The flagship Hyperdimension Neptunia series from Idea Factory has gone through a bit of an identity crisis over the last few years. What started as a cute and cheesy RPG trilogy about anthropomorphised video game consoles has exploded into a wide-reaching franchise with entries in every possible genre under the sun. Throughout all of these spinoffs and offshoots, though, the core focus of the series has always remained the same: a 4th-wall shattering adventure that is always on the pulse of gaming trends. While Neptunia Virtual Stars is another genre-shifting side-story, it’s tackling one of the freshest and perhaps most niche gaming-adjacent trends of all. Enter the vtubers.
If you’ve got zero clue what the phrase “vtuber” means, I’ll give you a quick rundown. Essentially, these are YouTubers or Twitch streamers who are real people with real voices that just so happen to do everything via a fictional character name and a digital anime-character avatar instead of going by their real names and sharing a webcam feed. It’s less Hatsune Miku and, since there’s real humans behind them, more like Gorillaz or, uh, Annoying Orange.
Vtubers started popping off around 4 years ago with Japanese YouTube star Kizuna Ai, but back then she and those that followed suit were mostly doing the sort of cutesy scripted vlog-style things you’d expect from regular YouTube folk. In the last year, there’s been a second vtuber boom thanks to a shift in style that sees dozens of independent streamers or streamers from collectives like Hololive doing long-form Twitch-style gaming streams. Vtubers might also record original music or do special digital concerts, so it’s become a big pseudo-idol experience that’s catching plenty of wind outside of Japan in recent months.
If nothing else, Neptunia Virtual Stars is an incredibly faithful love letter to the entire vtuber subculture. This series has always had really genuine connection to the subject matter they parody and adapt, and that remains true with this game. When a digital world fuelled by Content gets invaded by a destructive swarm of Antis (literally Japanese slang for vtuber trolls and haters), the goddess of that world, Faira, sends out a last-ditch emergency broadcast to other dimensions to find heroes who can help save her world. Her signal reaches our familiar crew of Neptunia protagonists – Neptune, Noire, Blanc, and Vert. It also reaches the real world, though, pulling fictional vtubers Me and You into the mix to help save this digital world.
The last few games in this long line of Hyperdimension Neptunia spinoffs began to feel like they were retreading familiar territory, with all too similar storylines and repetitive use of protagonist amnesia. Neptunia Virtual Stars strikes a really fresh chord in the series canon, though. Our heroes are used to being all-powerful Gamindustri goddesses, but in this new dimension where vtubers and idols hold power, they’re basically novices. On top of that, Me brings so much fun energy to the story, with her bright and bubbly zero-braincell personality bouncing off of Neptune’s similar demeanor all too well. Not only is it refreshing to see some unique character dynamics at play, but it’s genuinely touching at times to see how the Gamindustri girls learn to respect and embrace the vtuber and idol culture.
If you’ve got that same love and attachment to vtubers, then this game goes out of its way with cameos, gags and easter eggs that are guaranteed to make you smile. When the goddess Faira broadcasted to the real world, it caused dozens of very much actually real vtubers to be sucked into the virtual dimension and kidnapped by the Anti forces. A bunch of vtubers from the wildly popular group Hololive appear in the game, including Shirakami Fubuki and Inugami Korone, but there’s also independent vtuber stars like Pinky Pop Hepburn and dozens of other indie Japanese streamers that are a part of the game in so many different ways.
You’ll often secure Vtuber Cubes by defeating certain enemies that let you use special video attacks from vtubers in battle or let you equip vtubers as stat boosts. You can go to the hub world to collect vtuber trading cards, or even watch minutes-long videos from the various vtubers in the game and then turn those videos into usable items. You’ll even see videos from these digital stars playing on screens all over each level – either goofily encouraging you to fight on, desperately screaming for you to save them, or maybe just kinda vibing out or singing a song.
As someone who’s really into the vtuber culture, all of this stuff made me so, so happy to see. I loved wandering through the hub area to buy some items, only to stop and stare at the big projection screen on the wall because a dope music video from a vtuber duo I had never heard of started playing. I also loved moving to a new area in the dungeon, only for the loading-screen to play me a video from one of my favorite vtubers Sakura Miko. The constant stream of content is incredibly impressive, and adds so much charm to the experience. I definitely wish some of these vtubers had a bigger part in the actual story, though. While Idea Factory’s own vtuber mascot Ileheart makes a brief appearance, no other vtubers get to appear in any cutscenes or story moments, which was a little bit of a disappointment.
As cool and exciting as all this vtuber stuff is, the part where you actually play the video game is a little more of a mixed bag. Neptunia Virtual Stars is an action game where your four goddess characters control like third-person shooter stars while the various vtubers you recruit engage in more melee-based up-close combat. Unfortunately, both of those gameplay schemes feel pretty bad.
The shooter characters feel like the sort of mindless and weightless bullet-spamming stuff you’d get out of something like Earth Defense Force, while the vtuber characters are just a mess. Your simple attack combos are rigid and clunky, dodging attacks rarely works as it’s meant to, and early in the game they don’t do nearly as much damage as the shooter characters do. There are a staggering variety of systems at play in combat like vtuber support attacks, transformation sequences, music-fuelled power-up modes and more, and while the variety of options is impressive, they’re all tied to combat that I was suffering through in order to get to the good fun vtuber business.
One of the more enjoyable parts of the gameplay ties into the overall presentation. You’ve got really staggering amounts of character customisation available to you, with accessories you can find and equip throughout the game. You’re able to resize and reposition them as you see fit, and then hop into photo-mode to take some snazzy pics. The game is absolutely gorgeous, so I loved having an excuse to jump into the photo mode.
All of the music is just as fun and memorable, but it’s probably going to bother a few people that this game is the first in the series without any English voices in it. It makes sense as there are dozens of guest vtubers in the game, and not only would dubbing their content be a Herculean challenge, it would be a little rude to the vtubers themselves. It’s a bit like dubbing clips of Ninja into Russian, so I can understand why they didn’t go down that route.