Neptunia Virtual Stars

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Idea Factory International
Developer: Compile Heart
Release Date: March 2, 2021 (US), March 5, 2021 (EU)


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PS4 Review - 'Neptunia Virtual Stars'

by Cody Medellin on Oct. 29, 2021 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Neptunia Virtual Stars is a music-based hack ‘n’ slash game where The Goddesses and virtual stars team up to take down the Anti!

Buy Neptunia Virtual Stars

For the most part, the numerous spin-offs for the Neptunia series have been quite solid. They've keep the characters true to their personalities while inserting them into very solid entries in different genres, from tactical RPGs to management sims. Recently, those spin-offs have been getting rougher and rougher. The bullet hell shooter was middling at best, and the 2D RPG (by another developer) was a chore. Idea Factory and Compile Heart are taking another crack at a spin-off for the franchise with Neptunia Virtual Stars, and the result is worrisome for series fans.

The game starts in the world of Virtualand, where content drives everything forward. The planet of Emote is under attack by an army of Antis, whose job it is to take available content and render it obsolete, thus killing off the planet. Thanks to a surprise attack by the Antis and their leader, the goddess of the world Faira has used a spell to summon worthy heroes to stop the threat. One of the heroic groups is the Goddesses of Gameindustri, who are attending a gaming convention that's closed off from the press and public. As Blanc, Neptune, Noir and Vert go into a specialized VR machine, they are transported to Virtualand, but Neptunia still believes this is part of the game. Meanwhile, a pair of Vtubers, Me and You (known collectively as MEWTRAL), is practicing for a broadcast when they're also whisked away into Virtualand. Although they were called against their will, both groups band together to save the world.

After being content to live in several different versions of Gameindustri, the narrative has returned to the realm of parody, this time with popular social media sites and apps as their targets. YouTube, TikTok, and NicoNico are some of the ones that are name-dropped, with the names changing just enough so you still know what they are. There's some commentary about the constant need for content for those places to survive and how the Anits are parodies, but it never gets to the point of criticism. Instead, like all of the previous games, the focus for the story is on the goddesses and their quirky personalities and interactions. From the carefree nature of Neptune to Blanc's hair-trigger anger, the characters are reliable sources of humor. The same can be said for the newcomers Me and You, but some may find that Me is so close in personality to Neptune that she doesn't stand out.

While you may be a fan of the characters and love watching the cut scenes, Neptunia Virtual Stars may take you to a breaking point. The scenes are interactive in that you're still pushing buttons to move them forward, but it can now average between 20-30 minutes between any form of gameplay. The scenes are still a mix of highly detailed static scenes and 3D models with minimal animation, but the content isn't good enough to support that length, even with some humor. The duration between gameplay segments is enough to make the game feel like it's dragging along, and you might notice some plot points get repeated several times. By comparison, the older games had scenes that were much shorter or at least broken up by menu navigation, so they felt breezier to go through. Those who care little about story can skip these scenes, but since this wasn't billed as a visual novel, it isn't exactly a great move.

Initially, the gameplay is reminiscent of Hyperdimension Neptunia U or MegaTagmension Blanc + Neptune Vs. Zombies, the two more action-oriented spin-offs. Once you enter a level, you go around from one area to the next, entering the infamous monster closets that lock you in until everything is defeated. In some cases, you'll hunt down switches to unlock the gates and keep moving on until you reach either a miniboss or a main boss, with the latter occupying a different arena rather than the current environment. Along the way are save spots, so the stages run longer than in the previous two titles, but you'll otherwise get a sense of déjà vu.

If you play as the Vtubers, then the game will feel familiar because you use more traditional RPG weapons. Me uses the sword, which gives her access to a few basic combos, while You is armed with a bow and arrow. Both characters are active at the same time, with the AI taking over for the one you aren't directly controlling. They both have their own energy meters, so you can swap control between them if you don't have the chance to use items to refill your health.

Considering how past action games in the series have played out, it is surprising to see Neptunia Virtual Stars falter. Sword combat is decent, but there aren't too many enemies to kill on-screen compared to the more Musou-inspired titles. You can juggle a few enemies or get them trapped in combos, but the moves feel perfunctory rather than flashy or powerful, so the action isn't too exciting. A lock-on feature is absent, so you aren't sure who you're slashing unless your target is large. Bow combat is worse, since the act of hitting anyone with an arrow doesn't carry any power. Despite the improvements with analog stick tension on both the DualShock 4 and DualSense controllers, aiming still feels loose and imprecise. These issues are amplified when you find other playable Vtubers and discover that you can't have them team up with you for quick switching between four party members instead of two. It's needlessly restrictive in that you can only go out in pairs, and the makeup is preset, so you always have one melee character and one ranged character.

Although the Vtubers don't feel great in combat, the goddesses are much worse. Instead of using the weapons they've had since the beginning of the series, they now sport different guns. Neptune has a machine gun, Blanc has a charge pistol, Noire has a slow assault rifle, and Vert has a sniper rifle. Unlike the Vtubers, the goddesses share one health pool, and the reserves are much smaller, so you can take on much fewer hits before expiring. They can all dash, which goes on for quite some time and makes you much more evasive in combat. Unfortunately, not only does the squirrely aiming still apply here, but it also seems like the damage output is much lower, making every enemy feel like a bullet sponge. That doesn't bode well if your favorite goddess uses a gun with a very slow firing rate.

Beyond the Vtubers and goddesses, there are a number of other issues with the combat system. The enemies lack intelligence, so performing circle strafes while using any of the goddesses is your only solid form of strategy for every foe, including the bosses. There are weaknesses that every monster has, and their energy meter takes the form of percentages that go up, just like in Super Smash Bros. Once you group enemies, it becomes difficult to read, so you'll focus on firing or slashing away. The most frustrating thing is that the enemy designs are boring. Since you're facing the manifestations of online trolls, going against meeples, snakes, and phones doesn't elicit excitement, and the desire to unleash punishment evaporates once you see who you're up against.

Neptunia Virtual Stars tries to feature more than this, but the execution isn't up to snuff. The game features cameos from real-life Vtubers, but most are commercials that plug their channel during loading screens or on video billboards. They're all in Japanese, so the subtitles are too small to be legible. During gameplay, they're relegated to power-up cubes to be equipped by both the Vtubers and goddesses. There's also the BeatTik creator, which has you creating music videos starring your heroes. With the ability to dress them up and dictate their poses, this is the closest anyone gets to the Producing Perfection spin-off from the Vita. It's fine for what it is, but when coupled with the rest of the gameplay, it isn't much of a bright spot.

The presentation matches up with what people expect from the series. The cut scene graphics are clean for both the 2D illustrations and the 3D models, but there seems to be an issue with Noire's hair constantly shifting to her left. During gameplay, the environments sport a decent amount of basic reflection and lighting effects. The characters don't feature that much detail due to the camera being pulled so far back, but even at that distance, the animations lack fluidity. As for the sound, the music is the typical high-energy anime flavor that the series has sported. The voices are still good, but fans of the dubbed cast will be disappointed that they haven't returned. Like the cut scenes, the voice work borders on irritating, as every action produces a vocal response that can become grating when you have someone like the garrulous Neptune.

Neptunia Virtual Stars is a tough game to recommend even for the fans. The regular cast of characters remains as engaging as ever, while the newcomers fit in quite nicely. The story is a nice take on parodying the current state of the internet using the unique viewpoint that the series has carved for itself. Beyond the overly long cut scenes, the gameplay is dull despite the variety that the title and minigames try to provide. While this game won't attract any newcomers, hardcore fans might want to dabble with this after a very deep discount.

Score: 4.5/10

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