The longevity and versatility of Compile Heart and Idea Factory‘s Neptunia franchise never ceases to amaze. What began as an RPG built around the seemingly one-note joke of personifying the competing consoles of the generation is now celebrating over 10 years of steadily paced additions to the line. The latest on the block is Neptunia Virtual Stars, a new spin-off that takes the four goddesses of Gameindustri into the dimension of Virtualand for a spot of action-RPG hijinks. It’s another character-heavy game, as people might expect.
Just as the iconic quartet of Neptune, Vert, Blanc, and Noire are about to settle into an afternoon of playing games at a big convention, they’re forcibly summoned to the world of Emote. Faira, its goddess, tasks them with saving its inhabitants from an invasion. The invaders are the Antis, a nefarious and ill-mannered bunch of nobodies hell-bent on ruining Emote and destroying all its precious Content.
Right from the get-go, players are treated to Neptunia Virtual Stars‘ brand of parodic meta-humor. “Anti” is a Japanese slang term best likened to “Hater” or “Troll.” Given that the Antis are invariably written with all the rude, resentful casually cruel energy of an online jerk, it’s not a leap to suggest that Neptunia Virtual Stars has it in for the commentariat. It’s hard not to read enemies like the “LOL Snake” or “Mr. Free Account” as embodiments of fandom’s smelliest underbelly. Not to mention that Virtualand’s most precious resource, the one Neptune and company are brought across dimensions to protect, is called “Content.” It’s not unusual for a game to poke fun at its own fans, but seldom one so open about it.
Neptune and the Gameindustri Goddesses aren’t alone in their fight, though. Virtual Youtubers, or Vtubers–the online streaming phenomenon that took the real world by storm over the past few years–are providing the reinforcements. In the lead are Me and You, who form MEWTRAL, a game-original Vtuber unit pulled in by Faria at the same time as Neptune and crew. MEWTRAL head up the Vtuber contingent of the playable cast. The pair also forms the other half of Neptunia Virtual Stars‘ gameplay.
That gameplay involves the brawler format, one that blends the more traditional JRPG-style progression of the franchise with the mass combat favored by any number of so-called Musou-style titles. Players can take control of the Gameindustri Quartet or the Vtubers, traveling across the stages and putting paid to countless enemies. Each group has a different style of gameplay. The Vtubers follow the way of the sword, taking up their weapons and engaging the Antis in close combat. Meanwhile, the goddesses come to the battlefield locked and loaded with various ranged weapons. In essence, Neptunia Virtual Stars can be played either as a melee-style Musou game or a horde-style, third-person shooter. Other techniques and weapons can be upgraded and enhanced by feeding them resources gathered in the field.
Unfortunately, the feel of the combat is unexceptional at best. Weapons lack a sense of weight, and enemies generally fail to provide an interesting challenge. Characters can charge some fancy ultimate attacks, and the game attempts to spice up its larger boss battles with vocal sequences, but by and large, fighting is just a thing you do to get to the next set of character interactions or discover the next set of Vtubers. It doesn’t help that at points the game artificially gates your progress by forcing players to backtrack extensively and build up their collection of rescued Vtubers. The padding can make what should be the source of Neptunia Virtual Stars’ flavor feel like a chore.
Vtubers sit at the core of Neptunia Virtual Stars. As reported earlier, the game is full to brimming with content from real-life Vtubers, including Hololive’s Houshou Marine and Inugami Korone. Loading screens play short videos from them. Vtubers act as mission-givers throughout the game, handing out quests with short performances. They can be rescued from the field and pop up in little picture-in-picture windows to lend some encouragement or bestow a beneficial effect. Vtubers can even be equipped like gear, providing more benefits. The localization keeps up rather well. Though Neptunia Virtual Stars does not have an English dub, virtually all the Vtuber audio is fully subtitled in English.
And yet, despite being key to the premise of the game, the Vtubers feel somewhat extraneous to the proceedings. The fact of the matter is, other than Ilechan, Compile Heart’s own Vtuber personality, the real-life Vtubers have little presence in the actual narrative. Frankly, many of the Vtuber clips are essentially advertising for the various channels and companies collaborating on the game, complete with a classical “like and subscribe” call to action. The Neptunia franchise is well-known for its streak of meta-humor, and I don’t dislike Vtubers at all, but buying and playing a game that amounts at least in part to watching ads feels a bit crass. It’s also slightly surreal. Due to the staggered release of the game, some of the Vtubers who beg for my subscription in the loading screen videos no longer technically exist. The Game Club Project was shuttered in February 2021, and the characters mostly retired.
Neptunia Virtual Stars is a fascinating bit of cultural ephemera, capturing an attempt to blend the world of games with the phenomenon of Vtubers. Unfortunately, the mix doesn’t quite work. Fan of Neptunia will likely be disappointed by the flat gameplay and meandering plot and character interactions. Fans of Vtubers, meanwhile may find more satisfaction watching some Vtubers play the game than do it themselves.
Neptunia Virtual Stars is available for the PlayStation 4 and will appear on the PC on March 29, 2021.