If you can overlook the grammatically-inaccurate title, there's a lot to love in "Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth 1."
Righting the wrongs of its original debut on the PlayStation 3, "Hyperdimension Neptunia" for the PS Vita overhauls the graphics, music, mechanics, and more in this well-deserved remake. Game Developer Compile Heart almost had something back in 2010, when it concocted its spoof of console rivalry, by personifying the seventh generation game systems as goddesses fighting endlessly and pointlessly in "The Console War." However, the moment players took control of Neptune, a fallen goddess named after the defunct Sega Neptune device, it was clear the game's intriguing concept couldn't mask the mediocre gameplay. Four years later, Compile Heart, along with developer Felistella, have addressed most of the problems critics had with "Hyperdimension Neptunia." True, "Re;Birth 1" still has room for improvement, but the PS Vita title provides the strong introduction the series desperately needed.
From opening with our young, adorable heroine waking up with a bad case of amnesia, to closing with her and her comrades defeating a corrupt God with the power of friendship, it's clear the story of "Re;Birth" is far from original. Tropes associated with anime and Japanese role-playing games are abound here, but made tolerable because of the game's self-aware humor, that never crosses into false superiority. Arguably, with its broad meta-commentary and nods to the video game industry, the referential humor of "Re;Birth" could be seen as a window dressing for its unimaginative plot. For this reviewer, the shameless love of anime and video game culture make the bluntly-named world of Gamindustri worth exploring.
The geeky nods certainly help "Re;Birth" overcome its generic plot line, but it's the characters that make the game's heavy visual novel presentation worth enduring. Fueled by absurdity and sugar coated with a light yuri subtext, the comical exchanges here mostly land on mark. I say mostly, because juvenile moments do pop up once in a while, such a late conversation between two boob-loving brothers that goes on longer than necessary. At its absolute worst, the dialogue in "Re;birth" is more forgettable than groan-worthy, although your mileage may vary. Publisher Idea Factory International, who take over localization from previous series publisher NIS America, do a fine job adapting "Re;Birth" for North American audiences.
Outside of a few deep-voiced characters that sound like a teacher narrating a storybook for kids, the voice acting in "Re;Birth" is generally good. English voice actress Melissa Fah nails the energetic spirit and childish antics of Neptune, or Nep-Nep, as nicknamed by her best friend and nurse-in-training Compa (Compile Heart), who has a hilarious vocal performance of her own provided by Cristina Vee. Kate Higgins as IF (Idea Factory), the adventurer and straight man in the trio, is another fitting dub voice. For those who prefer to hear the game's original Japanese voice cast, dual audio is available. The brand new melodies accompanying the PS Vita remake are pleasing to the ears; better fitting the whimsical worlds and intense battles sequences than what the former soundtrack offered.
In terms of graphics, "Re;Birth" is a good-looking game. It's impressive how this 3D-roaming RPG was successfully shrunk down and improved from the PS3 to PS Vita, even with the occasional frame rate drop. Fortunately, inconsistent frame rates rarely interfere with gameplay and quickly resolves itself after initially popping up. The in-game character models adequately represent the anime character designs in 3D form, while enemies paying homage to classic gaming icons are amusingly close to the real deal. The goddesses' scantly-clad designs are certainly questionable, along with a few pandering art stills, but overall, I rarely felt the game was doing a disservice to its female-driven cast. Not terribly noticeable for the average anime viewer, but again, your mileage may vary.
Moving on to gameplay, the traditional turned-based combat mechanics are present in this portable RPG, special attacks and all. Where the PS3 game tried and failed to reinvent the wheel with its polarizing interface and limited item usage based on luck, the PS Vita remake employs a more familiar and functional set-up. That's not to say "Re;Birth" doesn't have a few new tricks up its sleeves. Quite the contrary, as the combo, transformation, and relationship-based tag team attacks are intriguing battle strategies that are fun to experiment with. But defense is just as important as attacks, particularly when it comes to your enemies, as a gauge lets you know when you caused enough damage to render them vulnerable to a finishing move. You can also synthesize new items and equip game discs filled with various attributes for a better chance of victory.
It's easy to think this games gives you the upper hand over your enemies, but the foes scattered across the four regions of Gamindustri are no pushovers. Even with three goddesses as my party, with three equally strong characters ready to switch with the push of the square button, I still faced numerous defeats. The game's first goddesses battle with Lady Blackheart, the valley-girl talking personification of the PS3, takes a few level grinding to defeat. With later powerful enemies being able to rejuvenate health and game-prohibited mechanics being conveniently introduced through the story, the fights are far from a cake walk. It can even feel unfair at times, like when a surprise boss fight immediately pops up after your victory over another, or when an overpowered enemy attack quickly wipes out your party. One thing worth noting is the game's excellent lampooning of boss battles with no chance of the player winning; a gaming convention far too common in any genre.
If there's one aspect I'm disappointed in with "Re;Birth," it would be the reuse of dungeon designs, making exploration repetitive. One factory-themed dungeon come close to insulting, as the second floor is merely a reverse of the first. But the game does have a few new dungeons to explore, along with giving players the option to shake up the monsters and treasures inside them. Overall, "Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth 1" lives up to its appropriate, albeit inanely-spelled, subtitle. With a fresh new start, I'm excited to see where the "Neptunia" series will go from here. Hopefully, the wait for Idea Factory International to localize "Re;Birth 2" won't be too long.