Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed is brilliant. Not just as a tie-in for fans of Compile Heart's quirky JRPG series, but also on its own merits as satisfying, hilarious and slightly kinky handheld brawler in its own right.
Once again we find ourselves back in Gamindustri, a parody world based on the real-life console wars. Each nation has its own female warrior avatar known as CPUs, who are all based on a particular console's design and philosophy, along with their sisters who correspond to handhelds. Enemies, dialogue and backgrounds all reference classic videogames and gamer culture, which keeps things unpredictable, bouncy and very funny indeed.
You can quickly scan our Hyperdimension Neptuna Re;Birth 1 review for a full explanation of the premise (chances are that you're already familiar with it if you're reading this in the first place), but what really matters is how Hyperdimension Neptunia U takes a different tack from its predecessors. Instead of a traditional JRPG, it's a beefy and substantial beat'em up developed by Tamsoft, who also created the fun yet unashamedly risqué Senran Kagura franchise. As such, the CPUs lose their clothing and strip down to their underwear faster than you can say "fanservice."
Settle down. There's more to it than that. Loaning out the IP was a big risk, but it paid off in spades. In fact, it's actually better than the Senran Kagura series in many respects as Tamsoft are willing to laugh at their own excesses... when they're not poking fun at us games writers.
The rival CPUs and their CPU Candidates (from the ditzy Neptune and her sister Nepgear to Noire, Uni, Blanc, the DS Twins and my personal favourite Vert, the Xbox parody) are typically locked in combat, but this time they agree to work together after the famous journalists Famitsu and Dengekiko start to write a story based on their exploits. As obvious homages to Famitsu and Dengeki Bunko magazine as well as playable characters, they're brilliantly realised and pleasingly even-handed, pointing out the pressure we're under to deliver popular stories -- and the lengths that some of us will go to -- while also highlighting our workload that often goes unappreciated.
They naturally slot into the canon, not missing a story beat, which is mainly down to Hyperdimension Neptunia U's writing. The dialogue and characterisation has always been the best part of the franchise, but here it's newly sharp and incisive, cleverly skewering the silliness of destructible outfits, console wars, gaming traditions and games journalism while continually building the characters and fleshing them out. Accompanied by crisp visual novel talking-heads, it's a joy to watch. The localisation is also very competent indeed, allowing conversations to flow naturally and references to survive translation intact. An impressive effort, though naturally much of the self-referencing will be lost on newcomers.
Gameplay-wise, Hyperdimension Neptunia U is an arena brawler with a streamlined setup. You'll pick two of eighteen characters and choose a mission from a constantly-growing list of quests, most of which involve killing a boss or massacring a certain number of enemies. They'll attack in huge hordes, useless individually but capable of cornering you in groups, and not relenting until you complete your mission.
Though a basic formula with very simplistic level design, it's perfect for pick-up-and-play sessions and thus a great for the Vita, and pushes the hardware with some fantastic 3D visuals. You'll encounter some slowdown on rare occasions when pulling off a particularly glitzy special move in tight quarters, but it's a price worth paying for vibrant colour, smooth animations and detailed textures.
More importantly, it's also mechanically excellent. Smooth and responsive, delivering satisfying feedback, you'll carve your way through legions of foes with a selection of light, heavy and special attacks that can be chained into combos or modified mid-jump. Each CPU, CPU Candidate or games writer out of their depth can access a different palette of skills and handles differently, whether melee swordswingers, gunslingers or magicians. As always, dealing enough damage lets you activate HDD Mode, which transforms your fighter into a powerful alternate form with different attacks for a limited duration, while you can also swap between your two Gamindustri goddesses on a whim.
Again, simple and undeniably repetitive stuff, but just masterfully designed to deliver short and satisfying bursts of pick-up-and-play action that can get surprisingly tough in later missions. Sadly a selection of 'puzzle' missions with vague objectives can annoy from time to time, since some are rather obtuse, but at least they're a change of pace and you're given a clue should you quit in frustration.
The action is underpinned by a robust RPG levelling system that ties directly into the enemies you kill, which also awards you with medals that unlock upgrades, equipment and weapons. It adds a compelling persistent hook, meaning that you'll be keen to return or keep playing just to unlock one more medal tier or the new mission to partake in. As with so many brilliant Vita games, from Soul Sacrifice Delta to Toukiden, the blend of bite-sized missions with persistent upgrades proves exceptionally moreish.
"But what about the stripping, Jon," I hear you ask. "Get to the stripping!" Fine.
Losing your clothes after taking enough damage or spamming special attacks factors into gameplay by reducing defence and increasing critical hit ratio, but interestingly it's also optional. You'll unlock indestructible clothing once you've used a character in a handful of battles, meaning that, if you find the close-up stripping animations distasteful, you won't have to put up with them for long. Even though I'm not adverse to a little cheesecake, giving us the choice is a no-brainer. Of course, you could also equip a pre-torn outfit... but that's your business.
There's a case to be made that Hyperdimension Neptunia U could have been more involved. There are certainly more in-depth and technical brawlers on the market, but Tamsoft have managed to create a perfect antidote to a stressful day. Fun and cathartic, enjoyable on the sofa or the train and accessible in the time you have, it's all you could want from a handheld brawler. So long as you know your Lastation from your Leanbox, that is.
- Satisfying and mechanically smooth action
- Loads of missions and content; addictive progression
- Crisp and colourful visuals
- Sharpest writing in the series to-date, cheekily parodies games journalism and Senran Kagura
- Repetitive by design
- You'll need to be a fan to fully appreciate the dialogue and humour
- Some 'puzzle' levels can be obtuse and frustrating
The Short Version: Hyperdimension Neptunia U is a superb tie-in, a saucy parody and most importantly a satisfying handheld brawler in its own right.
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 (UK release date: 22nd May 2015)
Publisher: Idea Factory International