Look upon my cards, ye mighty.
I am no stranger to the Hyperdimension Neptunia series, having played nearly every entry in a series that, even after dozens of hours, I still find hard pressed to call “good.” The core conceit was what originally drew me in; what if video game consoles and companies were instead lesbian anime women? A compelling narrative to be sure, and while their satirical skills aren’t exactly the most in-depth, I found myself amused by their genericized JRPG plotlines inundated with the sort of inside baseball jokes that people who play games are actually familiar with (rather than the typical vague allusion to Mario or leveling up that most media serves up). As time has gone on, however, the novelty wore off and it became more of a junk food type indulgence, something to whittle away the time with while watching a show or some other low stakes activity.
If you’ve been online at all in the last year, chances are you’re familiar with the Vtuber boom of 2020, where streaming video games finally became “cool”. Somehow faster than anyone else (probably because the series in general runs on a development cycle of maybe a year max) Compile Heart caught onto this wave and decided to make an entire game about Vtubers, filling said game to the brim with appearances from the real ones in increasingly bizarre ways. Neptunia Virtual Stars is the first Neptunia game in ages where I actually sat there absorbed in disbelief relatively consistently, and is genuinely one of the most ridiculous video games I’ve seen maybe ever.
The story of Neptunia Virtual Stars revolves around an entire planet dedicated to the existence of online content being invaded and harvested by an army of “Antis”, who are led by an evil anime woman and her squad of CEOs. Each of these CEOs are tied to a specific type of web content: there’s a phoenix in charge of causing flame wars on fake Twitter, there’s a talking hamburger who’s in charge of fake Yelp, a big robot in charge of managing MyAnimeList… you get the picture. All of the Neptunia characters and a few new original Vtuber characters made just for this game get summoned to help put a stop to it and become the next big streamers to save the world.
Some of that probably sounds silly, and yeah, it is, but by and large most of the game’s narrative is insufferably boring, even by Neptunia standards. There’s this need to over explain quite literally everything that just gets ridiculous, and honestly it doesn’t even make sense in the first place. I don’t know who exactly the writers thought the target market was for Neptunia, but for some reason even though it’s a game about Vtubers, arguably one of the more deep-level concepts in modern day society, they spend literal minutes explaining the concept of Twitter multiple times. Like, this is the same game that lets you put the Xanthous Crown from Dark Souls on one of your anime girls! For a series that is generally about deep pulls from the Japanese game industry, how would anyone who signed up for this need to be educated like a tech illiterate grandfather?
It’s genuinely a shame so much of the story is wasted on these overwrought explanations, because the topics that are flirted with at times can be genuinely surprising. Each chapter’s final boss, the aforementioned CEOs, are driven by a genuine issue in modern media consumption currently being reckoned with. The fake Twitter world is struggling with poor moderation, specifically with regards to how the algorithms they designed push which narratives to the forefront and how hard it can be to get real information or push past the worst actors in a situation. Fake Game Industry World is struggling with both insane developer crunch and the untenable power structures of game design management, while the print-based media world quite literally has all of the main cast come together to destroy a man who’s filled the world with exclusively isekai harem light novels. It’s crazy that there’s actually a real game talking about these issues, and while it’s generally played for laughs, these are issues that you hardly ever see fictional works attempt to dissect and consistently be on the right side of. I just wish that more time could have been dedicated to more ironic swings at these topics instead of Neptune completely flabbergasted by the concept of a fast food review.
In terms of gameplay, Neptunia Virtual Stars is comparable to several of the existing Neptunia spin-offs, which deviate from the series’ traditional JRPG gameplay in favor of an incredibly simplistic hack and slash format. You alternate between playing as series’ protagonist Neptune and her three console-based friends who have guns and slide around all Phantasy Star Online style and the game’s completely original Vtuber characters who have more classical weaponry like swords and bows. I’m not entirely sure what the intention with this design is, since there are no enemies or mechanics that require switching between the two sets of girls, but that means that you can pretty much just play the entire game as whatever girl you happen to like the most (which I did). This is pretty common with the Neptunia series, as the main series boasts party member counts that can reach into the 30’s and there’s no way in hell you’re ever going to have a reason to use more than a few, but it felt extremely strange to have all of these girls just a button press away with absolutely no reason to even think about using them.
Where Virtual Stars becomes truly unhinged is with how it integrates the experience of “Vtubing” into the standard gameplay loop. As you slide across the various genericized environments, you’re gradually rescuing a slew of Real Life Vtubers who have been captured by the Antis and imprisoned in magical cubes. Once you save say, Hololive’s Inugami Korone, she will become available as a constant summon, appearing in a small tv box on the right side of the screen occasionally to say some nonsense and then cause a huge explosion. She will also appear on the various monitors scattered throughout the game world, cheering you on when you do a combo or telling you when there’s a treasure chest nearby. There are over 60 real Vtubers scattered across the game, and each time you rescue one they’re added to these mechanics, meaning you’re constantly barraged by a horde of anime women who are completely aesthetically different with wildly different audio quality, and it’s completely insane to me. They even appear on the game’s various loading screens to tell you to go to their channel on YouTube to like and subscribe, like, holy shit.
If I were to describe Neptunia Virtual Stars in a single word, it would perhaps be full sensory overload. Aside from the Vtubers popping in constantly, there are also little chat messages filling your screen basically nonstop. Each of these messages are incredibly true to an authentic Vtuber’s chat, with a million “LOL!”s, marriage proposals, and all the backseat gaming you could ask for. It’s completely unreal, and much like the subject matter the game’s narrative flirts with, this depiction of a real world thing that tons of people know about but no fiction seems to even reference in a realistic way is incredibly fascinating to see.
Each of these individual aspects on their own would make for a generally boring game, but together they elevate what is still a pretty basic and simplistic experience into an overwhelming visual and auditory blast. I barrelled through the game relatively quickly (it’s not long, somewhere in the ballpark of 10-15 hours) just because I was so drawn in by seeing whatever the hell was going to happen next or what ridiculous new Vtuber I was going to learn about next. Did you know that there’s an official Fist of the North Star Vtuber named Heart who is just a generic Fist of the North Star man? Did you know there’s a Vtuber who’s just a tiny girl in a ghillie suit named Ghillie-chan? It’s incredible, the world is an amazing place.
That all said, there are more than a few bizarre problems with the game that stand out in egregious ways. First is the game’s performance, nothing out of place for the Neptunia series, but the character models and environments are pretty blurry, and a framerate that dips into the tens at times can be pretty nauseating. More egregious, is that this issue with framerate even affects the timing in the completely unnecessary rhythm game BeatTik, meaning that if you’re giving that a whirl there are plenty of times where you’ll miss a note just because the game got hung up on rendering the dancing anime woman which would be pretty annoying if there was actually any reason to play the mini-game at all.
There are several aspects of the game where you just sort of sit there and go “why is there so much work put into this” or “why does this feature exist” because there’s really no reason to even bother putting the time in to interact with them. BeatTik is incredibly simplistic, you just mash one button in time to one of the various minute and a half songs on the game’s soundtrack while one of the Neptunia girls dance, and for some reason there are like 5000 items in the game all tied to increasing your score here. I didn’t use a single one of these items, and finished the entire reward tree in like, six total songs. The rewards weren’t even useful in the game proper, just more song options or minigame buffs so I was just sort of like. Okay?
“Okay?” might actually be a pretty common thing you say in Virtual Stars, because there’s a ton of things that just sort of arbitrarily happen. Take the third duo of original Vtubers to join your party around halfway through the game. While the first four girls are playable, these two are consistently present in the story, but completely unplayable, even in the rhythm game. It’s bizarre, and the story only acknowledges this at one point by having the Goddess of the world say “oh yeah I forgot to give them weapons, sorry!” These characters are around for most of the game’s story too, but again, since they aren’t playable, they can’t really meaningfully interact with the story in any real way. It just sort of feels like they were content that was meant to be cut but the developers were just sort of like “You know what, no, you’re putting my damn OCs into the game so help me!”
In the end, I still can’t really come out here and tell you that this is an amazing game in terms of the traditional quality one would usually judge a game by, but in terms of the audacity of its existence, this is easily one of the greatest games ever made. One of the fake Vtubers they made for this game is an edgy goth girl reviewbrah-style Vtuber, and that concept alone is worthy of a goddamn trophy. If you’re the type of person who is fascinated by these sorts of bizarre time capsules or open societal discussions, then you might find yourself just as confused and mesmerized as I was.