I like to think that I’m willing to give a majority of RPGs an honest try- the exception being fanservice-heavy titles, which are more about showing off “art assets” than anything else. I have a great deal of patience for games that telegraph their mechanics well and encourage experimentation and exploration. Although I’d never tried a rogue-like, I ended up enjoying titles like Enter the Gungeon, Heart and Slash, and Slay the Spire. I never knew to what extent I loved punishing action Role-Playing Games until I had the chance to play titles like Salt and Sanctuary, Unworthy, and Animus. There are some games that I have come across, however, that I simply cannot get behind, whether due to incompetent game design, narrative structure, or some other irritating aspect.
One of the first titles I reviewed on SwitchRPG was Fallen Legion: Rise to Glory. This 2D, choice-oriented RPG possessed a lovely art style and the makings for a truly stellar battle system, but was bogged down by its repetitive nature and poor balance. The flaws present in the game were too great for me to give it a solid recommendation. On what is almost the exact anniversary of that review, I was given the opportunity to cover Super Neptunia RPG.
What I’m trying to say here, is that history has a strange way of repeating itself.
Super Neptunia markets itself as a 2D Role-Playing Game, a title where players navigate large, multi-room environments possessing multiple exits in order to engage in combat on a 2D plane and advance its narrative. Think of a title like Hollow Knight or Odin Sphere, possessing a 2D battle system. While there are a number of town environments to explore- or at least, attempt to do so early on- the bulk of a Super Neptunia playthrough will be in its sprawling dungeons. Because the game is designed from a 2D perspective, there’s a bit of platforming to be done, with some light metroidvania upgrades to be found over the course of your playthrough.
Platforming is a little laggy, with the game responding to inputs a few frames late, but once you become accustomed to the odd delay, you won’t find traversing and engaging- or avoiding- enemies much trouble. These are filled with enemy encounters that can be approached with a symbol attack (the equivalent of a first strike) a neutral engagement (running into an enemy), or a surprise attack, when protagonist Neptune falls into an enemy or collides with her back turned. This transitions the characters to a battle format that takes place- much like everything else in the game- on a 2D plane.
In battle, an action point gauge fills steadily and constantly, and once there’s enough points for one of your four active party members to use, you can attack by pressing their corresponding face button. Although there is a combo meter and a break gauge, which fills up depending on the amount of attacks dealt to an enemy, neither of these seem to have much of an effect on the ebb and flow of combat. Despite the benefits of certain “formations,” which have a specific member of the active party taking point, the action gauge fills slowly and surely, and character actions often cost around two to three action points to execute. This results in a great deal of waiting, which is facilitated by the inability to act while an opponent is attacking.
There are some ways of avoiding the irritating amount of delay in combat- buffing a character’s elemental resistance offers an additional drain on the enemies’ own action gauge, though this mechanic is a two-way street. You can strike at an opponent’s weaknesses to gain back some action points, but in order to avoid getting your own gauge drained, you’ll need to consistently and carefully choose which skills you have equipped, a function facilitated by the game’s equipment system- more on that in a bit. If you’re feeling stressed by your enemies, you can swap in another party leader to change your formation- and formation bonuses- so that your character skills can be maximized. Neptune, for example, leads the party as a physical attacker, and grants a physical attack bonus to all party members. If you switch to Blanc, however, healing spells will be buffed.
What if a character doesn’t have the proper abilities? Depending on your equipment, you’ll be able to access certain attacks and abilities that can benefit your party in battle. Defeating enemies in combat grants equipment experience, as well, and once you’ve maxed out an equipment skill or ability, it becomes a permanent addition to your list, which allows you to swap out for more. It’s the primary and most beneficial grind that occurs in the game. However, the enemies that are present in battle often have a variety of weaknesses and resistances, so you’ll need to be mindful of what you’re up against, and how frequently certain enemies appear. The generic enemy encounter sprite isn’t a helpful indication of what you’ll be up against.
Narrative and Aesthetics
Super Neptunia RPG is a story about friendship, about 2D games, about being painfully aware of the fourth wall. It is terrible. The writing offers quips that reference “copypasta,” the one-line nature of NPCs, and the narrative structure of RPGs- namely, a hero doing good things, losing to the main enemies the first time your meet… if you’re anywhere remotely self-aware of the tropes and cliches of the genre, Super Neptunia RPG will do its best to hammer them into your head again. It is extremely cookie-cutter and cliche, but painfully aware of this, at the same time, and the localization does nothing to alleviate or make this aspect any more pleasant.
If you’re a newcomer to the Neptunia series, you might not be familiar with each character or concept. The land of Gamindustri is ruled by four patron goddesses, who are based on the four patron consoles of the real video game industry. These goddesses are the playable characters in-game, Neptune (based on the conceptual Sega Neptune), Noir, representing Sony’s consoles, Noir, representing Nintendo, and Vert for Microsoft. Though the characters and games purportedly reference a number of trends and tropes, this is hardly apparent in Super Neptunia RPG, which has these goddesses turned into heroes existing in a 2D world. Through the power of friendship, they need to fight back against Bombyx Mori, a group of antagonists with varying goals. For the most part, the slate is swept clean for these characters, as Neptune herself comments regarding her sudden amnesia at the start of the game. Even so, each character has a distinct personality, which some may or may not equate to their real-life industry counterpart. I personally did not, and that’s okay.
The story is made no more bearable by its voice-cast, whose performances are admirable- Neptune is an insufferable protagonist because she’s written that way, and her line deliveries don’t make her any more likable. That’s fine and all, but the stock lines used by characters when in-battle and in dungeon exploration (if I have to hear “like a kangaroo!” one more time when I press the jump button, I swear) make the game as a whole far more enjoyable on Japanese dubbing. No matter what audio options you choose, be mindful of the glaring inconsistencies in volume control- some characters possess extremely loud voice clips for no rhyme or reason, while others are relatively tame. On a more positive note, the music in the game is far more enjoyable. Though there’s nothing incredibly memorable about it, the tracks are pleasant enough to make dungeon exploration feel mystic and ethereal. The battle theme is memorable, but not iconic, the environmental music is equally appropriate.
Likewise, the artwork present in the game is quite impressive. Though characters only have a handful of stock animations used for specific abilities, they’re all smooth and impressively made, with some enemies having truly absurd attacks. Likewise, the enemy designs range from generic animal designs to fantastic and barely-believable. The main cast, as well as the unique enemies, receive the most attention and care, of course, though there’s little visceral feedback to a number of attacks. Characters express their distress on their face, but there’s little recoil or particle effects for when attacks deal damage, which does go a long way in making inputs feel meaningful and weighty.
Impressions and Conclusion
It has been difficult to make a sizable dent in Super Neptunia RPG mostly due to its unappealing combat and narrative. It would be one thing if either of these were strong enough to warrant the other’s mediocrity, but this isn’t the case. There are many action gauge RPGs that exist, but very few of them tie their central mechanic to the party as a whole in a way that is as limiting as Super Neptunia. To dredge up the name of Fallen Legion once more was not something I was particularly hoping to do, as that game had a lovely combat system that was hindered by several other elements of its full package.
While I recall saying that Fallen Legion would have worked just fine as a mobile title, I now feel the need to stand corrected- the combat on display in Super Neptunia RPG feels more at home on a mobile device than Fallen Legion does. It has some level of depth, but nothing tangible or enjoyable enough about it to make battles feel anything more than tedious. If the action gauge filled a bit faster, and the overall pace of combat were hastened, perhaps it would lessen this feeling, but I am simply commenting on what already exists.
What redeems the game somewhat is its extensive number of side quests and its quality of life options. Neptune and company may save at a number of crystals around Gamindustri, but these also serve as quick travel options for a player that has scoured every inch of its maps for clues. This proves useful for the game’s side quests, which range from uninspired objectives like monster slaying and drop deliveries to stranger fare, like delivering the news of one NPC’s undying love to another.
This is the true meat of Super Neptunia RPG, as the main narrative often feels as if it throws cutscene after cutscene at the player without hesitation or remorse, so these excursions into the wild can offer a nice reprieve from the cheap jokes and constant cutscenes. There are a number of rare monster hunts that offer some thoughtful strategy considerations and decent challenge, but the most important factor are the rewards they grant, offering new opportunities for Neptune and her party to gain new skills and abilities with money and equipment.
If you’re a fan of the Neptunia series, I don’t really see this title being a must-own, as its formula is very dissimilar from the main series of games, though that also might be its appeal. As it stands, the game is just a bit too unpolished and plodding to justify it as a branch that was worth investing into. Because of its amnesiac characters and premise, a newcomer doesn’t need a great deal of knowledge or appreciation of the series in order to jump in- except, it doesn’t really feel like there’s much to appreciate here.
Super Neptunia RPG feels like the junk food of its genre, something easy and inoffensive to eat, but offering no real substance and resulting in something like regret. It’s unfortunate to say, because it’s not terrible, just bland and dissatisfying enough to leave it sitting beneath more compelling and accessible titles in the Switch library.