The disadvantage of specializing in the manufacturing of niche gaming isn’t as cut and dry as one may think. Just as much as it may seem beneficial that the developer’s core audience is substantially minimized due to limited constant demand, and thus easier to please, there remains a generally bulky section of the market that simply doesn’t give a shit about the company’s line of products. However, once a cult following has been mostly secured, and an organization can nudge its way into an optimum cubbyhole in the grand scheme of a generation’s output, a broadly successful creative career can be fundamentally maintained. Such is the case with Nippon Ichi Software, and to a larger extent NIS America, their U.S. counterpart.
For two decades the outfit has been feeding off the ripe mania of western Japanophiles, doing their damnedest to bring coveted, interesting titles to our shores, with competent translations and origin nation homages still intact. Disgaea, La Pucelle, Atelier Iris, Phantom Brave, Zettai Hero Project—all beloved IPs that have stood the test of time due to their ingenuity, charm, and immense replay value. However, every once in awhile NIS does make a mistake or two; and unfortunately when they fall, they fall pretty damn hard. Last year’s Hyperdimension Neptunia is a prime example of once such face-plant. The game was a complete failure. Lame story, poor mechanics, lax visuals; it was difficult to believe NIS was actually behind it. With its sequel, Hyperdimension Neptunia Mk2, it’s clear NIS realized many of their errors with the first installment, as there are noticeable improvements to speak of, but on the whole, HNMk2 is still a subpar effort from an association capable of much more.
As with many NIS titles, the narrative of HNMk2 is filled with trade parody and jabs at both the anime and gaming industries. The game resumes three years after the first one’s conclusion, with a group of protagonists led by Netgear, the younger sister of the original adventure’s heroin, Neptune, on a mission to rescue a group of CPUs (Console Patron Units) from the clutches of the villainous Arfoire and her ASIC (Arfoire Syndicate of International Crime) base army. Much of the plotlines involve jokes about video-game piracy and sly references to many of Japan’s most popular JRPG contemporaries like Idea Factory, Compile Heart, Gust, 5pb, Cave, and Falcom. Those infatuated with the fields in question will find plenty to enjoy, but similar to the previous installment, the subject matter at hand may just be too niche for niche’s sake. I’m as close to a connoisseur of JRPGs as one can get with restricted leisure hours to spare, and while very little of HNMk2’s funny business was over my head, it all managed to feel relatively uninspired. This can largely be attributed to missteps in the player-progression structuring, weak execution of farfetched themes, and the appearance of chewed-up bubblegum graphics.
It may not seem like it upon initial glance, but don’t be fooled, HNMk2 deserves every bit of its M rating. Bad taste freely seeps out this game’s pores. The massive amount of innuendo is borderline tolerable, but where HNMk2 painfully plunges from the deep end is its casual sexual insults thrown at characters who resemble children and, in particular, one extremely vile, disgusting boss battle that had me, post-defeat, wanting to take a lengthy shower. It’s understandable that some players will get a real kick out of these brands of nonsense encounters, but in hindsight it clearly summarizes why so few would want to assimilate themselves with such a less traversed sub-area of RPGs. That aside, the turn-based gameplay with a hint of SRPG tactical patchwork is much more enjoyable than the first game’s combat system. The whole affair is streamlined and rapid-paced, with combination attacks shying away from HN’s burdensome, time-consuming approach. AP and SP are the main sources of fuel, for physical and special maneuvers, respectably. Anyone who has played something like tri-Crescendo’s Eternal Sonata will be right at home, the MOV statistic effects the sprite’s range, and each assault button has a corresponding style that coincides with a damage rate. It’s comparatively basic stuff, but unlike many of the game’s other critical elements, it’s beneficially fleshed out and conventionally polished offering increased returns on your conditional investments.
There’s no getting around it, HNMk2 is a ridiculously easy game. Many people make snap judgments and foolishly equate easy to boring, but sadly that’s the precise case here. HNMk2’s missions consist of grinding for materials and killing monsters, but unlike a Final Fantasy title, the context surrounding these side quests isn’t in the least bit inviting. RPGs thrive off the strength of their incentives, roping players into long quests for one special item that, in all actuality, isn’t really worth the hassle, but they do it anyway because the game subtly forces them to be hardened completists. Ultimately, HNMk2’s kitschy storyline is not worth progressing, and its universe isn’t much for the eyes or ears to take in. Environments scream an underdeveloped combination of lazy template anime-pop and computerized rough edges. The character designs are generic, and standardized RPG terrain areas like greenish meadows and enclosed storage facilities repeat themselves consistently. The musical score is neither great nor horrendous—a vanilla soundscape guilelessly fading into nothingness over a minimal duration.
Doubtlessly, NIS is a titan of the niche market, and they continue to hold my respect even after their false moves. I give them all the credit in the world for attempting to hoist a pearl from a dead oyster, but apparently their vision wasn’t meant to be fulfilled. HNMk2 isn’t outright malodorous garbage akin to its predecessor, but it still gives the impression of trash from most angles.