From an outside perspective, the sheer staying power of the Hyperdimension Neptunia franchise has been nothing short of admirable. What started in 2010 as a janky JRPG built on a single-note gimmick blossomed into a series with close to twenty distinct titles. For those who’ve been keeping up, though, the truth is that Neptunia‘s been coasting, relying on odd and often sloppy spin-offs to keep the brand in peoples’ minds. Neptunia Sisters VS Sisters, however, might be the start of a turning point.
If Neptunia Sisters VS Sisters is a spin-off game, it certainly stands above most of the crowd. Both in narrative and production, the game looks and feels like a new mainline entry. With a surprisingly dramatic plot and a genuinely interesting combat system, Sisters VS Sisters carries itself like a spiritual successor to Hyperdimension Neptunia Mk2. That’s due in part to the fact that this is the first Neptunia title in years to be led by the “2nd generation” characters: Nepgear, Uni, Rom, and Ram. Introduced in Neptunia Mk2 as the younger sisters of the more familiar goddesses Neptune, Vert, Noire, and Blanc, the “Goddess Candidates” were representations of the popular handheld gaming consoles of the time. Uni was based on Sony’s PSP and Vita, and Rom and Ram were twins inspired by Nintendo’s DS line. Like her older sibling, Nepgear was based on a hypothetical Sega portable, a would-be Game Gear for the current generation.
Except, of course, for the fact that in the 2020s, portable game consoles aren’t really “current generation” hardware anymore. These days, gaming on the go is almost entirely dominated by smartphones and related devices. The PSP, PS Vita, and DS that inspired the Goddess Candidates are all effectively “dead” in the eyes of their makers. Even Nintendo’s popular Switch console is made largely from components that’d be right at home in someone’s phone (it can rather easily be turned into a tablet, even).
Neptunia Sisters VS Sisters smartly leans into that reality. After Neptune and the Goddesses go off on a mission to the PC Continent, Nepgear and her friends are left in charge, only to be trapped and put to sleep by an unknown Ashen Goddess. They awaken two years later, to discover that the world has left them behind. The nations that the console Goddesses once ruled are under siege, steadily falling back against ferocious Trendi Outbreaks.
The outbreaks, and the monster attacks that accompany them, forced people indoors, reliant on their smartphones for connection, entertainment, and even gaming. This reliance has metastasized into addiction, and the people’s fixation on their rPhone devices steadily enervated the Goddesses, draining their all-important “shares” and weakening their ability to fight back against the Trendi menace. Neptune herself has gone missing, sacrificing herself in battle against longtime Neptunia nemesis Arfoire. Faced with a bleak reality, Nepgear and her friends need to turn things around, investigate the mysterious source of the rPhones and the Trendi Outbreaks they fuel, and restore peace and prosperity to the land of Gameindustri. Helping them are a pair of refugees: Anri, a creator from the PC Continent, and Maho, a phone-obsessed amnesiac.
There’s a lot going on in that plot setup. Even folks only vaguely aware of world and gaming news over the past few years will easily see a number of parallels and almost-crass references in Neptunia Sisters VS Sisters‘ storyline. As a franchise, Hyperdimension Neptunia was always content to leave its real-life references light-hearted, eager to get a chuckle out of folks in the know, but careful not to let the writing stray too much into commentary.
Sisters VS Sisters lets its references lie a little closer to the surface compared to other spin-offs. It’s clear that the last couple of years and the general rise of phone gaming has given Compile Heart’s writers a lot of material to work with. More than a few conversations and cutscenes in-game have a ripped-from-the-headlines quality that’s atypical even for a Neptunia game. That said, the story never makes the mistake of going too grim, even with a setting that’s arguably post-apocalyptic. The writing seems well aware that people are here to see anime girls be cute, and it doesn’t get in the way of that, even when things are at their most bleak and drama-filled.
If there’s one caveat I’d raise for the average non-fan, I’d say that Sisters VS Sisters is a bit harder to get into if you’re not at least passingly familiar with Nepgear and the Candidate Crew. If you’re absolutely new to the franchise, you might want to spend some time with the first two games in the series to get the most out of the interactions here. Compile Heart doesn’t go out of its way to reintroduce the characters, and tends to assume you know the broad strokes of Neptunia lore as it dives straight in.
If there’s a shortcoming to all this, it’s that Neptunia Sisters VS Sisters is much less of an ensemble piece than other titles. The main story and all the most interesting movements occur between and alongside Nepgear, Anri, and Maho. The other Goddesses and Goddess Candidates get some screen time, but never feel like anything other than “along for the ride”. That’s good news if you’re a Nepgear fan, but folks coming to the game to see another of their faves get the spotlight might come away less satisfied.
Buttressing this is a new approach to combat that keeps things interesting and appealingly light. Gone is the full turn-based combat system, replaced with a real-time approach reminiscent of Tales of titles. In combat, players will use their combo attacks, while charging a bar for more powerful Tactical Skills. Do enough moves, and you’ll activate a powerful, screen-clearing EX skill. In a pinch you can use the now-familiar Goddess Transformation, though it charges quite slowly, and tends to happen pretty rarely before the endgame. Combat is nearly seamless, and occurs on the map without loading a separate battle screen, making fights easy to get into and out of.
Between battles, you can tinker with your abilities in the “Combo Maker” menu, allowing you to manage the combos available to each character. Different moves have different properties, and some benefit from appearing in certain sequences. Moves also have an “AP” point cost, meaning you’ll need to budget a bit to make sure a character has enough points to pull off her full combo string. New moves are unlocked as you level up. With each playable character having a variety of moves to earn, you can keep things interesting by switching up characters and playing around with the Combo Maker looking for cool strings to belt out. That said, the game rarely puts up a credible challenge, so you’ll do these things mostly to keep from getting too bored while you move from cutscene to cutscene.
Besides the Combo Maker, a time-based “Disc Development” system lets you “craft” semi-randomized “Perks” in the form of equippable game Discs. The effects some Discs have can be dramatic in certain combinations, enabling things like animation-canceling and other fun tweaks. That said, the semi-random nature makes it a little hard to rely on for optimization.
You can also buy and equip various visual accessories, placing and manipulating them as you please to make things even sillier than they are by default.
Perhaps deadlier to Neptunia Sisters VS Sisters than any Arfoire-spawned monster is boredom. Interestingly enough, this boredom doesn’t come from the writing, which is pleasingly lighthearted and uncommonly engaging, even to non-fans, by Neptunia standards. It’s also not from the combat system, which is interesting to play around with and shows potential. The issue is the dungeons, which are mind-numbing to trudge through. There’s no semblance of level design at work in the bland, samey corridors that make up the “gameplay” areas of Sisters VS Sisters. They feel so much like mindlessly copied corridors and flat, featureless rooms that I suspected at first that they were procedurally generated. They weren’t.
At first, this is a minor issue, and easy to ignore as you move from scene to scene. After all, the “meat” of any Neptunia title is in the conversations and character skits. But it really gets to you over time. Individual player tolerances for boring dungeons can vary, of course. That said, I think even patient players will be tested when they walk through the nearly identically laid-out room for the umpteenth time, only this time the walls are a different color. Things get even less appealing when you realize that most of the side quests and a good number of main quests will force you to revisit these maps over and over.
Neptunia Sisters VS Sisters is a surprising return to form for Hyperdimension Neptunia, a game that seems to show fans that Compile Heart still remembers what made its little franchise so endearing in the first place. It’s just a shame that a lack of care for spaces threatens to undermine that sense of renewal.
Neptunia Sisters VS Sisters is available on PS4, PS5, and PC via Steam. This review is based on the PS4 version of the game, a copy of which was received from the publisher.