Ah, the Hyperdimension Neptunia series. Despite its somewhat rocky start, the series has gone from strength to strength in more recent years, embracing its place as a fan service-y, light-hearted riff on the games industry with gusto. Set in a world where video games are essentially a religion, and people worship the four goddesses, each of which represents a different console manufacturer, it certainly wins bonus points for being creative.
Cyberdimension Neptunia: 4 Goddesses Online is the latest in what is getting to be a rather long line of spin-offs. Much like in Hyperdevotion Noire, Producing Perfection or Blanc + Neptune vs Zombies, 4 Goddesses Online sees the girls trying a bit of a different genre on for size - this time, the MMO. Only, it's technically still offline. While it may not be the most straightforward of concepts to explain - if you've played the Sword Art Online games, which did a similar "offline game that looks like it's online" trick, you'll be in familiar territory - 4 Goddesses Online is essentially an offline game that's pretending to be online, as it looks, feels, and kind of plays like a World of Warcraft style game, but without the risk of running into creepsters online.
Setting the scene for Cyberdimension Neptunia, the main girls - the goofy Neptune, aloof Noire, buxom Vert and hair-trigger tempered Blanc - have all been enlisted to help beta test a new MMO, 4 Goddesses Online. Neptune, Noire, Vert and Blanc are the titular Goddesses in question, ruling over the world of Gamesindustri as cutesy anime versions of the big console giants - the now defunct Sega, alongside Playstation, Xbox and Nintendo respectively.
Having created their characters, the girls jump into the virtual world, ready to take on the nefarious Demon King, who's threatening to take over the world. As the testers and heroes of the story, it falls to the aforementioned foursome (with a little help from other familiar faces along the way) to round up the legendary Sacred Treasures that are the key to reviving Alsgard's (somewhat familiar looking) goddesses, who should be able to see off the Demon King for good.
If there's one thing the Neptunia games excel at, it's their humour, with fourth-wall breaking references and general over-the-top silliness present and correct throughout. They're not the kind of games you play if you're after something deep and meaningful, and they're all the better for it. Cyberdimension is no exception, and with the loveable fool Neptune back at the helm, there's daftness galore, as the quartet beta test their way through 4 Goddesses Online, poking fun at various MMO tropes along the way, interspersed with the obligatory boob jokes, upskirt shots and more innuendos than you can thrust a big, thick Wooden Spear of Double Entendres +4 at.
In keeping with the light-hearted nature we've come to expect from the series, the battle system is as easy to get to grips with as ever too. Marking the series' first real foray into real-time battles (the mass enemy-whacking Blanc + Neptune vs Zombies excepted), Cyberdimension Neptunia opts for a somewhat 'traditional' MMO-style button-mashing affair. You have your basic melee attack, plus a selection of customisable spells/special moves, and a damage-negating guard to choose from, with our strategy being to basically mash the first two, throwing in the odd bodge of the latter, until everything's stopped moving, as you make your way through the game's dungeons.
Whether they be icy caves, lush forests or a lava mountain top, each dungeon has its own damage sponge boss you'll need to face off against at the end, as you take part in a somewhat protracted battle to the death, gradually chipping away at his humongous health bar whilst dodging his larger counter-attacks. Honestly, with their crazy amounts of health, boss fights can feel like a bit of a slog, especially as your attacks end up feeling rather underpowered compared to your foe's health - but once you've finally broken through, and you're back to Nep-Nep's cheery narrative, it's an inconvenience that's soon forgotten.
While Neptune is the protagonist once more (much to her joy), and her Paladin character class is an easy to play mix of sword-swinging melee attacks, and both healing and damage-dealing elemental spells, you're under no obligation to stay playing as her. Across the four Gamesindustri goddesses, and their four little sisters (plus a few others you pick up along the way), all of which are playable, there's a whole raft of different character classes and play styles on offer - you could switch to Blanc for a foul-mouthed Priest and try your hand at a healer, or try out Vert's Enchanter class, which specialises in elementally charging your party's weapons to exploit enemy weaknesses. We're pretty fond of Nepgear personally, as her Mage class is what we usually pick for ourselves, given that it lets you stand a safe distance away and pelt the enemies with fire balls, thunderbolts and icy sprays.
The crux of 4 Goddesses Online is its quest system, and you'll spend the bulk of your time accepting and completing quests from the Guild in town. Guild quests all have a rank associated with them, as does your party, and you can only take on missions that match your rank. Every so often, generally once you've completed enough of the more mundane item fetching quests or monster murdering missions, a special quest will appear, where completing it will raise your Guild Rank, and let you accept higher level quests with better rewards. It's these more special quests that will eventually lead you to the Sacred Treasures you need to save the world, so it's well worth taking on as many side quests as you can along the way to increase the chances of such missions appearing. Initially, the lack of an obvious "next story objective" can seem a bit confusing, leaving you wondering what you're actually meant to be doing next, but completing a few side quests will see the next main mission soon pop up.
Between missions, perhaps when you've stopped off at the hub town to accept another round of quests, you'll see chibi versions of the characters scattered around, some with exclamation marks above their heads - and these are well worth stopping to interact with. Selecting these characters will let you view a funny short or side conversation between the characters, often with hilarious consequences - and occasional upskirt shots to boot. There's Vert's relentless and obsessive search for a younger sister, a chain mail that promises to reduce your chest size if you don't send it on (which instils mass panic in the more buxom goddesses) and a 'Tea Channel', where characters give out facts on various types of tea - an English person's dream come true - to name but a few. Such side skits may have cropped up in pretty much every Hyperdimension game so far, but given that the banter is one of the best parts of the game, you'll want to get your money's worth out of them.
That's not to say there aren't a few bumps in the road along the way to saving Alsgard, though. For starters, it's a somewhat shorter road than some of the other Hyperdimensions, weighing in at about 20 hours or so as opposed to the usual 40+. Along the way, besides the aforementioned overly lengthy boss fights, there's also a few camera issues to contend with, as well as some dodgy party members. The former tends to rear its head mostly in the more tree heavy areas, such as the Yiear Foerst - essentially, when locking on to enemies, the camera will attempt to pan behind your character and generally give you a nice close up shot of the tree canopy instead. Fortunately, few battles are hugely challenging anyway, so you're usually fairly safe to just mash the attack button even when you can't see what you're doing, but it's still not ideal. As for your party members, their AI can go a bit rogue at times, usually when jumping up a small cliff is involved, with the dolts just constantly running into said cliff rather than hopping up and over, leaving you with just two options when it comes to combat near a cliff edge. Either take on the enemies on your lonesome, or run around like a headless chicken until the game takes pity on you and teleports your companions to your side.
All of these are fairly minor gripes though, and they do little to detract from the light-hearted fun and silliness we've come to expect from the Hyperdimension Neptunia series. The in-game story may be intentionally stereotypical - saving the world from some supreme bad guy by rounding up certain magical items first - but the characters, writing and fourth-wall-breaking humour is top notch, while its button-mashing combat is simple and flashy enough to be somewhat addictive. What's great is that lovable Neptune takes breaks in the general narrative to address newcomers, introduce characters and clear things up - much to the confusion of her party members, who have no idea who she's talking to - so even newcomers to the series should be able to get on board with 4 Goddesses Online too.