Neptunia Game Maker R:Evolution Key Art

Review: Neptunia Game Maker R:Evolution (Sony PlayStation 5)

A new cohort of cute anime girls join Nep-Nep and the crew.

10 mins read

On the one hand, the extended Hyperdimension Neptunia property, which has been kicking around since 2010 and the PlayStation 3, has become a familiar comfort. With more than one game released every year (some are remakes, yes, but this is release #26 bearing the Neptunia name), you will by now know exactly what to expect each time you put the controller in your hand. There will be silly, self-aware humour that pokes fun at various elements of the video game industry. There will be plenty of fan service. And there will be a JRPG at the heart of it.

More recently, however, it seems like the series has been going through an identity crisis. For one thing, the pun at the centre of the original games – that the characters were anthropomorphised versions of the various game publishers, and the stories were the Sony/Nintendo/Sega/Microsoft “console wars” – was never going to sustain the series indefinitely. Idea Factory needed to find ways to redefine these characters, and so far through the many spinoffs and efforts to kick-start new directions they’ve struggled to find a new voice.

A potentially even bigger problem is that the teams at Idea Factory have also apparently felt the need to modernise how these games play, and the last trio of spinoffs (Virtual Stars, Sisters Vs Sisters, and now Neptunia Game Maker R:Evolution) they’ve tried to replace the turn-based combat system with various action systems. This has been a great pity because the turn-based Neptunia games played cleanly. They weren’t innovative, but they were very playable. The action combat systems on the other hand make the budgetary limitations that the games are developed under clearer. They still work, but it has always surprised me that Idea Factory would try and punch above their weight with this when it had a perfectly proven system already sitting there.

Neptunia Game Maker R:Evolution Screenshot

Then again, even when the game’s turn-based combat hit its peak, you weren’t really playing Hyperdimension Neptunia for the gameplay. It has always been about the humour, characters, and fourth-wall-breaking satirical deconstruction of the video game industry. Game Maker is possibly the strongest that we’ve seen in this regard since the last “proper” Hyperdimension Neptunia (VII). That’s perhaps because it’s a return to something that the series does best – a simple plotline allegory for the video game industry. The stars of the show this time around are three “failed Goddesses,” representing consoles that failed in the real world (see if you can guess which – the characters’ names are Pippah, Jagaa, and Reedio), who are determined to make their comebacks by making great games and building a great game company out of that (note to Microsoft: take notes).

Luckily for these three girls, dimension-hopping elder Neptune just happens to land in their reality as they set out to do this, and they immediately hire her as the director of the company. And so the quest starts. In practice, you’re doing exactly the same thing as you would in other Neptunia games – delving into dungeons, beating up monsters, and following a generally linear story (though some plot beats through the middle can diverge depending on the order that you do things). Clearing dungeons means that you’re “opening trade routes” for your games this time around, and back at home base you do get to build up your company in a (very light) simulation touch that was perhaps the result of the developers playing a little too much Game Dev Story and then deciding to simplify it for this game.

Choosing the right developers to make games results in discs and software that can boost your character’s stats, (so, yes, a straightforward upgrade system), and you will need to engage with this system because the difficulty levels do have a habit of spiking at points throughout the adventure. All of this is wrapped up in a narrative that is as amusingly self-aware as ever, and you’ll eventually get to meet all your old favourites to go with the new crew.

Neptunia Game Maker R:Evolution screenshot

There’s a good quote by author, David Forster Wallace, that sums up why the Neptunia series is so easy to get along with: “Advertising that makes fun of itself is so powerful because it implicitly congratulates both itself and the viewer (for making the joke and getting the joke, respectively).” Neptunia isn’t advertising, but it carries a similar style of upbeat positivity, and makes everyone involved feel clever because they’re in on the joke. There are times when this series – and Game Maker itself – can actually be pretty savage in its observations, but because it’s all done with a wink and a nod at how everyone is in on the joke, it’s not going to be seen as particularly severe in what players are meant to take away from it.

The flip side to that is, of course, much like advertising, there’s nothing particularly profound about Hyperdimension Neptunia games, including Game Maker. The observations are worth considering, especially in the context of a games industry that is just so totally messed up right now, but you’re also not going to be challenged to think deeply before or after playing it.

What you will remember are the character designs and personalities. Thanks to Tsunako (the original character artist) returning to work on the series after a break, every character looks excellent and distinctive. Enemies are also charming, and many familiar faces have returned, though the newer designs are perhaps not quite as off-the-wall nonsense as we used to see – many of those older designs persist, of course, but the parodies are becoming somewhat subtler over time.

Neptunia Game Maker R:Evolution screenshot

When you do get into combat, you’ll find that it’s a pretty pacey affair, and this is largely due to the chain system. Enemies do tend to have a lot of health and are difficult to take down with standard combos from a single character. However, after landing a series of consecutive hits, a little prompt will pop up, telling you that you can switch to another character and continue the chain. This also boosts damage and so, by the time that all four characters in battle have been chained together, you’re dishing out some pretty solid damage.

There are issues with this. For one thing, the AI is woeful and both allies and enemies will, at times, look like they’re standing around and doing nothing. There’s also a lack of feedback for both dishing out damage and taking it in return, meaning that it’s hard to play tactically or use manoeuvres, and so most combats devolve into button mashing until all the enemies fall down. As long as you can keep the chain going, you’ll be right. Slow down, however, and you can be in for a world of pain.

One new element that’s rather neat is the bike-riding feature. Older Neptune has a motorbike, and you can use that to zoom through levels, challenge enemies for special awards, and just generally look cool. The next Neptunia game (which I don’t believe has a Western release just yet), focuses on bike gameplay, so we’re probably getting a teaser for it here.

Neptunia Game Maker R:Evolution screenshot

Neptunia Game Maker R:Evolution is an admirable effort to find a way of introducing more characters and an all-new plot-line, while also in some ways going back to the fundamentals in terms of storytelling and structure. I do wish the Idea Factory people would give up on this action combat system when the turn-based approach was less obviously affected by the budget, but the usual gorgeous fanservice art and antics of the characters kept me smiling throughout.

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Matt S. is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of DDNet. He's been writing about games for over 20 years, including a book, but is perhaps best-known for being the high priest of the Church of Hatsune Miku.

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