If you know me, you know I love Neptunia. With that being said, it’s been a while since the last mainline game. The endless stream of spin-offs and remakes is starting to wear on my patience a bit, but I still have to give Compile Heart credit for constantly trying new things. Neptunia Virtual Stars is their latest spin-off — an action game with a mixture of action RPG and third-person shooter combat.
During a visit to a VR station at a gaming convention, Neptune and the other CPUs (changed to Goddesses for this game) are suddenly summoned into a virtual world by the goddess Faira of the planet Emote. Two new Vtubers, Me and You (yes, those are their names), have also been transported to this world. Faira says the reason the six of them were summoned was due to their great potential to be saviours of her world. Faira’s planet has been taken over by the forces of Obsoletia, whose goal is to purge worlds of their Content, thereby destroying them.
As a parody series, the Neptunia games are always going after popular trends in the gaming world, so it feels like a take on Vtubers is a perfect step. While just starting to take off here in the West, Japanese Vtubers can be found pretty much everywhere. Vtubers grew in popularity starting with Kizuna AI, and in 2018, Vtuber popularity reached a fever pitch. I presume this is when Compile Heart came up with the idea to make a new Neptunia game about this latest trend. With COVID-19 keeping people at home in 2020, Vtubers saw another spike in popularity, and that’s when I personally started noticing them popping up in the West. So, in a way, Neptunia Virtual Stars‘s timing is perfect.
One thing I noticed right away when starting up Neptunia Virtual Stars was the change in localization. Since this game only has a Japanese dub, the team at Idea Factory International went for a more traditional straight translation. For some, this might be a good thing since you’ll understand exactly what the characters are saying, but I’m sure many people will miss some of the quips that IFI usually throws into the script to make it more fun in English. That’s not to say the Japanese script is lacking in humour, however. Among trends the game pokes fun at: locking video content behind paid memberships and excessive ads, the glut of ‘isekai’ anime that have come out in recent years, and more.
As with most Neptunia games, the story is more a backdrop for the characters to interact with. Typically, you don’t play these games for their story — you play them for the character interactions. While the new Vtuber supporting cast is fine, I do miss the regular Neptunia supporting cast. Characters like Compa, IF, and the CPU Candidates are absent again. I find the best Neptunia games are the ones that feature those supporting cast members, as the dynamic between all of them is so strong. They make the dialogue a lot more enjoyable with all of their quips and quirks, as opposed to a new cast that doesn’t have the same chemistry with the CPUs. The jokes between the CPUs can only go so far. It doesn’t help that Me and You have the same ‘straight man-funny man’ routine like Neptune and Noire have. Hopefully, Neptunia‘s regular supporting cast are included in future spin-offs.
Neptunia Virtual Stars‘ Combat changes depending on who you’re controlling. The game splits the CPUs and the Vtubers into separate teams that you can switch between on the fly. The Vtubers come in pairs, with one focused on melee combat and the other on ranged. Playing as them is like your standard action RPG, with basic attacks and skills that you can activate with a combination of L1 and a face button. Playing as the CPUs is more like a third-person shooter, and each CPU has a different kind of gun. From a series perspective, this choice is odd since the CPUs have been in two action games before this. I would have figured the CPUs would be the ones engaging in melee combat and the Vtubers with guns or other ranged weapons. Only one CPU can be out on the field at a time, and honestly, it’s better this way. The Vtuber AI that controls whichever Vtuber is out with you is woefully incompetent. They rarely attack, run around, and eventually get hit until they die. Playing as the CPUs is the way to go to avoid silly deaths that the Vtubers cause. The CPUs have a boost skill that they can use to fly around the battlefield that almost makes them immune to damage as long as you go in a circle. They can also jump up to higher ground and shoot down on enemies with impunity. For most of the game, I was playing a third-person shooter. A bad one. It seems a lot of these smaller budget games that try to create a third-person shooter element in their game without making it the core focus have camera/controls that feel unintuitive. I could never find the right sensitivity to use that made combat feel comfortable.
Boss battles have a couple of cool mechanics, in theory at least. Boss battles play out in a kind of rhythm battle, where the ebb and flow of the music affects how well your team or the boss performs. Until the song’s chorus, you’re usually at a disadvantage, so it’s mostly about surviving until then. Once the chorus starts, you can start really laying in the damage on the boss. Bosses will drop various spheres that can provide you more health or fill up your special attack gauge. However, as I mentioned before, combat in Neptunia Virtual Stars isn’t balanced and you can simply use the CPUs to speed around the battlefield while avoiding most of the bosses’ attacks. I found the best way to tackle bosses was to run around the arena in a circle while holding down the shoot button until the boss died. When even the bosses are monotonous, you know the combat is terrible.
After 10 years of Neptunia, I’ve become accustomed to Tsunako’s art style for the series, so it was pretty jarring to see the change in art style for the game’s original Vtuber characters. The different art style stands out when you look at other games in the series. While I do like it, it doesn’t feel the same without Tsunako’s signature art. Neptunia Virtual Stars uses the in-game models for its dialogue scenes. While that is nice, some of the models don’t seem to like being popped in on-screen. Characters with ponytails like You and Noire have twitchy animations, sometimes a character’s skirt will be raised slightly when their model appears, and I feel the lip-synching isn’t as good as it should be.
As mentioned before, Neptunia Virtual Stars doesn’t have an English dub due to the inclusion of the Japanese Vtubers they brought on as special guests. I’m sure if you’re into the Japanese Vtuber scene, it’s probably exciting to see a lot of these streamers in the game. I don’t recognize any of them, but I read Kizuna AI was added in as DLC in Japan. Since I usually play this series with the Japanese dub, I still felt right at home with the characters. I will take this opportunity to say that I do like the Japanese cast, particularly for the CPUs. The only warning I’ll give is that I know Neptune’s voice could potentially grind on the ears if you’re not used to listening to her in Japanese. It took me a couple of games to get used to, and I’m sure it’s going to come as a shock for first-time listeners.
When it comes to music, that part of the game is pretty good. It’s worth pointing out that the opening song and animation was created by Vocaloid composer Jin, who wrote the famous Kagerou Daze series of songs. The background music has some cool, uplifting tunes, and the boss music is a particular highlight. Each one plays out with a song that gets you in the mood to fight. It reminds me of anime that typically play songs during exciting moments. I’m glad at least one part of this game is good.
Once again, I find myself disappointed in a Neptunia spin-off. I always appreciate Compile Heart trying different things with the series, but many don’t turn out well. I have a sudden urge to replay Producing Perfection, the other game in which the CPUs become idols. At least that game was over in three hours and had a lot of fun moments. The terrible combat ruined most of Neptunia Virtual Stars for me, and when I’m not enjoying a Neptunia game, it just makes me sad. The wait for another good Neptunia spin-off continues…