Neptunia Virtual Stars PC Review
Nothing is putting a stop to the ladies of Hyperdimension Neptunia as they arrive in their new game, Neptunia Virtual Stars, celebrating just over 10 years worth of English releases over too many games to count. It is crazy to think that the original game would have the staying power to produce so many sequels and spin-offs. The original PS3 release had a fascinating concept, taking human characters and making them represent consoles that are at war with each other, but it was badly executed – it was not a good game. In fact, even the developers must have felt that, because it was remade three years later with the Re;Birth branding. Since then, there has been a range of quality in the series from poor to good, so where does the latest release sit within the ever growing list of Neptunia games?
The theme around this game is in the title, “Virtual Stars” which is a reference to the Vtuber phenomenon that has increased in popularity over the last couple of years. A Vtuber, or Virtual YouTube for its full name, is an online persona used by a person using computer generated avatars and motion tracking as their main portrayal on the camera, with the actual person dubbing over the computer avatar with their own voice. Kizuna AI is a really popular Vtuber that sparked a trend for a lot Vtubers to appear in Japan – she is also coming to this game later as DLC story content. As with a lot of the Neptunia games, the developers have seen the trend in the video game industry, in this case, the popularity of Vtubers and their impact on streaming platforms, such as Twitch and YouTube, and decided that would be the focus of the story in Neptunia Virtual Stars.
The gang find themselves teleported to a new galaxy, Virtualand, where the planet Emote is currently under attack from Antis, a force that wants to destroy content and make all living beings detest content creators. In an attempt to switch the tide of battle, the Digital Goddess of Emote, Faira, looks for potential heroes from other dimensions to help her push back against the invaders. This is where Neptune, Noire, Blanc and Vert arrive to save the day, but this time they have the help from group of stars, the Vtubers, in the form of “You” and “Me”, the duo members of Mewtral, who join forces with the console ladies and another Vtuber duo to help Faira protect her world.
Fans will have an idea of what to expect from the game’s story. Neptunia Virtual Stars is full of lengthy dialogue scenes between each story beat and it loves to parody everything relating to gaming and Internet culture. The characters remain as eccentric as they were from the start of their careers, but the story can’t carry itself over the characters, so it becomes more about what wacky antics will come out of the mouths of the stars than anything relating to the plot itself, which is predictable and not that interesting, then again, so are some of the jokes if you have been with the series from the start.
Between the story beats, players will find themselves moving between various themed worlds in a game that can be classed as an action RPG rather than the traditional turn-based combat. Neptunia Virtual Stars’ action is a mixture of shooting and hack and slash, although it is not particular good at any of these actions, the hack and slash is the worse off of the two gameplay types. The goddesses take up the shooter aspect, with each one having a specific weapon type. Neptune has the assault rifle, Vert has the sniper rifle, Blanc has a charging weapon that does more damage the longer it is held down, and Noire has kind of a laser disc shot that has a wide projectile. The characters can be switched on the fly with a button combination, which is instant, making it great to adapt to situations, as some enemies are weaker to certain bullet types. Tip – Blanc’s fully charge shot does wonders at knocking health of anything, just make sure you can dodge incoming attacks for the time it takes the charge.
No matter who you use the shooting mechanics are floaty, they do not have any weight to it and lack the feel of engagement. Using the guns without holding down the aim button makes it hard to hit enemies as they do not seem to get hit where the reticle shows. The auto-target box that pops up from the aim button did help me to enjoy the combat a bit more, but there is no depth to the shooting, it simply is lock and shoot, and using the gliding dash to circle around enemies as you attack. It is a real shame, because looking back on the action, the shooting and the sliding is an element of Vanquish, and now I sit and think what a Neptunia game playing like Vanquish could be like…now that is a missed opportunity.
In the menu is the ability to switch to the Vtubers, which brings the hack and slash gameplay. I was hoping for Dynasty Warriors inspired action here, but playing Vtubers is the worst part of Neptunia Virtual Stars and just goes to show how Omega Force has that action locked down so well over the years. There are still a couple of ranged weapons with the Vtubers, but they behave similar to Dynasty Warriors in that pressing buttons has them shooting in the general direction forming a combo string, but just like the shooting, the melee lacks weight, along with any impact on the enemy. It ends up putting the player in harms way when close to them. It got to the point where I stayed away from the Vtuber gameplay as much as the game let me, as their style does not suit the design of the game. I seem to get hit more as the dashing does not escape as well as it should, and even adding in air dash and enemy lock-on does not get away from the issues with the combat design of the Vtubers. Hack and slash gameplay does not have to be as deep as a character action game, but trying to target something like Dynasty Warriors should be a no brainer, as that would help bring in some good mechanics, sadly, this does not come close and the game is worse off when having to use them.
It is a bummer that so much of the gameplay is either okay or subpar, because the developers have tried to implement additional complexity, but it either comes across flat or overly complex to the point where there is no point caring for them – you can get by simply shooting at everything. The abilities that each character has, which costs MP to use, are muted in their flashiness, making them feel like any other move without any impact in its presentation. There are transformation moves that happen when a bar is filled up that enables the goddesses to change into their powered up form for a cutscene style limit breaker move that has the player mash buttons to deal damage. This is probably one of the few moves that feels special and is worth the use, as it will often clear out all the enemies.
Even the boss battles cannot escape from the uninspired design. This is an area of game creation where it should be one of the more exciting encounters, but it succumbs to being another simple and uninspired component. The developers tried to give the bosses their time on screen, as each one is set in a circle, if rather plain, combat zone and some funky battle music. The song can be changed to other tunes as more are unlocked, and these tunes offer different buffs to the characters. Sounds neat, right? But there is this slider on the right that moves up and down, the closer to the boss it is, the more defence they have, so the idea is to keep away and destroy gems on the ground to bring it back down, then when it slides towards the player’s icon, the boss is weaker and takes more damage. There is another bar at the bottom that shows when the advantage is in your favour or the bosses when attacking, doing more so in your colour moves the slider faster. If the slider touches the bottom icon, the boss can be sent to a special realm where you can give them a beat down enough to activate a “finish drive”, a mass damaging move that is deserving of being a special move because it is actually rather flashy.
Now the kicker here, all this can mostly be ignored and be fought as a normal battle, dodging moves and attacking when the boss is open. The fact that there are so many item drops from standard enemies means that players end up having a stash of healing items anyway, and if not, a lot of stuff can be sold at the store and restoring items can be bought for cheap, so the boss fight can easily be powered through by constantly healing. Each boss arena is the same as well, a black themed area with laser barricades to form the size. It is strange that the theme of these could not have been made freakish, especially when some of the themes of the planets are stuff like books, food, YouTube and Twitter (different naming on those two for obvious reasons) that boss arenas could have been so much more. Imagine fighting in a Twitter arena with a boss where there is a crowd hurling abuse at you, because you are taking on their favourite person. These insults fly through the barricade as objects to dodge, pretty much what Twitter has become nowadays. There are so many missed opportunities to go crazy and have the parodies be so much more.
Fans who are deep into the Vtuber element of YouTube will probably recognise some of the names here. Real life Vtubers do have small bit parts in Neptunia Virtual Stars as v-cubes that can be equipped to the main characters as ways to increase stats. These Vtubers also appear in loading screens to offer some small entertainment or advertisement for their channels for players to search and subscribe. I enjoyed one reference that a Vtuber mentioned on how bad the original game’s loading was on the PlayStation 3. She was not lying – that game suffered so much from bad loading that they created a patch to try fix it. While I do not know any of the Vtubers featured in the game, they do have decent followings, as I quickly searched for a few to find they are still rather active with a good fan base. Maybe some fans will discover new Vtubers through this game, but it is a shame they do not have much interaction, since they are limited to loading screens, assist power ups, which pops their avatar on screen as a buff is casted, and the billboard TV stream in levels.
The issue with trying to discover these Vtubers means getting through some mundane and boring gameplay. This is a budget game, way too many repeated enemy designs, colourful but plain visuals, and Japanese only voice acting. I would not be fussed with the latter, as I love the Yakuza games, but the English dubs have been with the series for so long that it was strange to hear the original Japanese voices again. Oh, that reminds me on the sound effects, boy does this game get annoying with character quotes, as they spit out lines with every single action. I can see people wanting to mute this as you can only deal with so much of it when shooting.
Neptunia Virtual Stars ends up coming on stage as one of the poorer entries in the Neptunia franchise. This is a huge shame, because having an action shooter blended with hack and slash gameplay has so much potential to be a blast, but this is poorly executed. As it stands, the gameplay is not captivating enough to be enjoyable for the 16 hours or so it takes to beat, standard aiming is unreliable and enemies are reused too much and suffer from no change to their attack patterns. The ladies of Neptunia cannot carry this game over its gameplay, and with so many better options out there for this type of action, Neptunia Virtual Stars is a Vtuber that simply wants to annoy you rather than offer some entertaining pass time.