I'll admit that, upon starting up this game, I found myself slightly excited for what it would deliver. Neptunia Virtual Stars had a well-choreographed opening, and a cute enough premise (subspace goddesses protect Vtubers from internet trolls) to draw me in. I felt that as long as they could deliver on some halfway decent gameplay, it'd get a passing grade in my book. However, if it isn't clear enough from my dismissive tone, developer Idea Factory utterly failed in this regard. Before I dig into the dregs of this game, I'll give a nod to the one thing they got right: The presentation.
From a visual/auditory standpoint, Virtual Stars is never dull. Backgrounds are glossy and neon-filled with a kind of stylistic circuit board vibe, perfectly selling the player on the idea of them being in some sort of virtual sub-internet world. Even though there is a clear inclination towards fanservice, character designs are inspired, unique, and varied. Enemy designs are similarly diverse, delivering in spades on either cuteness or coolness, with the cute enemies serving as cannon fodder while the cooler ones present a more genuine threat. As for the soundtrack, the kawaii-core OST basically never misses. Battle music, dungeon tracks, text-scroll backgrounds… they're all pleasant in their own right. If there's any real critique of the game from an auditory standpoint, it's that the songs overstay their welcome all too often. I think we can agree that kawaii-core isn't the best genre of music to be left on loop, so asking a player to sit through a single bass-boosted track for more than 20 minutes on end is a bit of a stretch. And while this well-executed aesthetic left me with a shred of hope going into this game, that was quickly dashed by just about everything else it had to offer, starting with the writing.
The plot of Virtual Stars is ruined by the same, tired brand of over-complicated writing I tend to see from Japanese IPs. What could have been a simple story about web-based goddesses venturing through the digital world to protect Vtubers from internet trolls (pretty over-the-top already, if you ask me) turns into an incomprehensible mess full of multiple worlds and deities and races of beings representing emotions… it's just too much. Playing through Virtual Stars, it's pretty clear that the selling point of this game is its fanservice. In attempting to put a veil of “plot” and “character writing” over that core aspect, Idea Factory unnecessarily turns the focus away from the game's combat and visual appeal. I must have sat through about 20 minutes of dialogue (mostly on fast-forward) before they actually let me play their game. While such heavy-handed dialogue might be passable in games like 13 Sentinels or Persona, the writing here is absolutely ape-brained. Characters basically go in circles delivering either exposition or tired lewd jokes, both of which are just about as engaging to read as my college textbooks. Instead, the real draw of these dialogue-heavy segments appears to be the oppai physics that accompany them. As characters talk, their 3D models emote cartoonishly, leading their breasts to bounce and sway at every turn. Definitely not for me, but I know my audience, and I think it's worth mentioning that this feature is clearly where the money went.
Now we arrive at my biggest grievance. The actual game itself. I feel like a broken record sometimes with these cute Japanese IPs. All of them have, at least, a decently appealing hook to me before I arrive at the gameplay – then everything falls apart. Neptunia Virtual Stars is no exception. It's your run-of-the-mill hack-and-slash/third-person-shooter. There's basically no depth here: you hit things until they die. Movement is noticeably sloppy and inventory management is a bit of a headache, but other than that there's basically nothing about Virtual Star's combat to write home about, which exists as a vacuum to dump your time into and to make you feel like you're strong in some capacity. I suspect that this lack of depth is a side effect of having an unreasonable number of characters in the game, with its ungodly amount of collectible Vtubers. And I gotta say, the Vtuber aspect definitely felt pandering at times. Don't get me wrong. I'm a purveyor of Vtubing myself – Gura and Korone live in my head rent-free. In this game, though, practically every loading screen is buffered by a video of a real-world Vtuber (none of whom I recognized) asking that you subscribe to their channel. The game incentivizes the player to watch these clips by promising the reward of an item drop upon completion, and… I don't know – it just strikes me that the decision to leave a targeted ad embedded within a $50 game isn't the sort of thing many players would be happy about. The only gameplay element besides combat are the rhythm-game segments, which turned out to be another major letdown. The songs are all short, uninspired 30-second snippets, and the interesting ones are locked behind DLC paywalls. All of them are lacking though, since there is absolutely zero challenge within the Rhythm-Based “BeatTik” mode. You simply tap any input you like in time with the beat and listen as the wonky sound effect that plays in response ruins the music. I am genuinely flabbergasted at how avoidable mistakes like these made it into the final product.
And that's really my stance on the whole thing. “How is this the final product?” Maybe because it's not. Neptunia Virtual Stars feels like a rushed, half-baked experience that consistently misses the mark on being enjoyable. I can only hope that Idea Factory will spend some more time polishing the features of its next title in the franchise.