 2 can be 'hacked' in a number of ways, from modifying enemy strength to changing the foes and items you'll encounter in each dungeon, helping to keep things fresh in gameplay terms. Gearing up to take on a tough boss is immensely satisfying, even if Re;Birth 2 pulls the several-tough-fights-in-a-row gambit a few too many times for this reviewer's tastes.
Graphically, Re;Birth 2 is based directly on Re;Birth 1's engine and re-uses plenty of assets. Which is to say that it looks fantastic. Smooth animations, snazzy 3D environments and sensationally crisp visual novel portraits make for an impressive visual achievement, bolstered by upbeat audio and... wait for it... more than one jump sound effect per character! Hooray!
The combat is magnificent. I've witnessed Compile Heart's battle system evolve and grow from the original Hyperdimension Nepunia through Mugen Souls and Fairy Fencer F, each game distilling the systems and sieving the best mechanics into a masterpiece. You'll carefully position your units in 2D space to maximise their AoE attacks and mitigate incoming damage, carefully create your own combos, access a huge number of powerful abilities and transform your CPUs into Kill la Kill-inspired death machines in a pinch.
Characters grow to like each other during combat via the Lily Rank system, able to team up and unlock new abilities like a much more moe flavoured Fire Emblem Awakening. It's also worth noting that the new CPU Candidates do handle differently to their sisters, which is at least something new to write home about, while you can now bring four characters into combat versus three in Re;Birth 1.
Brilliant. An absolute class act, Compa's upskirt victory poses notwithstanding.
Beyond the four-character combat, Re;Birth 2 also introduces Stella's Dungeon, a baked-in waiting game that allows you to send a character out to bring back items (or fail in the attempt) after a certain amount of time has elapsed. It's a fun if largely unnecessary feature, but again, it is something new. But, perhaps, not new enough to warrant buying unless you're absolutely invested in the franchise. And have already played Fairy Fencer F. And Producing Perfection. And Sorcery Saga.
So what we're left with is the brain, muscle and fat of a great JRPG, but lacking the heart and backbone -- characters, story, strong parody and narrative throughline -- to elevate the mechanics into an experience. Sorry, that analogy was awful. In other words: while mechanically capable, I can only recommend Re;Birth 2 to those who've played Re;Birth 1 to death and desperately need more of the same.
- Excellent rebuilt visuals, crisp anime artwork and handheld-friendly gameplay flow
- Some of the best turn-based JRPG combat on the market
- Remake system helps to keep things fresh and keep grind down
- Loads of content, multiple endings and New Game +
- Limp storyline, weak new characters and disappointing shortfall of parody humour
- Few truly new features compared to Re;Birth 1, can feel like a reskin
- Still grindy and repetitive
- Fanservice cranked up to 11 - if you don't like that sort of thing
The Short Version: Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth 2 is a great remake of a terrible sequel that fails to take the series anywhere remotely interesting.
Though the enhanced combat, visuals and systems make for a huge and mechanically capable handheld JRPG, its weak characters, throwaway storyline and surprising scarcity of parody humour leave the adventure without a backbone. As such, it's technically competent yet largely unnecessary for all but die-hard Hyperdimension fans in need of serious servicing.
6 – CAPABLE: The key thing to remember here is always try before you buy. There'll likely be some rather glaring flaws or perhaps a distinct lack of imagination, but games that earn a 6 will generally be very capable indeed and probably still provide a good deal of fun to genre fans.
Platform: PS Vita (reviewed)
Publisher: Idea Factory