So far the Neptunia franchise has been three mediocore RPGs and a passable [email protected] parody -- so my hopes weren't the highest going into its first strategy RPG. But let me tell you, there is a lot to love in Hyper Goddess Faith Noire: Ultra Goddess Black Heart -- even with its impressively complicated name.
Good -- Characters and Gaming Nostalgia
In the past, games in the Neptunia series have featured a cast of characters that are the anthropomorphic personifications of video game consoles and video game companies. Noire goes one step further and lets you build your army out of popular video game franchises turned into anime girls. Thus Lid -- representing the Metal Gear franchise -- looks a lot like a female version of "Old Snake" from Metal Gear Solid 4 while Ryuka -- the personification of the Yakuza series -- looks like a cross between that series' protagonist and one of the hostesses that are so prevalent in the games.
Character design is just the start of the gaming nostalgia found in Noire. The game's game series-based characters have a slew of special attacks that call back to their respective franchises. Lady Wakuwaku turns into a giant red Pac-Man and eats your ghost-ified enemies. Ain Al summons and rides Bahamut as it breathes fire down upon your enemies. All in all, if you are a gamer, you'll probably find yourself smiling at all the little in-jokes as you play.
Good -- Core Gameplay That Alters Strategy
On its surface, Noire appears the same as any number of grid-based SRPGs. You select a character, move it, and then attack an enemy or buff your own party. However, the key mechanic of this game is known as the LP (Love Point) system. Instead of normal SP which can be used for spells or normal special attacks, LP is used for each character's ultra attack -- as well as turning the Neptunia series console-based main characters into their extremely powerful goddess forms. LP also allows you to swap out characters if you find you need a different character other than the seven you brought into battle.
So, of course, gaining LP is potentially the most important element to the game's strategy. You gain LP by having one character perform a special skill while flanked by an ally -- resulting in her receiving a morale-boosting kiss. The more allies flanking the skill-using character, the more LP received. But more than just awarding LP, these kisses also boost the strength of special attacks and lower the LP cost of ultra attacks.
Thus, when playing the game, it is best to keep your characters grouped up whenever possible. However, that also proves to be a double-edged sword as most of the enemies have powerful area-of-effect attacks that can wreak havoc upon your characters.
One other large portion of the strategy comes from the elemental weakness system. Each monster in the game has a given elemental property: ice, fire, wind, lightning, or non-elemental. While your characters often gain their own elemental special attacks as they level up, you can also equip them with special items they give their normal attacks an elemental property. Of course, this also gives them an elemental weakness as well.
In other words, when it comes to the battle system of Noire, there is a lot of strategy to be found.
Good -- Dynamic Stages
Level design is by far one of the most important features of an SRPG -- and Noire's is excellent. Not only are the stages visually different from one another but also their often dynamic layouts make them strategically challenging. Many stages have traps of some sort -- be they electric floor panels or enemy cannons. Others have moving platforms or teleporters that limit the speed of deploying your party and/or splitting them up into smaller groups. Height is also a major factor in the game as only a few characters can jump or fly -- forcing you to rely on moving and throwing the boxes found around the stages to build stairs and open up new paths.
The objectives are constantly changed up as well. Sometimes you must attack a specific target or defend one. Other times you must eliminate a single enemy or protect a computer-controlled ally. All in all, I never felt like I was simply doing the same basic battle again and again.
Good -- Treasure and Crafting
The other major aspect that adds challenge to the battles is the item crafting. For every enemy you defeat in Noire, you gain materials for item/weapon/armour crafting. However, this is not the only place crafting materials come from. Most of the rarest ones come from the chests scattered around the battle stages. However, these chests are often placed far from the main objective of the stage and opening these is rarely as simple as sending someone to hit them. Most of the chests in the game are elemental. Thus to open them, a character must hit them with a normal attack on their elemental weakness. Mid battle, trying to manage treasure collection along with the level's normal objectives adds yet another layer of complexity to the game.
Mixed -- Unbalanced Characters
The four console-based goddess characters -- Noire, Neptune, Blanc, and Vert -- are supremely overpowered in Noire, and they are the first characters to join your party. This is because, for a measly 30 LP, they can transform into their goddess forms. While in these forms, they are not only far stronger than normal, but they can fly as well. This means they can ignore both traps and terrain as they lay waste to the enemies. And while goddess form only lasts three turns per battle (per goddess) that's far more than enough time to utterly destroy most opposition. It's even more unbalanced when it comes to Noire herself, who gets two full turns per round when in goddess form.
More than that, though, the non-goddess characters you unlock early in the game are generally less powerful than those you pick up later. But while it is annoying to see some of your favourites that appear early in the game become less and less useful, it does help give the game a distinct difficulty progression and generally forces you to try out all the characters -- at least for a stage or two.
Bad -- Chibi Panty Shots
The Neptunia series has always had its fair share of fanservice, but in Noire, I found it a bit more annoying than usual. Outside of the game's numerous visual novel cutscenes (complete with creepy breathing) the game has a "chibi" art style -- i.e., the characters all have tiny bodies with large, super deformed heads. Yet, despite this art style, the fanservice remains constant. Whenever Noire runs or Neptune attacks, we are greeted with a panty shot. When Vert performs a special attack in goddess form we are treated to a showing of jiggle physics. However, on these super-deformed bodies, this fanservice was far more distracting than titillating.
Bad -- Crashing
I must admit I have never had a Vita game crash on me before, but Noire did just that twice -- and on the same level. I lost about two hours of play time (yes, some chains of battles can go that long without booting you back to the hub) and I was more than a little irate. Luckily, the second time through, I saved after each turn, losing only a few minutes when it crashed the second time.
I was greatly surprised by how much I enjoyed playing Hyper Goddess Faith Noire: Ultra Goddess Black Heart. The tactical battles were complex and never boring thanks to constantly changing objectives, new characters, and dynamic stages. Moreover, as a hardcore gamer, the game's in-joke gaming humour -- from character designs to special attacks -- made the game a lot of fun to play. If you like SRPGs, enjoy gamer humour, and can ignore the chibi fanservice, you'll probably greatly enjoy what Hyper Goddess Faith Noire: Ultra Goddess Black Heart has to offer.
Hyper Goddess Faith Noire: Ultra Goddess Black Heart was released for the PlayStation Vita on May 29, 2014 in Japan. There is currently no word on an international release.