"I always wish the best for Neptunia, but this is one spin-off I'm afraid I must leave in the past."
As the Neptunia train moves along, it has made various pit stops along the way. Outside of the main titles, the series has experimented with multiple genres and multiple studios. However, when news came that the next Neptunia would be not only 2D but also made by a Canadian studio, it got me wondering how a Western studio would handle the franchise. Artisan Studios are huge fans of the series (evidenced by their intro video in the reveal trailer) so working with Compile Heart and Idea Factory must have been exciting for them. After months of delays, missing the projected launch window twice, and reports from Japan that this game felt rushed, I was a bit apprehensive. As a Neptunia fan, though, I still needed to play and see for myself. In the end, what I found was a game that reminded me of the first Neptunia...and that's not a good thing.
In what has become a Neptunia series cliché, especially for spin-offs, Neptune finds herself in another world without her memories. This time, 2D games are the way of the world and even the suggestion of 3D games is treated with contempt by the ruling body: the Bombyx Mori. After Neptune's first mission with the Bombyx Mori goes awry, she is saved by a mysterious woman named Chrome and told to gather allies and restore the tome Histoire for Neptune to use. Along the way, she encounters the other CPUs: Noire, Blanc, and Vert. They too have lost their memories, but they band together against the current establishment.
The overall story is standard Neptunia fare. The Neptunia plots can vary in tone, but I usually find they're lacking in terms of presenting something epic, with a couple of exceptions. This is fine with me since this is a parody series, not meant for grand storytelling. I enjoyed this tale for what it was, though I do wish they dove more into the conflict of "2D vs 3D" seen at the start. There was an opportunity to create an interesting world with the populace divided on 2D vs 3D games, but they barely scratch the surface after the initial hour or so. Speaking of the NPCs, many of them don't have much to say, literally. Most NPCs exist for side quests, and when you finish them, the NPCs that were part of the quest literally just have "..." afterwards. A couple of them will give you directions or allow you to review tutorials, but the NPCs largely just exist. Towns are hardly more than a place to recover health, get some hunting quests, and buy weapons, armour, and items.
Humour is a Neptunia series staple. After all, when you're talking about having characters based off of game consoles and poking fun of the video game industry as a whole, things can get a little goofy. I referenced how bad the first Neptunia game was in my intro but, while I found that game had many flaws, humour was not one of them. Hyperdimension Neptunia was a game where the stakes were lower: no one was dying, getting corrupted, or having the universe reject them. Recent Neptunia games that are part of the main series throw in some world-ending event that shows how the characters have to deal with failure, and that they're tortured over future decisions. In the original Neptunia, much like this game, the story is more light-hearted, which helps keep the mood high and makes humourous moments better. I believe Compile Heart oversaw the story and script themselves, so it still has that classic Neptunia feel. Whether it's Blanc having an internal argument with herself to determine which 'Comic Market' stalls to visit and dragging the others along to help buy books, or Noire getting up to her usual cosplay antics, this game is full of feel-good moments. It's helped by its script as well. While the Neptunia localization team usually goes out of its way to add in references that aren't in the original Japanese script, this time the Japanese team added them in themselves. That's not to say there weren't times the localization team added in their own references, but they were less frequent this time around.
Since this game is 2D, I imagine they wanted to experiment more with the format and added in platforming elements. Chests are your typical reward for navigating and platforming your way through the dungeons, among other collectible items. Unfortunately, the controls in general feel slippery, so jumping over large gaps or to land on small platforms requires hairline precision to make sure you don't fall. The overall design of the world makes me think this was supposed to be an adventure or Metroidvania-style game at some point, before being made an RPG halfway through development. There are a lot of elements that make me think that: the bottomless pits, the map, Neptune's Strider-like attack animations on the overworld, the platforming, the ability to get a character to boost you up to previously unreachable chests, the backtracking, and the overworld itself. I honestly think it would have been better off as a Metroidvania game. The mechanics of the overworld would have made a lot more sense, the game's pace would have been vastly improved, and the overall gameplay would not feel out of place.
Let's talk about the RPG part of the game. Battles take place in a pseudo turn-based style. I haven't played Valkyrie Profile myself, but that battle system is frequently compared to this one. You have four characters in a party, each with a different focus they use when they're at the front of the formation. Neptune is all about physical attacks, Noire will give the party a magic boost, Blanc will heal, etc. Each character has a skill they use for each placement in the formation. You can set each of these skills in the menu; so as long as you're keeping track of what formation you're in, you can prepare for a variety of situations. It's pretty tough to keep track of it all, and I often found myself sticking to one or two formations that I knew by heart. There's an action point gauge that fills slowly over time, and this gauge will determine what actions you can perform at a given time. You can combine multiple weak attacks together or wait longer for a stronger skill or an AoE attack. The combat sounds good in theory, but weaknesses here caused the start of my issues with the game.
Having elemental weaknesses seems like a good idea, but I don't like the implementation in this game. Striking an elemental weakness will give you an extra two action points, while using an element the enemy is strong against will drain two points from your action gauge. If you find an enemy weakness, you can spam attacks together and chain the enemy down until they die. When you move in for a physical attack, your character will physically go to the enemy to attack and will remain there for about 3 seconds. As long as you're there, the enemy cannot move. So, if you find an elemental weakness, the rest of the battle becomes a button-mashing marathon until it dies. I remember locking down a boss this way and it sped up the battle so it was won in under a minute. These mechanics can work to your detriment too, and it is insanely frustrating when this happens. Waiting for some of the enemies' slow battle animations had me constantly reaching for the 'speed up' button in combat. The slow combat is the part that reminded me the most of the original Neptunia, and remains one of the most annoying parts of the game.
If you've read my Neptunia reviews before, you know I love the character art, and the CG scenes are always a treat. The artist of the series, Tsunako, returned to do the character art and (I believe for the first time) the models for each of the characters. The world itself looks amazing with its vibrant backgrounds, and dungeon designs. I do have one issue with the art, and that is trying to figure out what parts of the environment I can interact with. There's a couple of times where I tried to make a jump to what I thought was another platform, but I instead fell into a bottomless pit. My character and potential enemies were sometimes obscured by the foreground, too. I thought this wouldn't be a problem in the year 2019, but I'm apparently wrong.
While I wouldn't go out of my way to listen to most of Neptunia's music throughout the series, there were at least a couple of memorable tracks in each game, like "Purple Heart Theme" composed by Nobuo Uematsu in Victory (yeah, Uematsu worked on Neptunia before). However, in this game, I don't think a single track stuck with me at all except the ones before you begin the game proper: the opening song and the main menu music. As usual with Neptunia, Super Neptunia RPG comes with both English and Japanese voiceovers, so feel free to pick your favourite. Both are good. I know the opening movie displays just the Japanese voice actors, but don't fret, as the English voices are there.
Super Neptunia RPG feels like a game that's stuck in limbo, not knowing where it wants to go. There is certainly potential here, but it falls flat of what it wanted to accomplish. I do like the return to a simpler, light-hearted story but I wish the rest of the game didn't have to suffer for it. I always wish the best for Neptunia, but this is one spin-off I'm afraid I must leave in the past.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.