Inside Pulse 12

Review: Hyperdevotion Noire: Goddess Black Heart (Sony Playstation Vita)

Hyperdevotion Noire: Goddess Black Heart
Genre: Turn Based Strategy
Developer: Compile Heart
Publisher: Nippon Ichi
Release Date: 2/24/15

While Alex and Sean got into the Hyperdimension Neptunia franchise, I never could; while I appreciated the idea of it, the game came across as a bit too… well, fan-pandering for my tastes, if we’re being honest. Fairy Fencer F ended up changing my mind, though; while the game was entirely invested in its anime tropes, the plot picked up really hard past the halfway point, and the mechanics were interesting enough to carry the whole experience. While jumping into the franchise halfway in seems… imprudent, the newest game in the series, Hyperdevotion Noire, seemed like a decent jumping-on point, since it featured a new protagonist and (hopefully) a story that stood well enough on its own. It also promised an all-new experience rather than the recent Vita re-releases of older games, and a new mechanical style of play that seemed like it’d be just as interesting as that of its predecessor. Well, as it turns out, Noire is basically a slimmed down, fully 3D Disgaea sort of game, with a lot of personality and fanservice of both types to go around. If you’re brand new to the franchise it expects you to know a bit more than you would without doing research, and it’s more than a little silly and simple, but it’s basically a fun experience that’s full of references to crazy franchises, and it’s just novel enough to win you over by force of will.

On CPU’s and referential humor

If you’re not familiar with the franchise backstory, the Hyperdimension franchise takes place in a world dubbed “Gamindustri,” which is basically Japan’s version of Reboot, only everyone is girls. Noire is basically following in the same footsteps as its predecessors in that respect; while it refers to the world as “Gamarket,” it hits the same beats, so fans should know what to expect coming in. Each of the four main characters here is based on one of the four notable console companies on the market, and Noire is no exception: she’s the goddess of Lastation, and is basically the Sony Playstation brand as a teenage girl. Noire’s plot starts off with the titular character, Noire, handily beating the mess out of her competitors, which… seems like kind of a definitive ending, plot-wise. She credits this to how strong she is in comparison to the others, while Neptune credits it to the fact that Noire is the protagonist (which is almost certainly true unless this game takes place a decade ago). This is not the end, though, as Noire, flush with her power, returns to Lastation, only to be duped by Arfoire (who apparently represents game piracy) into wishing for peace in such a way that everyone loses their power. Oops. This is where the player comes in; as the only person (at first) who believes in Noire, you’re more or less tasked as her secretary, and in-between bouts of being heavily flirted with by all of the CPU’s (because why not?) you also direct traffic and help the CPU’s work together to regain their shares and restore order to Gamarket. The plot kind of expects that you know something about the prior games, but not too much, and it mostly stands alone well enough that you can pick it up and not feel like you’re missing too much. The writing is cute, if a bit silly, and while the plot doesn’t go into “must see” territory, it’s fun and full of amusing references to other franchises that are fun to see. Hell, there are characters based off of Street Fighter, Monster Hunter and Yakuza, that alone makes the plot worth seeing, even if it’s not an amazing piece of writing or anything.

Visually, the game alternates between hand-drawn cutscenes and 3D super-deformed characters, depending on the situation, and the effect is interesting, if a bit odd. The line art is generally really good, as the characters all have distinct appearances and look unique, the talking head sequences feature plenty of emotion changes, and the static scenes are plenty and interesting in their design. The 3D graphics are mostly used for combat (and the odd cutscene here and there), and they look fine for the most part, as the hyper-stylized super-deformed style accentuates the faces and gives the characters personality. The game is a little sexualized, though, and while that’s fine on its own, it creates a weird disconnect when what looks like a six-year-old with a bobble head design is shaking her butt at the camera. The game also repeats enemy and stage designs a bit at times, and while that’s not terrible, it gets old after a while. Aurally, the game music is cute and does a good job of establishing mood, though it’s nothing you’re going to want to listen to outside of the game. The voice work is generally top-notch, and the game offers both English and Japanese voice acting, so fans of each have the option to listen to their favorite without an issue. The audio effects are also generally solid, and sound appropriate, though nothing especially stands out; everything sounds fine for combat inside of a video game world, basically, and works well enough for how it should.

On Kissing and Killing

At its core, Noire is a turn based strategy game, specifically one where each side takes its turn, then passes to the opposition, and so on. The core mechanics work exactly as you’d expect; the view generally sits at a 3/4ths overhead view, which you can realign and rotate as you see fit, so as to see the battlefield as needed. The game uses a square grid system, allowing characters to move around based on grid blocks and movement scores, and takes note of positioning, meaning that higher elevations confer bonuses, and that you can be attacked from behind or the sides for more damage. As noted, this game utilizes team turns, meaning you can move your entire team as needed before passing to the enemy, so you can set up your turn as you see fit, whether it be lining up your team appropriately or blitzing a couple enemies to thin the numbers, rather than planning ahead based on who’s moving next. You still have to make sure you’re not going to get hit by six enemies in a row the next turn, of course, so the planning is different, but for those who prefer one style over the other, that’s what you can expect here. It’s all very standard on a base level, and if you’ve played a Shining Force or, more recently, XCOM, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how things work here at the mechanical level.

The biggest change Noire makes to the formula comes in from the Lily system. When you have a character act, they have a couple of the basic combat options you’d expect, such as attacking, using items, and passing their turn. Each character also has a compliment of skills, which on their own drain a set amount of SP (skill points) from the character using the move. If you perform the move while your character is adjacent to one of their allies, however, the ally will then peck the caster on the cheek, which boosts your LP (lily points), represented by the heart bar in the upper right corner, and reduces the SP cost of the move. This stacks, also, so the more allies you have around the caster, up to a total of four, the more LP they get and the less SP they use, so there are substantial benefits to piling everyone up in one big group and moving them around that way. Each character also has a Special Move, all of which cost a full bar of LP, though said cost is reduced by, again, having multiple people pile up on the caster. As characters repeatedly perform Lily actions, their opinions of each other improve, which you can check from the Library under Lily Ranks; the higher the rank, the less expensive skills are to use when adjacent to that character. If you focus on upgrading Lily ranks, you’ll find this can be a huge battle changer, though it requires a good amount of work to boost Lily ranks, so you’ll definitely get what you put into it.

Outside of the Lily system, there are a few other combat mechanics that make Noire feel like its own game. Each of the four CPU’s has the ability to kick on HDD mode, at the cost of 30 LP, which confers added damage and defense unto them, as well as the ability to move with no restrictions around the battlefield. This only lasts for three turns and can only be used once per CPU, however, so judicious use of HDD can turn a battle around or signal a decisive victory… assuming you don’t waste it. The non-CPU characters don’t get this option, but they frequently have skills that are far more interesting to compensate, so as to ensure that they’re still useful in battle even without HDD. The game utilizes a similar leveling system to prior games in the series, so earning experience points confers level bonuses, as does performing actions (such as moving around, performing specific attacks and so on), such that normally leveling up provides small uniform bonuses across the character, while ranking up in character-specific missions earns a boost to specific stats at the moment. Each character also confers bonuses to the whole team if they’re chosen as the leader for that specific battle, which are displayed on-screen when choosing your party layout. Some missions have a mandatory leader, but most allow you to choose, so you can set the leader who offers the best skill bonuses for your current battle plan, which is good, because as the game goes on you’ll have a lot of options to choose from. You’ll certainly need them, though, because the game isn’t just about beating down dudes; maps can feature all sorts of traps and crazy pathways, as well as the odd time limit or abnormal success condition, so making the most of the mission is a must, especially later in the game where missions can be multiple battles long without pause.

Outside of battle, you’ll spend most of your time in Lastation, which acts a combination social and preparation hub. On the preparation side of things, you can visit the shop, which allows you to purchase items and weapons for your party members as needed, including weapons, curatives, elemental stones to set the elemental damage of your party members, armor bracelets and accessories of various types. You can also visit the Item Development hub to create new items out of materials you find during missions, or Disc Development to create Game Discs using discs and enhancements, which are also found during missions. Item Development is a static process, where you use a blueprint you’ve acquired to make a new weapon/item/armor bracelet/whatever from crafting materials, while Disc Development offers you discs earned during battle that have set Idea Chip slots open at set levels, allowing you to set Idea Chips into them, to make your disc however you want. Once you’re equipped as needed, you can then hit up the Mission Hub to jump into a story mission, one of the extra missions that pop up as you progress, or even a simulation of a prior story mission, depending on what you’re looking for at the moment.

From the social side of things, you’re also offered a fairly large amount of options for interacting with the residents of Lastation as needed. Noire takes up the most of your social time, of course, since she’s the star, and you’ll put your effort in through renovating her Basilicom, which is basically her home and office. In the beginning it’s a dirty hovel, but as you spend money at the Item Shop, you get points which you can use to buy upgrades for the Basilicom. Once you’ve bought every possible upgrade, you can then upgrade to the next quality level, which unlocks new upgrades and more categories, until you’ve turned the Basilicom into a palace. The Basilicom also allows you to help Noire answer requests from her constituents, and if you pick the correct answers more often than not you get bonuses, including cutscenes and items. You can also hit up the CPU Hotel, which includes options for reviewing cutscene art and videos, as well as talk to the characters you’ve recruited and see cutscenes with them as you improve their Lily rankings. You’ll also be able to interact with the random citizens that pop up in town square, which is mostly flavor text but can include the odd helpful hint… as well as even more parody characters here and there.

On Time Investment, For Good or Ill

If you plow through the core story missions with some minor effort to level up as needed here and there, you can probably plow through the game in around twenty or so hours, especially if you’re good at this sort of game. You’ll be missing out on a lot of content by doing so, however, and an average playthrough will probably take around forty to fifty hours, give or take. For one thing, there are two endings you can see, and the best possible ending requires you to get a Lily rating above 70 for Noire with everyone else, which will take a good amount of grinding to really pull off (though you can just do that in easy missions, so it’s mostly just about time spent). There’s also an extra scene you can unlock for this ending which can be unlocked by basically doing everything with the Basilicom perfect, which will take even more grinding and a bit of trial and error for the questions. You don’t have to see that ending the first time around, though, as the game also offers a New Game Plus mode, which carries over almost everything you could ever need to the next playthrough, meaning you can just keep plowing through the game to get those unlocks as needed if you don’t want to grind. Outside of the endings, there are also a lot of scenes and gallery items to see and unlock, and a whole lot of Trophies to earn, so you’ve got plenty of reasons to play and replay the game if you’re interested.

Discarding any issues one might have with the content (as there’s a lot of imagery of half-naked, sexualized girls here), the biggest issue with Noire is that, structurally, it’s very lopsided. Your primary CPU allies get most of the screen time, upgrades, and cool stuff to play with, and while the secondary allies get cool skills, they also rarely see upgrades, leaving the CPU’s as the most powerful units… which gets frustrating when they, in turn, leave the active party. The game’s difficulty is also wonky; the easiest difficulty is amazing in its simplicity, and basically allows the player to stomp all over the game, but the normal difficulty can be rough, especially when multiple enemies converge on a small group and, using wide-area attacks, wipe half your party in a turn. Put simply, your enemies are often far more heavily loaded for war than your team, which is fine on its own, but it makes for odd disparities between difficulty levels, especially since easy is very easy, and normal is very not… for a while. Later into the game, it becomes apparent that (unless a stage prevents this) the best choice is to jack up Lily levels, group everyone together, and alternate Special Attacks and boosting skills to wipe out huge groups of enemies at a time, and once you get there things change dramatically. There’s also an intense focus on grinding or repeat playing to see the best endings, which may well not be for everyone, especially since combat is a bit on the slow side, even if you turn off all the combat animations and cutscenes, while if you don’t, the pace can be maddening. None of these are game-breaking issues, but they contribute toward making the game specifically for its fanbase and little else, when the genre change could’ve been useful as a jumping on point.

Hyperdevotion Noire: Goddess Black Heart is ultimately a fun experience if you’re into turn-based strategy or happen to like the universe of Gamarket/Gamindustri and want to spend more time with its protagonists, but newcomers might find the game unbalanced, if not oversexualized. The plot’s fine, if fluffy and not terribly weighty, and the game generally looks and sounds good in general and as a Vita release. The core gameplay is easily understood, and the Lily system, HDD mechanics and frequent social aspects generally explain themselves well enough, while also making themselves feel vital and unique, which helps the experience a lot. There’s also a significant amount of content to the game, which, assuming you’re into the social parts of the game and want to see everything it has to offer, makes the game well worth the time you’ll spend on it. That said, the CPU characters are far and away the most important characters in most respects, the difficulty is awkward and you’ll end up focusing on Lily levels beyond anything because they let you blitz through the game, assuming you can tolerate the grinding the game asks of you to see the coolest stuff. Noire definitely has some great ideas, and if you’re fine with the sexuality and the grinding there’s a complex and fun strategy game in here; it could use a little tuning all in all, but it’s still pretty great.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Hyperdevotion Noire: Goddess Black Heart is an interesting change up from the original series while also being a fun piece of work for franchise fans, though newcomers might find the sexuality and grinding a bit much, and the game could use some balance tweaking overall. The plot works fine, though it’s a little light and not anything amazing, and the game looks and sounds good, both as a Vita game and in general. You’ll be able to understand the basic mechanics of the game whether you’re a strategy fan or not, and the unique mechanics, like the Lily boosts and the HDD power-ups the CPU characters have, give the game some real flair and make the battle more interesting, which helps to keep players coming back through the extensive amount of content in the game. However, for all the good here, the CPU characters are far and away the characters with the most useful tools and attention paid to them, the difficulty has some hiccups, and you’ll end up focusing on Lily leveling and having your team cut through the enemy like a bunched-up swath, assuming you can deal with the grinding needed to do so. If you’re fine with sexualized anime girls and grind-heavy gameplay, Noire is definitely a promising deviation in the Hyperdimension franchise, and one that’s well worth checking out; it’s got its issues for sure, but the final product is fun and amusing, and it works more often than it doesn’t.