The Hyperdimension Neptunia franchise is one that has always flown under my radar for some reason or another. While the fanbase that surrounds it is quite dedicated, personally trying to approach the franchise is a challenge in and of itself.
Regardless, a steady stream of games continue to be localized stateside. The latest spinoff title Neptunia Virtual Stars is no exception to the rule, and looks to capitalize on the burgeoning VTuber trend that is making its way to the forefront of much of the online community.
Regardless of my personal history with the franchise, it’s always a pretty big task to merge one fanbase with another in one release. Not only are you concerned with satisfying multiple fanbases, you’re also making sure the game is playable and entertaining. Naturally, that’s no easy feat.
Developed by Compile Heart and published by Idea Factory International, Neptunia Virtual Stars released on PS4 on March 2, 2021 and will see a Steam (PC) release on March 29, 2021. The PS4 version (played through PS5 backwards compatibility) was played for this review.
In what could be considered an alternate dimension to the main series’ setting of Gameindustri, the dimension of Virtualand’s planet Emote is under attack by the forces of planet Obseoletia and their army of Antis. What’s their goal? If you guessed destroy and corrupt what Emote holds dear, namely “Content,” then you’d be absolutely right. Meanwhile on Gameindustri, the four goddesses Neptune, Blanc, Vert, and Noire attend a gaming expo showing off the newest in gaming tech. It’s here they access a new VR console and are unknowingly whisked away to Emote as a desperation move by its own goddess, Faira.
She pleads with the quartet to rid the planet of Antis and prevent Obsoletia from eliminating the content from their world. Unbeknownst to them, a duo of VTubers known as MEWTRAL are also brought into Virtualand and go by the name of Me and You. While both groups are armed with area-appropriate weapons, they eventually meet up and agree to take on the Anti horde together.
What follows plotwise is about as run of the mill as it gets. Personally, I don’t mind a simple premise in my games as long as they’re entertaining at bare minimum. If not for a lack of trying, I was not invested in this story at all because it just felt so half-assed. Moreover, the plot felt like it was jumping from one generic hoop into another. There’s plenty of dialogue as it pertains to moment-to-moment happenings, but none of it feels like there’s any substance or bearing to the overall plot. It’s all just an opportunity to let character personalities take center stage. While it does that well enough, it just got tiring after a while. We get it, Neptune likes to break the fourth wall and be self aware, while other characters play to their traits to a T. The goddesses and VTubers have to talk about every little thing and play to so many anime tropes it gets annoying after a while. In a way, it feels like overcompensating for the fans. But it wore itself thin no matter how you slice it.
Even more disappointing is the execution of the main villains. If you’re familiar with the format of Super Sentai/Power Rangers, you might be familiar with the energy of the main villians Kado and her floating head cohort HERO. Most of the time they spend time scheming and doing generic villain things, while also sassing each other for their various shortcomings. They have personalities of their own, for sure. But I can’t say it’s anything more than surface level villain stuff. When I say they have that tokusatsu energy, I say it with a grain of salt. They absolutely act like they belong in the same room with that genre’s brand of villainy, but don’t even feel as deep as one would expect from even the simplistic nature of tokusastu. They’re just evil people from an evil planet doing evil things. That’s it.
Overall, the story just carries the air of the bare minimum being done to keep the player engaged in what’s going on. Even with that, it just doesn’t feel like that amount of effort would be something that would hold a fan’s attention either. I’ve been on both ends of “simple plot done effectively” and “complex and intertwined plot executed beautifully,” and Virtual Stars‘ plot just falls flat to me on multiple levels.
Shoot, Slash, Rebuild, or Dance?
Because this is a spinoff title, we’re obviously not dealing with the gameplay seen in the main series. Instead, core gameplay in Virtual Stars is more action-oriented in execution and more dungeon crawl-y in nature. While you make your way through the various “nations” (really, themed areas) of Emote, you’ll be taking control of your choice of either the goddesses or plot-related VTubers.
The gameplay seen with the four goddesses falls into third person shooter territory, as each one of them has their own brand of weapon with attributes commonly seen in the genre they pull from. Every character here basically sticks with their given weapon, and switching between them is a requirement if you’re looking to strategize with each of the four. You also have the ability to power-slide around as you shoot. There are some higher damage attacks you can execute with combo presses, but some may find it easier to spray and pray.
With the VTubers, it’s more of a mixed bag. While they’re generally focused on more hack and slash gameplay, there’s a touch of ranged combat thrown in for good measure with other VTubers. However, the weird thing about these combatants is that you can only play them in groups of two at a time. Once your crew expands past the initial two, you’ll have to use save points to switch between the two duos. Bit of a weird decision given that the four goddesses can be chosen from at will, but it’s not ridiculously inconvenient.
The VTuber implementation doesn’t end there. While there are plot-related playable characters that are limited in scope, there are a multitude of them “trapped” in things called VCubes. These can be obtained through normal combat and equipped to each playable character. While there is a completion element present here, the more immediate benefit are the unique support attacks they provide in combat. The effectiveness varies depending on the support character, but any extra damage is welcome here.
While the level of detail here is present and accounted for, I wish I could say that it translates well to the core gameplay. Not only are you level grinding continuously, the process of doing so can be extremely dull. This is super disappointing because while actual combat is pretty competent, it’s not compelling at all. More often than not you’re going through corridor after narrow corridor, taking down the same low level Antis, fighting a midboss or two, taking down the area-specific boss with combat and special attacks, and repeating the process ad nauseum. I don’t expect core gameplay to be compelling all the time, but oftentimes I felt somewhat disconnected from the gameplay even with active participation. It’s damn near sleep-inducing, and it’s such a shame. Even with obtaining customization items during gameplay, it’s cold comfort.
Compile Heart does try to salvage the lack of depth here in a couple of ways, none of which are all that compelling or deep either. First is the Base Revive system. Getting money while you level grind is natural, right? Well, repairing and restoring a section of Emote’s marketplace is one way to spend that hard earned money to your benefit. Ranging from the bog standard item shop, a side mission board, and other such things will naturally benefit you in the long run on your way to taking down the Anti army. Though the implementation goes about as far as “grind the money so you can level up this part of your base.”
The other feature seen in this area is a rhythm minigame called BeatTik. The best way to describe it is that it’s similar to Vocaloid games, but much simpler in execution. Playing this is nowhere near as deep as playing with Miku and her Vocaloid friends. With that you’re expected to have some level of skill while keeping up with the musical taps and slides that comes with it. Not so here. It’s absolutely a rhythm game, but oftentimes it just feels like you’re watching your character dance while you mindlessly tap on the buttons. Going through the trouble of actually unlocking songs just feels like a waste of time thanks to the gameplay here being so half-cared for in its execution.
Really, the whole gameplay package here feels mediocre across the board. I’m all about good value adds in my gameplay if what I’m getting is fun and at least worth firing up. But I really feel like more effort could have been put into the core gameplay in general, because it walks up to the line of being entertaining and even a little fun and just falls flat right then and there. I hate feeling like this, but that’s the best way to describe it.
If there is one (almost literal) bright spot for this game, it’s that the art design is at least colorful and detailed. Save for certain environments, this game assaults you with bright and occasionally neon color palettes throughout. There are times where it can get a bit busy, but it really feels like the visual aesthetic might have taken precedent over some other factors in this package.
Each themed area definitely looks the part, though the bland level design does work against it a little bit. In a way, the long hall corridor comparison to Final Fantasy XIII is apropos here. The game is pretty, no question. But actually playing it just does the art direction a disservice. Mixing in flashy visual effects and different environments depending on combat situations is nice to see, but it does get a tad bit distracting at times. It would have been nice to see some of this action in a smooth framerate, but it seems like the framerate is capped at sub-60 frames consistently. This is present even through backwards compatibility on next gen hardware, and I doubt that that’ll be patched in later on.
Main character designs overall don’t really look all that bad, and the multitude of wardrobe options that become available for each character is nice to have. This extends to both the goddesses and VTubers alike, and there is DLC to expand that if you’re into that. The anime aesthetic Neptunia games are known for is pulled off well enough, and the cute angle is always on display. With the design of the Anti army, there is a bit of variety, but it’s unfortunately spread across multiple areas with the usual higher power variants rearing their heads as you progress. Unfortunately, the bland design for this army does drag down gameplay as a result. When you find yourself blasting and slashing the same horde of foes en masse continuously, it does tend to lose its luster somehow.
Though when you take into account the absolute dearth of actual VTubers that are shoved in here, you can definitely see where Idea Factory wanted to put some of the marketing on this aspect alone. Make no mistake, their inclusion is not an unwelcome one. But it doesn’t exactly instill much confidence that leaning on them as a major feature is a high point in the game. You’ll find them on display on various screens in the field, letting their personality shine during loading screens, and occasionally letting loose when you unleash an assist attack. Sure, it’s not everywhere you turn, but it’s not unavoidable either.
Audio presentation is not exactly a high point, either. Music presented here isn’t what I would call bad. It generally fits the environment here, doesn’t quite stick out, and it has a tendency to blend into the background when you start to zone out during gameplay. Not exactly something you want your soundtrack to do when you’re also trying to keep things interesting, of course.
With voice acting, you’re dealing with an exclusively Japanese dub. Performances here are decent enough, but the script doesn’t exactly do it any favors either. During gameplay, you’ll find your combatant of choice repeating the same lines over and over while in battle. It will grate on you after a while, and certain characters can get rather annoying on top of that. Presentation overall just feels barely passable, and that’s disappointing.
Until Next Time
I really get the feeling that the success or failure of Virtual Stars probably won’t have much of a bearing on the overall trajectory of the franchise. With this being a spinoff title attached to a long-running series with what feels like a shelf full of titles in its resume, I can see fans easily dismissing this one and waiting for the next mainline entry to come down the pike whenever Compile Heart gets started on that project.
That said, nearly everything about Neputnia Virtual Stars just feels like half-assed fanservice for the sake of fanservice. The gameplay – while somewhat competent – feels undercooked, the story is flat out boring, and the presentation doesn’t do much to salvage the first two. The inclusion of VTuber content is dim bright spot, but it’s not bright enough to bring this game up to any sort of recommendation. Prospective players should just skip this one, and Neptunia fans deserve better than this disappointment.
Review Copy provided by Idea Factory International for PS4. Screenshots and feature image taken by reviewer.