There's an uncomfortable dissonance between the way the developers seem to want us to feel about the game and what we're actually feeling as we play through it.
Hyperdimension Neptunia VictoryPublisher: NIS America
Format: PlayStation 3
ESRB Rating: Teen
Developer: Idea Factory / Compile Heart
Release Date: 2013-03-21
"Ooh, looks like you started a new game! Think any game reviewers won't get this one!?"
-Neptune, in the trophy description for starting a new game
When you play enough JRPGs, particularly the ones developed by Compile Heart and/or Idea Factory, you start to have to take certain things with a grain of salt, particularly when it comes to the games' treatment of women. The women in a Compile Heart/Idea Factory JRPG look like they're 12, talk like they're eight, and act like oversexed hormonal teenagers. Sure, there is some variance to the formula, but the women/girls in these RPGs are specifically designed to appeal to the loli crowd. If this is not an aesthetic that appeals to you, you have to brace yourself going in, lest you be utterly overwhelmed and revolted by the pastels, pinks, and purples, the baby voices, the tiny outfits, and the hyperactive beat of the musical score. These games are not for everyone. They're not for me, really -- that became pretty clear the last time I tried to review one -- but I do try to go in with an open mind. Niche products are interesting, after all. There's a certain appeal to looking at a product with a very small but very devoted audience and trying to find the draw of that product.
Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory almost manages the feat of transcending its inherent limitations. Sure, the character designs are... well, they are what they are, the dialogue is full of inappropriate innuendos and shockingly rough language, and the great Nobuo Uematsu's soundtrack is like eating one Swedish fish every minute -- fun and delicious for a while, but eventually a sugary headache. But, you know, that's fine. Small doses and all that. Tropes aside, Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory is good fun for a time with an interesting battle system, a nifty approach to consolidating town exploration, and more industry in-jokes than you can shake an Irritating Stick at.
Still, a few hours in, it feels the need to "go there".
Specifically, one of the characters -- ostensibly one of the "good guys" -- resorts to not-at-all veiled sexual coercion in "deciding" whether or not to help other characters. There is a long, drawn-out conversation, probably ten full minutes of dialogue even when pounding the X button to fly through it, asking what the characters in peril "will do" in order to be saved. One offers her body immediately; the other, forced to compete with the first, offers to "do anything you want, one time". Even more troubling: it's all played for laughs. Of course, they all end up in the bath together after the big battle, complete with the conspicuously-placed bubbles so common in this sort of scene, and apparently have a grand time together, despite one of them continuing to protest. All told, a solid 20 minutes straight of dialogue and exposition is spent on this exchange with the small relief of a (shockingly easy) boss fight to break it up in the middle.
Even as fan-service, this seems over the top, a weirdly mature, utterly uncomfortable girl-on-girl-on-girl loli fantasy that stumbles its way into sexual assault by the time it finishes. Played for laughs. One of the girls even does an impression of a masseuse speaking "Engrish" during the bath scene, just in case the whole thing wasn't offensive enough.
From this point on, there's an uncomfortable dissonance between the way the developers seem to want us to feel about the game and what we're actually feeling. Once you jump into the realm of threatening sexual coercion, the presence of "innocent" little double entendres feels menacing. Once a character jumps into dialogue that could at best be considered culturally insensitive -- in a way that is itself odd in a game translated from Japanese -- it becomes impossible to respect that character as a protagonist.
In terms of pure mechanics, Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory is not half bad. When the characters aren't busy opening their mouths and promptly inserting their feet, they participate in battles that actually incorporate some strategy. Sure, as with most JRPGs, simply pounding the attack button works in many cases, but in order to keep from wasting healing items along the way, efficiency is demanded. Most weapons have a range that can attack multiple enemies at once, which often means knocking off the baddies before they even get a chance to fight back. Enemies in this game tend to do a very good job of working together, you see, and if left to their own devices, their powered-up attacks can be surprisingly devastating. There are Etrian Odyssey-style overpowered minibosses scattered throughout the dungeons, and there's plenty of loot to dig up in the dungeons as well. The difficulty never feels overwhelming. In fact, I would call Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory one of the easier JRPGs I've played in some time, but you will lose the occasional battle. It's a well-balanced game, to be sure, and while it may succumb to every trope in the book when it comes to the story, it actually manages to eschew the grind for most of the game. Employ a little strategy (and, in some cases, be willing to engage in some lengthy battles), and you can make your way through most of the game without having to repeat the repeatable quests or tool around dungeons looking for random battles.
Also notable is the game's scaled-down approach to towns, a welcome innovation given the amount of dialogue; the last thing I tend to feel like doing after trawling through a town to find an NPC is listening to that NPC prattle on about barely-related recent events. Granted, most players would probably prefer the exploration to the talky-talky, but thank goodness at least one piece of that equation is scaled down. Every person and building in a town is available on a single screen. You can get one-liners from whomever you like, whenever you like, but mostly, you simply have to click on the characters or buildings marked with the handy little "event" marker, and you won't miss too much.
Truly, Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory is a light, enjoyable game when it's not getting in its own way by trying to find humor in topics that aren't funny.
It would be tempting to throw the more troubling aspects of Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory into a box labeled "satire" and not think twice about them. The game is essentially an extended metaphor for the console wars, in this case a rough approximation of the time when Sony was entering the fray with the original Playstation. It would be tempting to call the sexual wordplay, the bath scene, and the cultural insensitivity exaggerations of tropes long derided in the genre, not to mention video games as a whole. That's not what's going on here, though. Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory is not making a statement. It is light entertainment, peppered with industry in-jokes and cameos, designed to make the player smile. Often, it succeeds. When it fails, though, it fails spectacularly.