Anime was weird last year.
The curse of the Neptunia fan is the moral obligation of having to follow “I love those games” with “but don’t play them though.” In its 10 years the series has suffered every malady imaginable. Dismal design, dissonant music, crummy controls, ugly graphics, and reused assets have all made a home at Planeptune at some point or another. But it has at least always served as a test ground for neat ideas. The series itself started as Compile Heart’s and Idea Factory’s first foray into a model-based 3D game. Since then it has reinvented its gameplay twice, and tried every genre from Raising Sims to Beat-em-ups with its spin-offs. In recent years, with Megadimension Neptunia VII (pronounced vee two) and Cyberdimension Neptunia: 4 Goddesses Online it’s actually become a formidable experience. 9 years in, Compile Heart brings us an always unusual east-and-west collaboration with the newly formed Artisan Studios, from Canada. It’s Brave Neptune Behold Time and Space!! Ultimate RPG Declaration!!! Known in the west simply as Super Neptunia RPG.
Filling in the blessedly unaware, the Neptunia series are a bunch of comedy RPGs following personified versions of the Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft and (an imaginary) Sega console lines. They’re heavy on the references and characters directly inspired by game studios and series. This time it’s an all 2D adventure with crosshairs set on early 90s RPGs, featuring characters spoofing games like Chrono Trigger and Dragon Quest. The story begins when self-proclaimed hero and protagonist (also self-proclaimed) Neptune awakens in a town with traditional JRPG amnesia. After making a couple of jokes about NPC dialogue and the series’ staples, she ventures off in search of glory and cheap food.
Aping other Super Nintendo era games like Super Mario RPG and Breath of Fire, the gameplay is much simpler this time. At towns you can restore yourself, buy items, and take quests from the local guild. Once you venture into lovingly drawn 2D reimaginings of the habitual Neptunia locations, you’ll traverse them in a Metroidvania-inspired format, though you won’t be finding new mobility items to move forward. All progress and map completion is attained through the story. This makes the Metroidvania aspect purely presentational instead of structural. Perhaps the biggest flaw with this arrangement is the map screen itself. Rooms are all indistinct shapes and the paths you take don’t always reflect the world you walk through. Stairs that appear to lead up will actually take you further down on the map screen and exits the map insists are to the left are actually roads heading upwards. Whilst minor annoyances, they keep the dungeon crawling from being completely smooth.
This is an RPG, so eventually you’ll run into a foe in the overworld and be transported to the battle dimension. It is here where things get funky. Of all things to base this combat on, they chose a cross of Valkyrie Profile and FFXIII. There’s a constantly refilling ATB bar (here AP) that is drained by every action. Your available moves are limited by your current paradigm (or formation,) and switching regularly from offensive formations to ones focused on magic or healing is the meat of combat. Every formation has 4 available moves, one for each character and face button. You can swap out which moves will be available in the formations before every battle.
This runs into two different problems: The way the game handles parties, and elemental resistances. Every member of a party drains from their side’s shared pool of AP. That means that you cannot have Vert wait to have enough AP for a buff whilst the rest fight, because they will be draining the AP she would use for it. Though this has its workarounds, the effect is turning your party into an organised body by itself rather than a group of characters: it nullifies almost any reason to actually engage with individual enemies. It makes little to no difference whether you fight 1 or 4 or 7 enemies, as they could never act as 7 entities. Thus they become more phases of a fight than separate components of it, with the only things setting them apart being their move-lists and elemental affinities.
As for the latter, they are the key to making the combat take on any sort of rhythm. Without it battles are glacially slow, so much so that in their infinite mercy the developers added a fast-forward button right into combat. Attacking an enemy with their elemental weakness will result in a bonus gain of AP. This is how you access higher level play, such as having Neptune rain down lightning on an enemy until her AP gains can bankroll a party-wide buff or much needed healing. But this only manifests itself in higher-level encounters that outright demand a mastery of getting quick AP. For regular mobs the elemental weaknesses are devastating; the rapid gain of AP is so overwhelming that it devolves into mashing the corresponding character’s button until foes die.
This being Neptunia, there are about a dozen other systems going on but that covers the main flow of battle; however, this being Neptunia, none of the mechanics work smoothly. The game constantly stutters when you’re just walking around, often making you run into enemies or fail jumps. The engine, fittingly enough I suppose, does an old-timey SNES chug whenever there are too many things happening in battle, which makes the already fidgety input buffer for formation changes just painful. Battle transitions will sometimes only appear after just enough time of staring at a black screen to make you believe your console has crashed. The technical aspect of the game is Nepped up is what I’m saying.
Oh yeah and did I mention stats are lies? I cannot say if this is a bug, or simply a result of an absolutely galaxy-brained equation. What began with me wondering why Noire, who by all rights should have been my star spellcaster, was dealing a noticeably less damage than Blanc (who trailed her by a little bit in the stats seemingly relevant to spellcasting) quickly devolved into 2 hours of confused testing. After controlling for elemental damage, stat-boosting abilities, their own elemental vulnerabilities, and even position in the party, I could not find a way to reliably predict who would deal more damage. Mind you, there is a logic to it. It was consistent after restarting the game and warping to other areas, I just can’t find what god forsaken logic it is. I tried testing for strange hypotheses like “maybe strength and luck determine spell damage,” and I tried adding stats together. By the end I was left with a cork board full of string and the worldview-shattering revelation that Neptunia games aren’t super well made. Though it is worth noting that just playing off of elemental weaknesses was enough for me to predict the way encounters would go. So this isn’t devastating on the user end but it does mean that you’re not gonna get any of your tasty RPG number crunching.
The pacing isn’t much better either. Roughly the first 10 hours are spent gathering your party, and unlike FFXIII this game doesn’t have the good sense to make formations independent of character. Since each formation corresponds to a specific character playing with Neptune nets you access to just one (1) formation, and one attack so you’re stuck mashing X for the first two dungeons. Then you unlock two more characters, and their corresponding formations grow your move list to a whopping 9. Alas, this does not last. Like playing bloody Jenga, your party is continuously assembled and destroyed, taking with them moves and formations,When Noire leaves your party, so does your magic formation and all the moves set up for it. And when Vert joins, you get to set up the formations all over again! And the UI isn’t even helpful for it! Can’t you tell I’m having fun?!
The game isn’t without its graces, however. As your movelist expands enough that you can respond to most situations’ elemental demands, it’s easy to get caught in a loop of grabbing elimination quests to go fight cool-looking monsters that will actually keep you on your toes and force you to grapple with the intricacies of combat. Then you find yourself passing around the same leather belt between characters so they all learn “Auto Regen” like the last cigarette at a party, and buying weapons to learn new, more powerful spells, and it can take on a very compelling rhythm. Just keep in mind you’re required to play for a while before reaching this point.
The usual Nep charms return as well.The very same ones that keep people like me coming back to the series just like your uncle who keeps eating that hot sauce that makes him cry at every family dinner. The most readily apparent one is the art style, as always led by the wonderful Tsunako —on her last game as a full-time employee at IF. The team at Artisan Studios was then lead by French artist Mitsu to realise dozens of gorgeous backgrounds and models. The usual VN segments are replaced with the same cute little chibi figurines seen in gameplay, running through a reasonable selection of animations. It’s extremely nice to see these characters emote so physically after so many years of Visual Novel featuring only facial expressions. Albeit this is most appreciated during gameplay, where the lovely chibi characters replace the usual unremarkable 3d model work. Nep RPG is all gorgeous, shiny drawn assets all the time. It is a joy to walk around the Westwind Valley or Planeptune’s Sakura Road and just gawk. For a series that has used its art as one of its main selling points since the start, it has never looked quite this pretty before.
The story and writing are another aspect of these games I love, but I understand if you never want to talk to me after experiencing them. No, it’s fine, I get it really. I did this to you, you deserve better. The story is usually simply an excuse to fit in a bunch of references about a specific moment in gaming history the developers have chosen to have a bit of a larf at. This time the jokes are about the transition from 2D games to 3D back in the late 90s and a group of 2D enthusiasts trying to hold back the tide.
Though “reference-heavy video game humour” is a road very well traveled, I’ve always found Neptunia’s way of doing it to be extremely refreshing. It’s often extremely sincere, and less interested in easy dumps or heavy snark. Its targets usually end up being the gaming community itself, such as the foolishness of the console war or the damaging effects of people trying to ignore real life problems by indulging in games. For Neptunia, games are first and foremost a source of joy and love to be shared with friends. Then some other times they just have you collect flowers for a girl named Kaineh or fight “Bokemons” and I giggle like the dummy that I am. This is, after all, a series whose most distinctive enemy is a slime with dog ears due to a Japanese pun.
The Neptunia series was born as a love-letter to the JRPG in what was perhaps its most unpopular moment. It embraces games that were panned for good reason. But unless you’re already a true believer, you probably need some sugar to make the medicine go down, and the beginning hours of Super Neptunia RPG are not going to provide it. Though I greatly enjoyed the game, I cannot recommend it outside of fans or those greatly taken in by the art style. Nep RPG falls short of its spin-off predecessor 4GO and the mainline VII. These are currently held as the peaks of the series, and I would heartily recommend them to newcomers and people looking to dabble into spin-offs alike.
It’s hard to tell how much of this game’s triumphs and failures are due to Artisan Studios’ participation. None of the technical hiccups are foreign to CH games, and the beautiful art does draw heavily from the established Tsunako style. So it’s same ol’ same ol’ here at the Nep fan club. Do you remember our motto? Yeah, that’s right! I loved the game! Don’t play it! I, for one, will be looking forward to the upcoming Neptunia e-Ninja, but you dear reader, I am willing to bet you could be doing much better with your time. Until we Nep again!