Swords & Zippers: Now That’s What I Call a Sequel

Swords & Zippers

Let’s talk business first of all: yes, I know that the Level-5/Studio Ghibli collaboration Ni no Kuni is out this week; yes, I know it’s a JRPG; yes, I know it’s apparently wonderful. But I’m not going to talk about it today. Why? For the simple reason that every other site out there is talking about it this week, and to add our voice to all that noise would be rather redundant given our somewhat niche (but dedicated — we love you!) audience. Also I do not own a copy and have not played it, so talking about it would probably be somewhat difficult. Rest assured it is well and truly on my radar, though — and if it’s not already on your radar as a JRPG fan, then be sure to check it out if you’re looking for something new to try.

Now that’s out of the way, I want to talk about what I have been playing. You will hopefully recall that a couple of weeks back I told you all about a rather strange game called Hyperdimension Neptunia, which came about as the result of a frankly spectacular amount of collaboration between Idea Factory, Compile Heart, Gust, Sega and NIS America. Hyperdimension Neptunia was not received at all well by the press, with its rather old-school dungeon-crawling gameplay, heavy reliance on anime and video game-related in-jokes and huge amount of innuendo and fanservice being widely criticized by many publications. Even if you have not read the previous column, it will probably not surprise you to learn two things: firstly, it didn’t sell all that well, and secondly, I enjoyed it very much.

She looks awfully cheerful for someone fighting for their life.

She looks awfully cheerful for someone fighting for their life.

This brings us neatly to Hyperdimension Neptunia Mk2, a direct sequel to the first game which features a new protagonist and some returning favorites from the previous game, completely overhauled gameplay and — for the most part, anyway — a significantly superior experience overall. It’s also a bit of a bugger to get hold of, because it had a fairly limited print run due to its predecessor’s rather poor critical reception. Expect to pay at least “full price” $60 for a physical copy — some sites have it listed as high as $80 and beyond — but it is also available for download via PSN.

So what’s new? Well, almost everything. Let’s start with the battle system, which was a highlight of the previous game for me but which I appreciate might have been overcomplicated and cumbersome for some. Firstly — and most importantly for some — there are no more random encounters; instead, you see enemies on the field and can even kill ones that are way lower level than you automatically without having to go through a “full” battle. This is nice. I personally don’t have an issue with random encounters, but there are plenty of people who hate them.

Once into battle, things are a bit different, too. Now instead of having to manually map each and every combination of the triangle, circle and cross buttons to various moves for every character, we have a much more streamlined system in which you only ever have to assign nine moves to each character — one each for the triangle, square and cross buttons, times three for whether said move is the second, third or fourth attack in a combo; the first is always a regular attack. Each move costs a particular number of “Action Points” to perform, so there’s no point putting high-AP moves in every slot in a combo, because starting characters will never have enough points to spend on using them. That said, each character unlocks special “EX Moves” as they level up, which requires that the player both use a particular combination of buttons and expend a particular number of AP to perform it, so it’s sometimes in your interests to consume as many AP as possible. Unspent AP carry over onto a subsequent turn, though, so it’s possible to “charge up” for a more powerful attack if you can resist flailing wildly at the enemies for a turn or two.

The various moves available all have clear purposes now rather than requiring trial and error. Attacks mapped to the triangle button are multi-hit attacks, which help to build up a special “Skill Points” gauge quicker and thus access the most powerful and/or useful moves; attacks mapped to the cross button focus on damaging the enemy’s “guard” gauge which, when depleted, causes all attacks to deal additional damage; and attacks on the square button are powerful (and sometimes magical) moves ideal for when an enemy’s guard has been broken.

Everyone living in perfect harmony. Wouldn't that be nice?

Everyone living in perfect harmony. Wouldn’t that be nice?

As well as this streamlined combat system, you can also now move your characters around in battle. This means that positioning now plays an important role — various weapons have different reaches, and if multiple enemies are in a weapon’s attack range, they can all be hit at the same time. Similarly, many of the defensive skills affect areas, too, allowing for group buffs and heals.

Talking of healing, the bizarre “item crafting” system from the original has gone out of the window in favor of a much more traditional “just use it” mechanic. For those unaware, the original Hyperdimension Neptunia featured a bewilderingly complicated system whereby every character had “item skills,” each of which required a particular combination of crafting materials to perform as well as a particular condition to trigger. Characters had a pool of “item skill points” that expanded as they leveled up, and one item skill point funneled into an item skill meant a 1% chance for that skill to trigger when its condition was met. Sound confusing? That’s because it was. It was sort of fun, actually, but it was also spectacularly frustrating when you got into a difficult boss battle and realized you’d forgotten to set up your “At Start of Battle” item skills. The sequel forgoes all this nonsense in favor of a system where you just pick an item and use it — though using an item costs AP, just like an attack, so if you’re well-positioned you can both chug a potion and get in a cheap hit in a single turn.

But lest we get too hung up on the excellent new combat system — let’s just say it’s a lot of fun and way more fast-paced than the original game and leave it at that — let’s talk a little about the other elements that are new, too. Gone is the text-based menu-driven navigation system of the original, where you simply picked story events and quests from a list, and in comes a world map screen in which you can freely move between unlocked locations, see what monsters can be found there and keep an eye on your “shares” — a measure of the world’s faith in the various goddesses in different areas, which is key to progressing the story and unlocking certain content and characters. The latter system was actually present in the original game and was essential to getting the “true” ending, too, but it wasn’t explained at all at any point — here, meanwhile, it’s explained explicitly at the beginning of the game, and much of your time will be spent running dungeons in an attempt to manipulate the shares of an area to your advantage. When not in combat, you can craft items with materials scavenged from dungeons, browse the world’s Twitter-equivalent “Chirper” — which often unlocks new events and helps improve relations between party members — and, of course, go shopping for new pointy implements to insert into monsters.

The girl at the back is the personification of Cave's bullet hell shooters. I'm not even joking.

The girl at the back is the personification of Cave’s bullet hell shooters. I’m not even joking.

What about the plot? Well, we have a new protagonist, for starters — Neptune’s sister Nepgear (see what they did there?), a “CPU Candidate” (basically a young, inexperienced goddess) for the land of Planeptune. Neptune and the other goddesses from the previous game all went stomping off to the Gamindustri Graveyard three years prior to the start of Mk2, and were trapped there ever since. Nepgear, who was also along for the ride, managed to escape thanks to the efforts of returning characters Compa and IF coming along at the beginning of the game, and sets off on a quest to save her sister and the other goddesses while striking back against the followers of Arfoire, who are attempting to resurrect the villain from the previous game.

The astute among you will already know that “Arfoire” is a pun on the R4 device, a memory card for the Nintendo DS which became primarily known for its use in piracy. Much of Hyperdimension Neptunia Mk2‘s plot is a bit preachy about how bad it is to pirate games and how you should support the people who make the titles you like, and this may put a few people off as it’s fairly up-front about it from the outset. However, to those people I say what better medium than a video game to get this message across? Besides, it’s not the sole focus of the game — there are still plenty of humorous video game references and crude, innuendo-laden jokes throughout, so it’s easy to put up with the game when it decides it’s “SERIOUS BUSINESS” time.

Essentially, and without rambling on for longer than I already have, Hyperdimension Neptunia Mk2 is a brilliant example of how a sequel should be made. It’s clear that Idea Factory and Compile Heart took on board pretty much all the criticisms of the original — everything from the fairly bland music to the resolutely old-school gameplay — and fixed nearly every problem with this new game. It’s still not perfect, of course — the 3D graphics are still a bit PS2ish (though the character models are lovely and the 2D art is as delicious as ever), the frame rate still sucks and if you’re not into all-female casts of young-looking anime girls who may or may not all be lesbians (your relationship with your party is referred to as your “Lily Rank” for heaven’s sake) then this probably won’t change your mind on the series or this type of game as a whole.

Lily Rank. Geddit? Lily, 'cause... sigh. No anime geeks around, huh?

Lily Rank. Geddit? Lily, ’cause… sigh. No anime geeks around, huh?

For those who are on board with that sort of thing, though, Hyperdimension Neptunia Mk2 is not only a fitting sequel to its surprisingly entertaining predecessor, it’s quite simply a thoroughly entertaining JRPG in general, and well worth your time to explore… if you can find a copy, that is.

The third game in the series, Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory, is due out in March. You better believe I’ll be checking it out when it arrives!

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Swords and Zippers is our weekly JRPG column in which we explore the best, worst and most interesting of this diverse and long-standing genre that has fallen somewhat from grace in recent years. You can follow Pete, author of this article and GrE’s managing editor, on Twitter.

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