Developer: Compile Heart/Sting
Publisher: Idea Factory International
Platforms: PS Vita
Release Date:February 24, 2014
ESRB: T for Teen
I am pretty sure new Hyperdimension Neptunia games and spin-offs have become something of a semiannual (or more) tradition. There have been three PS3 games, three Re;Birth remakes of those same games on Vita, multiple upcoming as well as older spin-offs like Hyperdimension: Producing Perfection, and now a newly announced sequel to Hyperdimension Victory called Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory II within the span of five years. Except, Hyperdimension V (or Victory) wasn't the fifth game, it's actually the third main entry, so I guess the sequel would be the fourth main entry? Frankly, it's confusing to everyone but hyper-devoted fans.
But, I gave up on following the chronology ages ago, and apparently developer Compile Heart did too since they constantly re-write their own fiction. What I do know is that Compile Heart has decided to give the (2nd best) "GamIndustri Goddess", Noire, her own video game based on pure popularity alone. Not just her own game, but a completely different turn-based strategy-RPG by the name of Hyperdevotion Noire: Goddess Black Heart. Far more interesting to me, however, is that this title was developed by Sting.
Sting was the developer behind enigmatic SRPGs like Knights in the Nightmare, Yggdra Union, Generation of Chaos: Pandora's Reflection, and the admittedly far less crazy mechanically, Gungnir. Should both Hyperdimension Neptunia fans as well as those of SRPGs unite under Noire's banner or should it be the Lastation for future spin-offs?
The basic preface is that the four nations of Gamindustri are in constant conflict because the goddesses ruling each one wants to spread their influence. The tsundere goddess of Lastation, Noire, attempts to seek a peaceful solution to these battles despite having the upper hand in both power and shares (aka influence). Unfortunately for her, and the rest of Gamindustri, she is inadvertently manipulated by Arfoire, the baddie bad of like every Neptunia title ever, by reducing Gamindustri into a decaying state and destroying the goddesses's power along with it. So, Noire sets off to regain her shares, as well as her former generals, to restore Gamindustri while also trying to stop Arfoire's ambitions.
And that is kind of the setup for the entire game. I am missing a nuance or two about a very awkward player insert character [assumed to be male], and how he kind of helps Noire (but not really), but it is so bad that it is not even worth talking about except in a gameplay context. Like most Neptunia releases, you will get more millage out of the occasionally funny dialogue quips than anything else. Certain people may also get a kick out of the shameless video game themed generals as well, which reference known series like Metal Gear Solid and Street Fighter to far more obscure stuff like Sakura Wars and Little Queen Snow. Otherwise, beyond conceptual jokes, I found the actual characters and storytelling around them to be rather shallow, and the self-aware nature of its setting does not really save its overly bloated, and poorly-told script (despite its solid localization). That, and the flagrant "fanservice" scenes that seem to really push the T rating at times.
Bad storytelling aside, however, Hyperdevotion Noire is a surprisingly competent strategy-RPG. So much so, I may be (more than) willing to argue that it is better than any other title in the series on gameplay alone. Sting is known to make unnecessary obtuse strategy-RPGs. For example, Yggdra Union alone had a strength/weakness list that would make even Pokemon's look simple and intuitive, and Knights in the Nightmare had tutorials that could take literal hours to comprehend. Yet, Hyperdevotion Noire was clearly made for fans who are not well-versed in SRPGs, but it is also distinct and polished enough that it could interest Strategy-RPG fans too.
As with a lot of Strategy-RPGs, combat is turn-based and takes place on a grid. Mechanically speaking, it actually reminds me of Level-5's PSP SRPG, Jeanne D'Arc, a fair bit. Both are simple, straightforward SRPGs (and heavy-handed with tutorials) but also share similar gameplay systems, like slotting elemental attributes to characters or key story characters having powered-up forms. One of Hyperdervotion's strengths is how much it tries to change it up during most main story missions despite its lack of mechanical depth. There are plenty of varying scenarios, such as unique, trap laden environments, different objectives, or perhaps having the player navigate the terrain in a different way. Unsurprisingly, not all of the themes successful, and there are a few too many maps that want you to toss boxes/crates around to reach higher ground (which can be rather annoying since some characters can throw significantly further than others).
While main story missions may work to your disadvantage, most gameplay mechanics are not. Hyperdimension Nepunia MK2's lily rank system makes a return (which might as well be re-named to "yuri rank" because of its lack of subtlety in this game) and is significantly to the player's advantage. It is loosely similar to Fire Emblem: Awakening's support system where you get passive bonuses when you place allies next to each other and also unlock more character-specific cutscenes if you do it enough.
Far more important, however, is that it strengthens attacks, cheapens Special Move cost, as well lowering Lily point usage (if not eliminating the cost entirely) which pertains to really powerful, flashy abilities mid-battle. Even if the player were to fall during battle the game is pretty generous in allowing you to re-deploy allies, retrying maps while keeping whatever experience you gained, or lowering the difficulty altogether. However, the are a few instances where even such perks are not particularly helpful, for example, the huge level gap during the last two chapters or maps that more or less require specific characters to save a lot of time.
Outside of combat, there is "Sim Noire," which sort of doubles as a reward for buying items in shops while also supporting the idea of Noire as a leader. Noire will answer (or not answer) multiple choice requests from Lastation denizens each chapter, and generally the context of each request is rather ridiculous. Just the same, Noire will transition from rags to riches based on "Amazoo.nep" reward points you get from buying stuff from item shops. Even if neither aspect amounts to much functionally, beyond very specific ending requirements, it is a neat little touch to the setting. That said, these systems do unfortunately give the player insert character more screen time with its cliche, romantic interest undertones. I am not even beholden to the source material, but the "secretary" (aka player insert character) just feels out of place since he doesn't even have a character portrait.
Speaking of cutting corners, Hyperdevotion is also no stranger to re-using familiar art assets for story scenes and audio too. Despite being well-drawn, the series has been more are less using the same character portraits since the first PS3 release. Same deal with the soundtrack, which is still being recycled with some barely noticeable alterations to certain tracks from earlier games... which, honestly, were never particularly good. In the matter of fairness, the actual SRPG gameplay doesn't do the same, thankfully.
There is a lot of personality in the midst of the actual combat with the special attack animations, in particular. Many of the "general" characters have a lot of visual fanfare of their respective parody. The Final Fantasy-themed character Ein unapologetically summons Bahamut or the conceptual Pac-Man character, Lady Wac, literally devours enemies with her skills. It isn't technically flawless, since slowdown does occur time to time on certain bigger maps, or areas with lots of enemies, but it is generally negligible otherwise during actual gameplay.
After the not-so-great spin-off release of Hyperdimension Neptunia: Producing Perfection, Sting significantly raises the series' bar for would-be spin-offs. This title is by no means Sting's best SRPG outing, but for a game that has no real right to manage being decent, it manages to achieve just that. And—for a handheld system that has very few Strategy-RPG offerings beyond great Disgaea 3 & 4 ports—you could do far worse than playing Hyperdevotion Noire: Goddess Black Heart for an acceptable, though noticeably flawed, SRPG and Hyperdimension Neptunia fix.
+ Decent amount of variety in main mission design
+ Easy to learn SRPG systems with convenient gameplay options
+ Occasionally funny dialogue and video game themed character designs
- Wholly uninteresting storytelling and completely shallow characters
- Recycled music that wasn't particularly good to begin with...
- Certain map themes are rather hit and miss
- Some general slowdown for certain levels
Overall Score: 6 (out of 10)
While it is no means Sting's best Strategy-RPG outing, Hyperdevotion Noire: Goddess Black Heart brings a much higher grade of spin-off to the current series' standard that it could pique the interest of both Hyperdimension Neptunia and SRPG fans despite its noticeable flaws.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS Vita code provided by the publisher.