To bravely botch!
After several years of keeping the Neptunia label alive and healthy with (basically) annualized game releases and additional multimedia ventures, Compile Heart and Idea Factory sought to shape things up with the series and co-developed a new project with the Quebec-based Artisan Studios. It was a rather brave venture considering how infamously poorly a lot of Japanese and western collaborations went a generation prior, but it would assuredly make for a fresh take on the series. Which it was, as Super Neptunia RPG is a considerably different Neptunia game, both visually and mechanically… but it’s not a particularly good one.
Super Neptunia RPG Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), PS4, Switch
Developer: Artisan Studios, Idea Factory, Compile Heart
Publisher: Idea Factory International
Super Neptunia RPG is set in Gamindustri, a vague proxy for the Japanese games industry as of the late 2000s, where the world is controlled by four goddesses, Neptune, Noire, Blanc, and Vert, all of whom hold the domain of their own nations. A premise that, at least in the first game, was used to spark animosity between the four, but as the series went on, it mostly evolved into the adventures of four leading goobers and a massive supporting cast as they fight against some maniacal super threat that wants to demolish/conquer the world for various reasons.
Super Neptunia RPG specifically casts the main four heroines as a group of amnesiacs who enter Gamindustri after it has come under the control of a regime by the name of Bombyx Mori and their four leaders. And following a brief stint of working for the group, titular heroine Neptune begins her quest to fight against this oppressive power by following the advice of the newly introduced Chrome and reuniting with the Goddesses, her old friends, and some new friends along the way.
It makes for a fairly standard JRPG story, but one with the flare one would expect from the Neptunia series. Character dynamics are solid, the English performances have the charisma you’d expect behind them, the banter is humorous, and while the story, in general, is very light, it serves as a good enough motivator to keep the game engaging. …At least to a certain point.
The story of Super Neptunia RPG is one that I find increasingly more perplexing the more I look back on it, reviewing its attempts at worldbuilding, the justifications of its antagonists, and the intention behind the character of Chrome. It wants to pay tribute to the series and reimagine the world of Gamindustri into something almost completely unrecognizable visually. It wants to create a story more strictly and directly about video games, with much of the storyline focusing on the debate between 2D games versus 3D games, but it fails to provide any compelling reasons why 2D games are superior or why Bombyx Mori wants 3D games to be erased from history. And it wants to pull a deep cut by referencing a character only seen in the true ending of Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth1… but fails to make who she is clear to all but the most diehard fans, and her placement in this world is not entirely consistent with what was shown in Re:Birth1. I mean, not that anything is truly consistent between the Neptunia series, as every other game takes place in its own timeline.
It is a bout of overambition and underperformance that I don’t really understand. How can you write a story without devising clear justifications for your antagonist beyond ‘I don’t like this thing because it’s not the thing I like’? How can you make a game that pays tribute to a series, but gets something as basic as the arrangement of the world map wrong? Why go to the trouble of including a fifth protagonist unless you are going to clearly explain their origins in detail when the game is so clearly designed around a party of four? Why is every single person in Gamindustri a game developer who pays their taxes by creating games for the leaders of Bombyx Mori to play?
I can only imagine that this was the end result of numerous rewrites and revisions during game development or letting certain people pitch in ideas that really do not gel well together. Such as how the game does feature a prolonged Pokémon parody by the name of Bokemon, a term for captured monsters used by a pair of sisters. How the staple supporting character Histoire can now turn back time for some reason. Or how the leader of Bombyx Mori has the same powers as Bowser from Super Mario Bros. and turns people into bricks, which the cast largely forgets about after 30 minutes or so. There is no shortage of ideas here, but they are thrown about with a reckless disregard that undermines whatever the developers truly wanted to do with the story here.
I would love to say that the game is far better thought out and realized with regards to its gameplay. But nope! From its most obvious level, Super Neptunia RPG’s gameplay trappings are lifted from 1999’s Valkyrie Profile, a side-scrolling RPG with light exploration-driven platforming that used the four face buttons of the PSOne controller to control the four party members in combat and perform combos in conjunction with abilities. Super Neptunia RPG meanwhile is a side-scrolling RPG with light platforming, lighter exploration, and a battle system that uses the four face buttons and two primary shoulder buttons to control the four party members in combat.
This sounds like a novel system, but I need to pause and clarify that Super Neptunia RPG lacks a battle menu system, and the only menu that the player can pull up is an item menu. This means that the core skills and attacks the player uses throughout the game range from limited to very limited. A party of 1 only has access to 1 skill, a party of 2 has access to 4, a party of 3 has access to 9, and a full party of 4 has access to 16 skills in total.
It is a curious system, especially given how long it takes before the player has access to a full party of 4, and one that severely limits the player’s options in combat, as if they do not have skills equipped, then they may as well not exist during combat. And for a game where there are 9 unique element variants and nearly 100 different skills, you can probably see what limiting the number of skills the player has access to in combat might be a bad idea.
Well, good news! The skill system is actually even more limited than I insinuated. You see, players switch between sets of skills by changing their formation using the shoulder buttons. Formations are specific roles for your entire party that can be switched to at any time, and all contain their various passive effects and a limited pool of usable skills. While certain skills are universal, such as normal attacks, most can only be used when in a certain formation, meaning that you cannot use offensive magic in the heal formation, and you cannot use elemental melee attacks when in the magic formation. This distinction makes sense conceptually, but in execution, it can severely limit the player’s approach to combat as you need to always have access to all 9 elements in combat as you never know what any given enemy, or boss, will be weak to. And I do mean need, as I have never seen a game where elemental weaknesses are as important as they are in Super Neptunia RPG.
In lieu of an MP system, your party’s actions are limited by a steadily rising amount of AP that is cashed in to perform moves. When you select a neutral attack, the AP is consumed, when you perform a move the enemy resists, you lose more AP than normal, and when you use a skill that the enemy absorbs, then you lose even more AP. But, and this is the most important detail, when you use a skill that the enemy is weak against, you get all the AP you spent back, allowing the player to repeatedly spam the button corresponding to the skill the enemy is weak against.
Or, in other words, and to be reductive about the entire combat system, if you use a skill the enemy is weak against, just keep spamming that skill, and periodically switch over to another formation and heal with the extra AP you are saving, you can win 95% of all encounters without needing a hint of additional strategy. There is no need for buffs, no need for casting elemental resistances, no need for anything other than spamming elemental weaknesses, and basic healing. Meaning that even though this system is incredibly limiting, restrictive, and genuinely not fun to use for the first few hours, as the player doesn’t have access to more than a few skills they can use in combat, it does not actually matter.
Oh, but that is not even the best part. Or the best parts, I should say. For as much guff as I will give the combat system, I need to lavish it with praise for the most hardcore fast forward system I have seen in any RPG, moving the pace of combat by a factor of at least 4 by holding down the secondary left shoulder button, and for making the weaknesses of every enemy accessible by pressing the left menu button (touchpad, back, or minus). It trivializes an already trivialized system, makes it incredibly easy to grind through enemies, and minimize the time spent in combat.
But what if the combat could matter even less? What if it meant less than nothing, and button-mashing was truly all one needed to do to get through even the endgame super bosses? Well, allow me to introduce you to abilities, a series of passive boons that can be selected using ability points and, just like skills, are learned by equipping pieces of equipment until the character learns and internalizes the skill/ability in a manner reminiscent of 2008’s Lost Odyssey. Like with active skills, most of these passive abilities are not particularly useful, but as the game goes on and the player gains access to the ability to use skills for half AP, to automatically regenerate health every few seconds, and eventually absorb all damage, the benefits accumulate, and it becomes all too easy to feel like an unstoppable being of mass destruction capable of defeating the final boss within 7 seconds.
…Which I think is my main takeaway from the combat in Super Neptunia RPG. It is annoyingly limited for the first 10 hours, easily exploitable during the middle 10, and during the final 10, it’s a joke, and I jovially mashed my way through it, feeling like I had broken the system and getting a kick out of it. Despite all of its shortcomings, there is the kernel of a unique and creative battle system buried deep in the marrow of what the developers created here. But the system here simply is not designed around its strengths or limitations and serves as a prime example of how to not make an RPG battle system.
This is especially surprising as Artisan Studios prides itself as an RPG developer, so seeing them put out something with so many ideas but such a shoddy implementation is surprising. Though, I suppose that it is equally surprising to see artwork that is so… inconsistent. Backgrounds are gorgeous fantastical landscapes that are impressive not only in their detail but their distinct art direction, breathing new life into what could be a trite deluge of overly familiar environments. The characters look like animated concept art, doing a great job of remaining on-model while routinely expressing their personality with small gestures and poses. While clearly developed from different sources and operating on different style guides, they manage to gel together rather well into something visually cohesive.
However, I cannot say the same about the enemy designs, which aim to meet a middle ground between the western looking backdrops and the anime characters doing battle with them. Something about their shading, proportions, and general design puts them at odds with the human characters, and while I did get used to them after some time, even something as simple as the dogoo enemy just looks wrong when looking at them side by side against their prior appearance. The style guide is mostly maintained, but their ears are ruffled and uneven, their mouth line is thinner, and something about them just strikes me as far less adorable. However, even if the enemy designs were a bit more consistent, they simply are not as novel or immediately memorable as the usual deluge of enemies that have been recycled throughout the Neptunia series of enemies over the years. Which begs the question as to why only the dogoos were carried over when just about everything else could have been brought over to give the game a more distinctively Neptunia look.
The same sentiment of needless change can also be levied towards the soundtrack, which was handled by Mages Inc., and consists of a more low-key instrumental score as opposed to the more upbeat and booming score seen in prior titles. Nothing about the game’s tone really necessitates or encourages this change, and while the soundtrack is certainly good for what it is, it does not match the energy and zaniness seen throughout this Super Neptunia RPG. If anything, it just undermines it.
These are both fairly minor grievances in the grand scheme of things, and my biggest criticism to offer Super Neptunia RPG in regards to its presentation is undoubtedly its user interface. Battle sequences use their screen space horribly, relegating essential information to the pause menu instead of putting it along the top and bottom edges of the screen. The primary menu does not match the aesthetics of a moe anime game about video games girls trying to save the video game world, as it is a sea of maroon and yellow made to look like it is made from decaying parchment.
Switching out skills requires diving into submenus and keeping a mental checklist of obtuse names, what skills are available under which formation, and what the obtuse skill names actually mean. Both skills and abilities are sorted in a largely random order, making it annoying to find what one is looking for at the best of times. There are far more armors and accessories than there needs to be, making the act of searching for the right piece a core. And the game does not notify the player when a character permanently learns a skill or ability from their equipment, even though players are mechanically encouraged to changing equipment constantly to expand their collection of skills and abilities.
The menus are also very reliant on using icons to convey information, but there is no easily accessible tutorial or tip that breaks down and identifies what each formation is actually called, or what every element actually is. The latter would not necessarily be an issue if the shapes and colors were distinct and obvious enough, but they really aren’t. Fire looks like earth, dark is light indigo, wind looks like a bunch of vines, water looks like a sword slash, electricity is purple, and four out of the 9 icons are a shade of light blue. Combine all of this with just how tiny the icons are in many spots, and I wound up misreading what element an enemy was weak to at least a dozen times during my playthrough.
The story fails to meet its creative ambitions and winds up feeling like not enough people thought this plot and characters through. The banter and silly shenanigans the cast get into are as fun as they’ve always been. The gameplay is at worst an overly restrictive RPG that undermines its own unique mechanics by limiting the player’s ability to choose in a game all about strategy and choices, and at best an exploitable trash fire where you can beat endgame bosses by button mashing. The visuals and presentation as a whole have their merits and feature some genuinely beautiful background and character art, yet the game dearly could have used a presentational overhaul at some point in its development, as demonstrated by its under-baked and inefficient UI and UX design.
Super Neptunia RPG is one of those titles I am walking away from with the distinct feeling that something went wrong. Maybe it was inexperience, mismanagement, poor communication, or cultural differences in either game development or work culture. All that I know for certain is based on the final product, and the final product is a subpar mess. Which, unfortunately, is what I have come to expect from the pantheon of Neptunia spin-offs.