Ordinary is sometimes really surprising!
- Developer: Idea Factory, Compile Heart
- Publisher: Idea Factory International, Compile Heart
- Release date: PS4: 2nd March 2021 (NA)/5th March 2021 (EU)- Steam: 29th March 2021
- Genre: Action adventure, Hack and Slash N, Shooter
- Platforms: PS4, Windows PC (Steam)
- Reviewed on: PS5 via Backward Compatibility
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
Neptunia Virtual Stars marks the tenth anniversary of the Hyperdimension Neptunia series, and during that time the boundless energy from the series protagonist, Neptune, has tackled many games and genres in many forms with her band of Goddesses, Noire, Vert and Blanc. For those not familiar with the Neptunia series, the developers have always had their tongues firmly placed in their cheeks. Noire for example is dressed mainly in black, and is the Goddess of the nation “Lastation.” Vert, dressed mainly in green, is the Goddess of “Leanbox”, and Blanc, in white, is the Goddess of “Lowee” (The Wii).
This satirical innuendo goes further than just the character’s names, extending to the games themselves and the content of the story. Cyberdimension Neptunia – 4 Goddesses Online, was a game that mimicked Sword Art Online, and this trend continues with the latest game in the series: Neptunia Virtual Stars is a hilarious exploration of the real-world social aspects of YouTube. Without going too much into spoiler mode, the premise is that the planet “Obsolita” is trying to gather all of the content creators, who are needed to power the core of planets and keep them alive. The Antis from Obsolita want to make people pay subscriptions, and fill the creators’ content with adverts and hidden charges. Anyone familiar with the issues surrounding the YouTube community over the last five years will see the satirical dig at their situation here!
We start with a flump
As funny as the game’s setup is, one can’t help but be deflated upon starting the game at how basic the visuals are. My initial thoughts were, “Is this a PS3 game?” The characters in the game world lack detail and clarity, They aren’t sharp or clear, and had an overall 720p look! It was so bad I had to double-check that this game wasn’t a ported PS Vita game. I know western versions of Japanese games arrive later than their native release, but I had to double-check when this game came out and was shocked to see it was only August of 2020. Then I felt horrified at how basic the shooting mechanic was once I got going. Projectiles from the guns the Goddesses use simply look like white blobs travelling away from them. In some cases, this white is the same as the gun’s reticle, so gets lost in your vision when trying to aim. There is absolutely no gun recoil, either, which felt antiquated in today’s modern realm.
Be that as it may, with little definition, detail, or clear defined lines, the artwork is still excellent and interesting to look at. The character models themselves are, as always, fun and interesting on the eye, and (apart from Vert) stylish, and colourful.
The worlds that the party traverses are also interesting to be in, despite the lack of detail, and as the girls are fighting in virtual worlds the aesthetics of each level are akin to a set from the film Tron. The walls have Matrix-type lines running across them and billboards flash with images of Vtubers (the content creators), who are the stars of each planet. There is interest there albeit in basic form, but it fits in with the ethos of the story.
Having just reviewed a game that had no tutorials, I then started this one, which is full of them. It’s only when you don’t have tutorials you realize how such a simple thing can be so important. The tutorials for Neptune Virtual Stars are simple overlays of how the controls work, the systems available to use, and upgrades that can be attached. It is standard fare, but with the hook of having different characters to play on the fly, with their individual fighting styles. The four Goddesses all have guns to use, but each is different (think assault rifle, RPG, sniper rifle, submachine gun). In addition, you also get to play as two Vtubers called Me & You, whose weapons are a bow and arrow and swords.
Exploring the world is a linear affair with the team of six exploring a map to get to the waymarker and set off an event. If the player takes the time to explore there are hidden items to find, such as items or chests, but the best are the captured Vtubers. They will be guarded by a small boss which upon defeat will release the Vtuber, who will then grant an upgrade to any of the characters.
Attacks during combat, either through gun or swordplay, build up gauges that when filled can unlock attacks from a Vtuber watching the stream of what you are doing. Also, during boss fights, a musical gauge fills that, when in your favour and under the right conditions, moves the fight into a new realm where you can inflict massive extra damage. End of level Boss fights are really the showpieces of the game as this is the only place where some of the coolest combat mechanics can be used. As well as the musical gauge, players can change the music which then gives off different gameplay buffs for both the enemy and your team.
The enemies you fight, either exploring or Boss fights, aren’t that interesting to look at (like many JRPG’s), but they do have attack patterns that are worth studying before you throw yourself into battle. Even on normal difficulty, the enemies in the first couple of levels will lower the player’s strengths down to worrying levels very quickly. Changing the team during battle and movement soon becomes a key aspect, which is welcoming, as on the surface the depth of the combat looked paper-thin, but it is most definitely not. Learning when to change characters, how to use each of them, and learning their skill sets proved to be a fun learning curve, and paid dividends when learning to master the combat systems.
Where the fun starts
On paper, you may think a lot of what I have mentioned looks just like another run of the mill JRPG. How wrong you would be. Yes, the low-res look of the game can be off-putting, and there isn’t that much to the gameplay loop for an entire level, but it does have an X factor. The funny vibe, quick jokes, and achingly funny satirical third-person view of itself, alongside the tongue in cheek look at a real-world subject, differentiates Neptunia Virtual Stars from other games in the genre.
The beginning of the hilarity of this game started with the character Neptune calling herself the series “protagonist”, in an out of body third person self reflective way, as well as announcing such gems as, “the tutorial should be here about now“ and then blaming the writers of the game when it’s not! The introverted way in which the dialogue looked at itself, as though the characters were in charge of how the game should have been made, had me chuckling more than once. Throw in the occasional South Park-Esque crudeness that the girls threw at each other, and I was genuinely laughing out loud.
The game is also interesting in that there is a good depth of things to keep the mind busy in upgrading characters, alongside the nuanced combat. There are also interesting aspects such as during the gameplay, Vtubers tune in to what you are doing on billboards, almost like a real viewer would if you were streaming the game. You do play the game like it’s one being streamed, as there are cameras in the weapons you use for the nation you are saving to watch, and all the people who get involved with your stream are funny or add to the experience.
The dialogue for a Neptune game is one of the best. I’ve played three previous Neptune games which at times have got weighed down with elongated dialogue and boring, repetitive chatter thrashing a point to death. However, here in Neptunia Virtual Stars, it’s most certainly been tightened up. The narrative doesn’t labour over each plot point, so it briskly gets you through the game, but this is most certainly helped by the banter between the girls. I never felt far away from a funny line or in-game joke, which kept me playing, waiting for the next funny thing to be said. Some of these are running jokes from throughout the game series, but even if you aren’t familiar with the series it’s still funny for new players.
The dialogue is all voiced by excellent voice actors, who only speak Japanese. Despite the gaming not being localized into English, and my untrained ear not in tune with different Japanese dialects, I could still distinguish the different voices by their sounds, something that is hard to do in other Japanese games.
During gameplay, the little quips from the person you are using are amusing, like the “Hep!” of Neptune jumping each time. Even when in the midst of a hard battle the girls all seem totally relaxed which again feels funny, and not out of place at all.
The in-game sound effects are limited but effective, however, the music is excellent. Although not my cup of tea, the sickly sweet J-pop tunes fit the aesthetic of the game beautifully and occasionally even got me toe-tapping along with them. There is a good variety too which again keeps things interesting.
I really shouldn’t have loved playing Neptunia Virtual Stars as much as I did. At its heart, it’s a pretty standard third-person dungeon crawler with dated visuals, primitive mechanics and rudimentary gameplay. The thing is, I loved it! Due to the dour state of the world today, I found playing this game, with its constant joyful optimism, the hilarious banter, funny situations, and cheesy toe-tapping songs were the perfect antithesis for my soul. Add to that, as it’s not trying to be too complicated, I could just sit back and enjoy the experience because, above all else, it is what a video game should be; pure fun, fantasy escapism.