Colony Wars

Video Review



Text review
Developer: Psygnosis
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertaintment

Space simulation games are often associated with computer gaming, a trend which began in part due to the success of games like the Wing Commander and Star Wars series, but also because 16-bit consoles didn't have the power to run 3D titles.

However, when the 32-bit generation rolled around, there was a big push to bring the genre to consoles. The Playstation and 3DO got Wing Commander, the N64 received brand new Star Wars games, and Sony threw their own hat into the ring by having the newly acquired Psygnosis Studios develop Colony Wars.

Although this series was well received at the time, it seems to have been mostly forgotten, though there are still some diehard who fondly remember the games.

Colony Wars is a mission-based space sim, you play as a nameless pilot in a Star Wars inspired rebel organization known as the League of Free Worlds, and fight against the Earth Colonial Navy. Right off the bat, Colony wars handles differently from the space sims that came before it, controls are easy, quick, responsive. The action is much more arcade-like as well, you can crash into enemy fighters or capital ships and fly off with inconsequential damage.

Despite the game being loaded with cutscenes, there is no story to speak of, rather you hear the narrator explain how the war is progressing. What makes this interesting is the fact that depending on which missions you succeed or fail the tides will turn and lead you to different branching paths. There are a total of six different endings which can range from total defeat, a truce between both sides or the unconditional surrender of the Colonial Navy. The branching mission nature of the game manages to provide a quality replay value in what is an otherwise short game.

Before each mission, you're given a long briefing detailing the objectives and the current war status. Assignments will range from your garden variety such as escort, defend and bombing runs while others are more unique like one where prisoners escaped from a ship and you have to hunt down their escape pods. While there are many different ships you can play as, they are all pre-selected for you, forcing the player to adapt to each craft's strengths and weaknesses. This also means that sometimes you'll be given a slow and heavy bomber when all you really want is a fast and nimble craft or vice-versa.

The missions carry a nice sense of scale, featuring several fighters and capital ships from both sides fighting for control at any given. Sadly, your allies tend to be more a hindrance, League capital ships are about half as resistant as the Colonial Navy's and I was often the target of friendly fire when I got too close to an enemy fighter. The problem here is that you need to be near fast moving enemy ships because the aiming reticule only tells you where your target currently is and not where he's going. Needless to say, I was a victim of friendly fire more often than I should have.

Your weapons are also selected for you, though the ones you'll be using the most are the anti-shield laser followed by the regular laser. Homing missiles can be used to target fighters, and torpedos are suited against large capital ships. One issue I have with this game is that in most missions, whenever you take out an enemy fighter, a new one will immediately spawn in its place, making escort missions harder than they need to be.

With that in mind, I eventually came up with two exploits; the first is to camp near their spawn point and shoot them down as they come. The second and more effective method was to disable their ships with EMP weapons and leave them there, if I don't kill them, their replacements won't spawn. In fact, the EMP is easily the best weapon in the game, fighters are fully disabled with just three hits and capital ships will be at your mercy in under one minute.

Another problem I found is that you can't dodge attacks from capital ships; you have no way of knowing if they locked on to you and when they do, there is no way to avoid being hit. When you take down a capital vessel or space station, it breaks into pieces and blows into a spectacle of colors, however, if you were too close to your target, your ship will crash against every piece and lose control, though you take minimal damage from this.

Speaking of the capital ships, all of the Colonial Navy's larger craft seem ripped straight out of Star Trek. The rest of the ship designs look fine, though the same can't be said for Colony Wars' early 3D graphics. Later entries into the series would improve their visuals, but the low resolution and polygon count haven't aged well at all. Moreover, texture warping is an issue, especially when zooming close to large craft which sometimes causes entire segments of the vessel to become transparent.

Colony Wars' audio isn't bad and its soundtrack does a good job at setting up the mood and its main theme is pretty memorable. Then of course we have the voice acting which incredibly so over-the-top and cheesy; it seems every pilot in the League of Free Worlds has the most exaggerated accent you can imagine.

One of the criticisms I often hear with this series is its difficulty, but I generally found this entry accessible. Some missions were tougher than others, but after one or two repeats it's easy to learn what you should focus on to successfully complete it.

The game comes on two discs, mostly due to all the FMVs. This means if you want to replay a mission from either half of the campaign or if you turned off your Playstation with the second disc inside, you will have to change them manually. Despite that, Colony Wars is a short game, I managed to finish it with the best ending in under three hours and having to get up and change the disc each time I wanted to replay a different chapter became annoying quickly.

Colony Wars is definitely showing its age, the mission variety is fine and the missions feel epic, but its gameplay feels basic, which is further hindered by poor AI and early 3D graphics. Having to change discs often is also an issue, especially for a game this short. With that said, the gameplay despite basic is still entertaining and the branching paths encourage replay value. It may not be the classic it once was, but you could do a lot worse.

Trivia: According to the game's own lore, of the five original prototypes for a Destroyer class vessel, two had faulty wiring, one was sabotaged, one was ransacked by crew suffering from 'face scab madness' fever and the last one crashed, wiping out a field of children. Someone at Psygnosis had a dark sense of humor.


Pros:
- Good mission variety
- Good sense of scale for each
- Branching paths provide plenty of replay value
 
Cons:
Short
- Graphics have aged poorly
- Expect to switch discs quite a bit by the game's mid-point
- Poor A.I. 

Final Score: C+

The Boxart is catchy, but way too cluttered, I have trouble understanding just what I'm supposed to be looking at and the cropped 'colony' in the background doesn't help either, if you have OCD you'll probably hate this cover.

Inside you'll find two discs and the manual, who's cover art is much cleaner, as for its contents, they're not bad, they don't really bother to tell you any backstory, though to be fair, they already do that on the disc but has all of the game's basic information.

Overall, it's an okay packaging, nothing really stands out, other than the boxart being a bit too cluttered for my taste.



Packaging Score: C

Ghostbusters

Developer: Compile/Sega/Activision
Publisher: Sega


Video review


Text review

Early Sega Genesis / Mega Drive games often tend to be ignored or forgotten. This may be due to the console struggling to find an audience during its pre-Sonic years and as result, nostalgia for such initial offerings is low. Furthermore, early Genesis games did not make great use of the system's graphical or sound capabilities which emphasizes the titles' relative lack of popularity. However, those willing to explore the console's early years might be surprised by how enjoyable some of these games can be.

Ghostbusters is one such case, what it lacked in comparative audio or visual fidelity is made up by its arcade gameplay. Co-developed by Sega and Compile, this is a side scroller run n' gun platformer. Oddly enough, the game states it was originally developed by Activison and later reprogramed by Sega. However, this version is entirely different from Activision's NES, Master System and Commodore 64 game, so it's possible Sega's license required them to legally credit Activision as the original developer. 

Taking place after the events of the first movie, players take control of either Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz or Egon Spengler, Winston is mysteriously absent with no in-game or manual explanation to be found.

The three remaining characters differ in their walking/jumping speed and damage resistance, with Ray being slow but resilient, Egon fast and fragile and Venkman as the in-between character. While this may sound sensible in theory, the level design and enemy placement seems to heavily favor Ray's increased damage resistance. 

Out of the game's six stages, only the Woody House, which acts as Ghostbusters' fire level, required any sort of precision platforming. While the rest will still have you jump over spikes, foes and platforms, I never felt there would be any benefit to an increased walking of jumping speed. On the other hand, Egon's fragility provides a definite difficulty spike as enemy hits can cause up to four times as much damage as they do on other characters. It should also be noted that you cannot change characters between stages, whoever you pick will stay with you until the player completes or resets the game. Simply put, Ray is without a doubt the easiest choice, Egon is a good pick for anyone trying to speedrun Ghostbusters and Venkman serves no purpose other than to graduate players from Ray to Egon.

Though levels aren't particularly large, they can be confusing to navigate. I would also argue the enemy placement occasionally seems sloppy, spawning foes in areas where you have no choice but to take damage. Players must traverse each stage searching for mini-bosses to defeat before they can challenge the main adversary of each level. This requires your character to explore every nook and cranny of a level, often coming across one-way doors or paths which require backtracking. Thankfully, a map can be accessed at any time by entering the pause menu, once there, you can also change your arsenal or use any items your character is currently carrying.

Upon finding a mini-boss, you have to engage in battle by learning their patterns, move sets and shooting their weak spots. Most small enemies and platforming segments tend to provide little challenge, with the real exhilaration coming from the boss fights as they have more interesting designs and require a higher level of skill. With that said, there were a few boss encounters where I felt their movement patterns were randomized. In one particular example, you're supposed to walk under a crystal monster to avoid being pinned against the wall, but this action never took place forcing me to take damage with no hope of defense.

After defeating a mini-boss, a ghost will appear which the player must then capture with a proton pack and lead towards a trap. If successful, you recover part of your health and energy, a short cutscene will appear and a greater reward is reaped at the end of the level. However, if a player takes too long or fails too many attempts at capturing a ghost it can escape, nullifying any rewards.

Once all mini-bosses are cleared, a blinking spot will appear on the map indicating the location of the level's main foe. Reaching this enemy will trigger another cutscene with the ghost explaining his or her motivation before attacking. Unlike previous encounters however, they do not require you to capture them upon defeat.

Generally speaking, I was less than impressed with the enemy designs for most enemies as they often amount to flying cutlery, sheets, pans, blobs, and other fairly generic designs. Thankfully there are exceptions to this rule, namely the boss fights. Slimer making an appearance, shooting him allows you to recover your health or energy. Other appearances include Stay Puft Marshmellow Man and even a Little Shop of Horrors reference in the form of Audrey Jr. 

Dispatching foes, shooting chests, capturing ghosts and completing levels will reward the player with money. Any currency you find can be spent on the item and weapon shops which are available between missions or can be visited by walking left at the start of each level. The item shop carries health recovering items, screen-clearing bombs and night-goggles which are only really useful for one specific stage. The weapon shop includes four weapons to purchase, energy tank upgrades and even shield items. 

Using any item from the weapon shop will deplete your character's energy tank. Moreover, weapons have a limited strategic use, with each being seemingly designed to take out a specific sub-set of enemies and bosses. Needless to say, discovering the best time to shift between your arsenal is the key to success.  

However, even then I found most weapons to be overly expensive for their potential usefulness, as your starting gun already does a well-enough job at eliminating enemies. In the end, a combination of the shield upgrade, spread gun and additional energy tanks seemed to be enough to offset any challenge the game could provide. Although completed levels can't be revisited, a patient player could grind a stage for enemies and treasure chests as every time you leave a level to visit a shop, all items and foes respawn.

Ghostbusters' art style is an interesting one. During cutscenes, our main cast are represented in a realistic manner, however, when traversing through stages, they feature disproportionately large heads. This bobblehead look can be a bit a jarring, but it helps give the game its own graphical identity. 

Sadly, outside of this and the interesting boss design, this is where graphical positives end. The animations for example are jerky, using only one or two frames for each action. Considering this applies to all characters and enemies, it eventually adds up. Moreover, there is a distinct lack of graphical effects here, you'd expect to at least see some parallax scrolling, a heat wave during the fire level or some water effects during swimming segments, but there are none here. The screen also seems overly zoomed in, giving you little time to react to threats that are just ahead of you.

On the sound department things do fare slightly better as the music is generally pleasing. Some levels like the High-Rise Building stage feature tunes that are catchy, but also generic as nothing about the soundtrack inherently screams Ghosbusters. The only exception is of course the Ghostbusters theme though sadly, it's poorly represented on Sega's 16-bit console, lacking any excitement. The real guilty party however are the sound effects which can quickly grate on you due to how harsh they sound, this is especially true for explosions.

Interestingly, the game features plenty of cutscenes which are handled through a still image and dialog. There are cutscenes at the start of the game and each mission, between stages, upon catching a ghost and after completing a level, some of which have a fairly large amount of text for a game of this nature. It almost feels as if at one point Sega had higher aspirations for this title, either through a lengthy story or even RPG or adventure mechanics. Sadly, if those were Sega's intentions, they had to be scaled back considerably and what we got instead were long sections of text which only serve to break the flow.

Overall, Ghosbusters for the Sega Genesis / Mega Drive leaves a lot to be desired in audiovisual department. The graphics are subpar, as even other early Genesis games such as Altered Beast or Revenge of Shinobi featured at least a layer of parallax scrolling and interesting graphical effects. The music while generally catchy, is offset by irritating sound effects. Thankfully, the gameplay is where Ghostbusters excels; exploring a level, shooting down bad guys and earning money is genuinely satisfying. More importantly, the amount of boss fights do a nice job at introducing variety and add just the right amount of challenge, serving as the game's main strength. It may not by the best game on the system, but if you can find a reasonably priced copy, it's certainly worth tracking down.

Pros:
- Fun run n' gun platformer
- Great, varied, boss fights
- Cool Little Shop of Horrors reference
- Music is pretty catchy


Cons:

- Supbar graphics and
- Grating sound effects
- Short
- Winston is mysteriously absent


Final Grade: B

Video packaging review



Text packaging review


I can't say I'm a big fan of the cover. Yes, it draws in the eye, but it's a little too simple for its own good. I know this is the movie's iconic logo, but I'd go so far as to say this seems a bit lazy. The game comes with a cartridge and manual, both sporting the same cover art.

The manual begins with a little backstory, stating that Ghostbusters takes place after the events of the first game. Sadly, the story is short and poorly written. The characters have none of the personality from the movies and instead are little more than cardboard cutouts. From here on, we go into fairly detailed instructions on how to play the game, complete with hints and tips for boss fights. I did like how the final page was dedicated to adding in your high scores. Later Sega releases eventually lost this extra.

Overall, the packaging is mediocre. Not even the cover managed to impress me.

Packaging Grade: C-

Wild Arms

Developer: Media.Vision
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

Video review


 Text review

It's no secret that Sony's original Playstation console was something of a landmark system for JRPGs. While it's true the NES and Super Nintendo had a healthy library of the genre which was one of the contributing factors for their massive success in Japan, it wasn't until Final Fantasy VII launched on Sony's grey box that the genre became popular in western shores. The attractive CGI visuals, well developed turn-based combat and plot-oriented adventure was a runaway hit, create a sudden influx of imitators and competitors.

Yet, there was a time before Final Fantasy took the world by storm. In fact, there were even a handful of JRPGs released worldwide during the brief two-year period between the Playstation launch and the release of Final Fantasy VII. For this reason I was looking forward to Wild Arms, as I assumed it would be a window of what would happen had the tale of Cloud and Sephiroth been unknown. However, much to my surprise, I quickly discovered Wild Arms shares so many similarities with Final Fantasy VI, it could almost be considered an unofficial sequel or spin-off.

Now this isn't a stab at Wild Arms, much to the contrary. Seeing a game that is visually and thematically so similar to my favorite entry into Squaresoft's flagship franchise was an unexpected but welcome surprise.

Equally welcome are the strong first impressions, as the game begins with a nicely rendered Anime cutscene created by Madhouse, the same animation studio behind shows like Hunter X Hunter and Card Captor Sakura. Sadly, as attractive as the intro it is, there are no other cutscenes similar to this throughout the entire adventure. Bait and switch aside, it does a wonderful job at setting Wild Arms' mood and the visuals are complemented beautifully by a western-themed song. In fact, the game's soundtrack is easily one of Wild Arms' high-points, employing a full blown orchestra with renditions taking classical fantasy tunes and adding a western flavor, not unlike the previously mentioned Final Fantasy VI.

Oddly enough, Wild Arms tries to surpass its inspiration by combining elements of fantasy, sci-fi and western into one package as the world of Filgaia features guns, lasers, space stations, demons made of metal, magic, swords and much more. 

Yet, there seems to be a disparity between what we're told narratively and what we see. Both the soundtrack and plot would have you believe the world is made to resemble that of a steampunk spaghetti shooter, however, every town and city looks like your typical fantasy JRPG. The visuals, for as beautiful as they are, rarely seem to fit with the world we're supposed to be exploring. If it weren't for the music or side characters like Calamity Jane, I could easily assume this is a land of myth and magic. In that regard, it seems Final Fantasy VI did a much better job at visually conveying its own world by making steampunk vehicles and houses a common sight. 

I know I keep returning to this topic, but both games are surprisingly similar in visuals, themes, music and even gameplay. Anyone who played Squaresoft's classic RPG franchise will feel right at home with Wild Arms' random encounters and turn-based combat system. You only control a maximum of three characters, each taking a clear role. Rudy is a tank, dealing decent damage and taking the largest amount of punishment. Towards the later stages he even acquires the ability to guard allies. Jack is a damage dealer, featuring a high speed and physical damage output, but is low on armor. Lastly we have Cecilia, the group's mage whose abilities ranging from healing and buffing to damage dealing though I found little use for the latter.

The party formation is definitely a little too safe, leaving no ground for experimentation as level and skill progression follows a strictly linear path save for the order in which Cecilia learns magic spells. Moreover, these are the only playable characters, no guests ever join the party and little is ever done to spice-up combat despite Wild Arms' relatively lengthy campaign. 

I would even go so far as to argue the battle system seems poorly thought out. For starters the game is simply too easy. Random monsters rarely pose a threat and boss fights are too easy and unsatisfying. It wasn't until I ran into an optional arena towards the endgame that I finally met my match, though even those challenges were doable with enough tactical reasoning. Characters can also summon guardians, a feature that is once again reminiscent of Squaresoft's Final Fantasy series, and though they play a pivotal role in the narrative, I generally found them underpowered, verging on the useless.
Even Rudy's titular wild ARMs weapons paled in comparison to Jack's sword skills or Cecilia's healing and buffing skills, but I suppose calling the game Sword & Sorcery would be too on the nose.

I may sound like I'm being harsh on Wild Arms' combat system, it's not that the fighting is bad, it actually verges on being good, but it lacks any challenge or personality and is bloated with features that you'll rarely use.

It also doesn't help that Wild Arms' simple, but attractive 2D visuals are replaced by rudimentary 3D polygonal graphics during combat. To say the game's polygonal showings have aged poorly is an understatement, featuring crude figures, poor animations and texture warping.  Even the sound effects are often oddly placed, with fierce creatures releasing cat sounds when hit, other times, they are mysteriously absent or cut off.

Final Fantasy isn't the only source of inspiration in Wild Arms, a few hints of The Legend of Zelda can also be detected. As you progress through the game, characters will acquire tools which are used to solve puzzles. Some are original creations like wands that allow you to speak to animals or glove to push objects away while others are clearly mimicked after Link's arsenal, such as bombs or Wild Arms' interpretation of the hookshot.

I generally enjoyed these puzzles as they added variety to dungeon crawling segments, however, the random encounters would often get in the way, making things especially frustrating when I was having trouble finding the correct progression method. Perhaps most egregious is the fact Wild Arms doesn't always make it clear what you have to do or where you have to go. For example, one puzzle requires you to put an item back into the treasure chest you picked it up from, however, no clear indication was given, nor did I even know the game allowed you to do that. Other times I was forced to wander the world map aimlessly simply because I had no idea what I was supposed to trigger the next story event.

Speaking of the story, I generally enjoyed it and its themes. It began with everyone having clear goals and motivations on who they are and why the demons seek to take over the world. However, as the plot progresses the demons' tactics become more extreme and their reasoning murkier. Towards the end of the game I had lost all emotional connection with them and viewed them as little more than cartoon villains.

Thankfully, the same cannot be said for our main characters, their backstories, interactions and character growth arcs are easily the highlight of Wild Arms' story. All three characters come from a background of sadness and loss and how they deal with their inner demons is intriguing and often genuinely heartwarming. However, the developers made the odd decision of making one of the characters, Rudy, a silent protagonist. This means that while we fully understand Jack and Cecilia's reasoning as they grow, we're often left to guess Rudy's. Moreover, having a silent protagonist among two talkative and likeable characters creates an odd clash. I understand the idea was to make Rudy a blank canvas for the player, but considering we later learn his intricate backstory, the whole idea of a silent protagonist backfires, damaging any conflict resolution.

I'm quite glad to have played Wild Arms, while the game isn't the departure from the Final Fantasy-based formula I was hoping for, it more than makes up for it with graceful 2D visuals, a beautiful soundtrack, and a likeable main cast. The 3D graphics have definitely aged poorly, especially when compared to the 2D's segments more inspired moments of beauty. The combat is entertaining if a bit simple and the main plot starts to meander a bit towards the end, however, Wild Arms is a worthy acquisition and still worth a playthrough today.

Pros:
- Graceful 2D visuals that manage to surprise you when you least expect
- Beautiful orchestral soundtrack with a wild west twang to it
- Likeable main cast with engaging and heartwarming character arcs
- Legend of Zelda-like puzzles are generally fun and add variety
- Combat is easy to get into and a great choice newcomers to the genre


Cons:

- The combat is easy to get into, but rarely provides any real challenge
- Polygonal graphics during combat segments aged terribly
- Occasionally obscure puzzles made worse by random encounters
- The story and villains' motivations become somewhat murky towards the final acts
- The mix of fantasy, sci-fi and wild west isn't always seamless with the latter being forgotten in the visuals

Final Grade: B

Trivia: Perhaps as a nod to the two franchises that inspired it, Wild Arms features two subtle references to the Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy VI. A doll dressed in a green garb that looks suspiciously like Link can be found in Cecilia's bedroom.

Trivia 2: When exploring the world of Filgaia, you might also come across an arena which resembles Final Fantasy VI's Colosseum. Inside, you'll find a female spectator with green hair and ponytail, reminiscent of Terra from Final Fantasy VI.

Video packaging review


 Text packaging review

(excuse the condition, this game is becoming harder to find and sometimes we have to make due with what we got.)

I have to say, I'm not a fan of this cover. Not only do the characters lack the detail and colors found in the opening, but the poorly rendered mid-90s CG background clashes against the 2D design. If I had to guess, I'd say the developers took concept art and simply placed a bland, boring background.

Inside, we find a manual and the game disc. Note the disc uses different art from that found in the cover, little touches like these go a long way.

The manual is light on story, giving only a few paragraphs of background information on the world and our characters. Thankfully, this is offset by how in-depth it goes to teach you how to play Wild Arms. More importantly, much of the information here is actually useful, as they include descriptions for each status ailment and even give away some of the tools you'll have at your disposal for puzzle solving. There's even a few concept art images thrown in for good measure though sadly they're in black and white like the manual itself.

Unappealing cover art aside, this is a good packaging for a standard release, I wish the manual were in color and featured more concept art images, but few games did that in Europe.

Packaging Grade: A-

Rogue Stormers Review


I reviewed Rogue Stormers over at Tech-Gaming.Com. It was okay. It tries to be Contra with roguelike elements, but the two didn't mix that well.  Click here for the full review.

WASTED: a Post-Apocalyptic Pub Crawler Review


" Though WASTED’s first impression wasn’t positive, it eventually grew on me. The fast and chaotic action excuses much of the frustrations that come with losing all your progress in easy unforeseen strikes. Sadly, once you reach that point, you’re only a stone’s throw away from growing bored of all the repetition. "

This is an excerpt of my review over at Tech-Gaming. Click here for the full review.

Total War: Warhammer Review


I reviewed Total War: Warhammer over at Tech-gaming.com

" As with every Total War title, the strategic gameplay is some of the best among its contemporaries. Yet, many feel the formula is turning stale and in that regard Total War: Warhammer was a missed opportunity. This is still a quality entry into the series, but the decision to purchase comes down to whether or not you enjoyed previous releases and feel that a Warhammer makeover with a few added RPG elements warrants a purchase. "

Full review here

Hyperdimension Neptunia

Developer: Compile Heart / Idea Factory
Publisher: Compile Heart / NISA

I have always held a soft spot for the Hyperdimension Neptunia series, not too long ago JRPGs were stuck in a downwards slump and were often a subject of mockery by western developers. In fact, during the successes of Mass Effect 2, 3 and Dragon Age, several Bioware members went on record to state JRPGs were stagnant, on a decline and that were not "true" RPGs.

Yes, for a while, unfairly bashing the genre was a popular pastime for gamers and the media alike. Even I will admit to have somewhat followed the bandwagon with this, and when looking back, I really don't understand what my frustration was. Perhaps I was merely disappointed with Final Fantasy 13 and chose to lash out, but then again, I had played Lost Odyssey well before that and thoroughly loved the experience.

Regardless, despite the tide being turned against this struggling genre, Hyperdimension Neptunia not only persisted, it actually grew and flourished. As of this writing, the franchise is merely six years old and yet it spawned twice as many entries as well as an anime series. This is the sort of success you just don't expect a new JRPG franchise to accomplish. So my soft spot for it lies with the fact that this is a modern underdog story. Though I will admit,the set-up of it taking place in a world called Gamindustry with every major region and character representing either console or a studio tickles my funny bone,

So, it was with eager anticipation I finally experienced this series, beginning with the very first entry on the PS3, and sadly, I didn't like it.

Rather than immediately rag on Hyperdimension Neptunia, I'd like to begin with the positives, both of which lie in its narrative. The game introduces us to a land controlled by four Goddesses, each representing Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony and Sega. All goddesses participate in what is known as the console war, a state of constant strife between these four participants which is currently in a stalemate. In an attempt to tip the scales the three goddesses representing Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony momentarily ally themselves to dispatch their remaining foe. Rather than being killed however, Neptune, the goddess representing Sega, falls to the mortal realm where she is struck with amnesia.

It's true that an amnesiac protagonist is perhaps the most overused trope in an RPG, Japanese or otherwise. However, the set-up of all characters symbolizing consoles is just so delicious I'm more than willing to overlook it. In fact, the story itself isn't anything particularly noteworthy, rather, Hypedimension Neptunia's strenght lies with its characters and their interactions. Even the english dialog is surprisingly well delivered. It's obvious a lot of care went into voice direction and it feels as though all actresses had a lot of fun while playing their roles.

Now granted, almost every plot element in the game is derivative, but it's done so in a tongue in cheek manner. Often characters will point said clichés ahead of time, mock them, and then act according to said tropes for comedic purposes. In most cases, it simply works, the fourth wall breaking and the fun dialog between all characters is just so delightful that it makes me wish I had enjoyed the game more.

Characters will quote company slogans, characters catchphrases and even meet facsimiles of popular games that were altered just enough to avoid dozens of copyright lawsuits. From Sony's "it only does everything" campaign to "Genesis does", including "Jill Sandwhich" and Bowser running off with Princess Peach, it's all here. I was even surprised to see an event which clearly parodies the Gears of War franchise, not something I expected from Japanese developers.

And yet, the main issue begins right here; "facsimiles". You don't meet Princess Peach, you meet Princess Pear. Other times characters just get a description which anyone with a cursory knowledge in gaming could easily attribute them to Street Fighter, or Sonic the Hedgehog, but you never actually meet Sonic, just a parody character.

The odd thing is, some of Neptune's attacks are actually named after Sega's classic franchises and even feature sprites or logos taken directly from them. If you can use an attack called Altered Beast or Alex Kidd and it prominently shows the titular 8-bit platforming prince of Radaxian, why can't you speak to Sega's official characters?

Regardless, this is a minor gripe and can be easily ignored. Sadly, Hyperdimension Neptunia's issues lie almost exclusively with the gameplay. Simply put, this is one of the most poorly designed and unoptimized JRPGs I have ever played.

It all begins with a poor framerate. Hyperdimension Neptunia is not a smooth experience, flashy attacks and dungeon crawling can create an inconsistent experience. Sometimes, this even extends to menu browsing as navigating the equipment tab can be quite a chore as the game pauses to load a new weapon.

Battle encounters are a random affair as one would expect with classic Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest or Phantasy Star titles, but the encounter rate seems unusually high for a modern title. Perhaps the issue isn't their frequency so much as the fact that they tend to drag far past their welcome. Several minor enemies seem to feature unbalanced amounts of health, taking far too many hits to bring down. Though this is nothing compared to bosses, many of which you won't even see their lifebar move after attacking them, these encounters simply drag for too long. It's not that they're difficult, just that even when your level far surpasses theirs and they barely hurt you, combat still feels like a drag to how to the time investment required to beat it.

But Hyperdimension Neptunia's odd design choices don't end there. If battles were strategic perhaps I could have forgiven their length, but this isn't the case. Most times you either press the attack combinations that drain the most health or ones that lower your foe's defenses making them easier targets. Combat is motivated by combos, in which you chain several sequences together from one or multiple characters, but there was little need in mastering these, simply put, Hyperdimension Neptunia's strategic elements are lacking. There's even the option of assigning an element to your ranged weapons, though I never bothered with this feature because it rarely came into play.

One interesting gameplay feature I'll give the developers credit for is how items work. Rather than using a healing potion whenever you wish, character must instead learn skills that require their use and then assign points to each one, increasing the chance of them happening. So for example, there's a skill where you may use a potion that heals 30% health, but is only activated when your health drops below 50% and even then, there's only a chance it will actually be used depending on many points you allocate towards it. This adds a welcome element of randomization to an otherwise by-the-numbers battle design.

Sadly, it's not like the developers didn't try to add their own specific elements to Hyperdimension Neptunia, it's just almost every design choice seems either questionable or poorly thought out. For example, all repeatable dungeons have a timer which ranks players, faster times bring in better rewards. However, combat animations are so long and drawn out that I soon found myself constantly skipping attack animations.

The most egregious example of bad design comes in the form of the combo menus. Rather than letting you choose which attacks you want to use and when, players are forced to pre-design a path for possible combinations by pausing and accessing a specific menu. Having to plot out each attack-course is a lengthy, thankless and near-unnecessary task. I spent so much time plodding along menus and windows setting up each character's possible attack combinations, only to never using them or even needing to.

Of course, one might find it entertaining to build a party with all four goddesses, especially when considering these characters can transform into an HDD form, which is essentially the embodiment of their console form. The issue here is that even though most of the experience is played with Neptune and two human characters symbolizing Idea Factory and Compile Hearts. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo won't join you until near the end-game.

I know this review is focusing too much on on the fighting aspect, but I simply cannot overstate how boring and badly designed it was. To me, this was the greatest deal-breaker, though it's not Hyperdimension Neptunia's only woe.

Traversing through this world functions much like a visual novel. Rather than freely walking about, you are always navigating menus, searching for newly unlocked events to select, ranging from plot-development, optional conversation scenes and missions to undertake. When an assignment is selected you can then enter its specific dungeon.

Sadly the dungeons themselves are of poor quality as well, often re-using the same songs and graphical assets over and over again, while others even recycle layouts. Quest levels also seem to have been randomly thrown in. For example, sometimes when completing high level quests, you're rewarded with a new, low-level mission.

Though I previously praised Hyperdimension Neptunia's videogame references, I have to admit that too often, these are also thrown around with little rhyme or reason. For example, there's a series of dungeons called "Neo-Geo", but they are completely generic, possessing no features that can be  in any way, shape or form associated to SNK's arcade machine. Then we also have a "Hyrool" Castle which is set in Xbox land for some reason and bares no resemblance to the Legend of Zelda.

I can't help but feel a tinge of sadness at how little I enjoyed my playthough. Hyperdimension Neptunia's concept is just so out there and it's hard to not grow an immediate fondness for it. Yet, all noteworthy elements in this title are likely best enjoyed through YouTube rather than playing it. It's surprising to see how much this franchise grew in such a short time when we consider how weak the first entry was. I can only hope future releases improved on the formula, because this is a game I can't recommend to anyone.

Pros:
- Offbeat story concept will likely appeal to anyone who was once a console fanboy
- Characters are fun, likable and a joy to watch them interact with each other
- English voice acting is surprisingly good with solid deliveries all around


Cons:

- Constant frame rate issues
- The combat is one of the worst I've seen in any JRPG
- Graphical assets and dungeon layouts are constantly recycled
- Videogame references are occasionally added just for the sake of it


Final Grade: D


I really like this cover, it manages to  strike a nice balance between the interesting character designs and an appealing color mix.

The artwork lends itself well to a bonus reversible cover, though sadly, none was added.

Its manual includes short character profiles for its main cast followed by basic instructions on how to play the game.

It's written well-enough and the profiles include an artwork piece for each character, but alas, this booklet is in black and white, greatly diminishing its visual appeal. 

Packaging Grade: B-