I’m not quite sure if anyone, not even developers Idea Factory and Compile Heart, really knows what the deal with the Neptunia series is anymore. What started as a simple turn-based RPG parody of the gaming landscape of the time exploded in popularity and led to a swathe of spinoffs and multi-media pursuits. It was pretty standard stuff at first, but the spinoffs kept coming, and the line between mainline and side game quickly blurred so much that it’s hard to remember the last main turn-based game in the series released way back in 2015. While Neptunia: Sisters VS Sisters steers closer to the scale and narrative scope of a mainline entry, the action-RPG is yet another sideways step for a franchise that seems scared of providing a proper sequel.
One of my favorite parts of the Neptunia series is how, especially in the earliest games, they would adapt so much contemporary gaming and nerd culture landscape into narrative beats, villains, and even main characters. The main crew of Goddesses are loosely based on gaming consoles, after all, with Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo Wii, and the unreleased Sega Neptune all represented. Neptunia: Sisters VS Sisters opens with the news of their disappearance – an unexpected danger in the PC continent called their attention, and at the same time their younger sisters and Goddess candidates track down a mysterious signal that ends up sending them to sleep for 2 years. When they wake back up, only protagonist Neptune is still missing all these years later, leaving Nepgear to pick up the pieces, investigate the threats facing the world, and track down her sister.
There are some fun bits here that poke at recent changes to the mainstream gaming landscape, as well as parts of gaming culture that the series hasn’t touched on until now. The main threat the heroes face is the mysterious rise of the rPhones – strange and constantly updating smartphones that everyone seems to own and that are loaded with mobile and gacha games that the people of every kingdom can’t stop playing. This includes the newly introduced PC kingdom, which makes sense given the rise in PC gaming’s popularity in Japan.
Instead of getting an anime girl based on a graphics card, though, the game introduces two characters who embody some of the most iconic PC gaming franchises. One is Higurashi, an orange haired axe-wielding weirdo based heavily on the horror franchise of the exact same name. The other, Shanghai Alice, is a shrine-maiden with magical bullet powers who looks, acts, and talks just like multi-media bullet-hell series Touhou’s mascot and main character Reimu Hakurei.
The references and jokes are heartwarming, and it’s something that these games always seem to get right. Unfortunately, Neptunia: Sisters VS Sisters doesn’t have as much going for it outside of these smaller moments. The game has this frequent feeling of aimlessness. You’re thrown into a story about the disappearance of Neptune and the rise of a mysterious Ashen Goddess, but without any major changes to the status quo it all ends up feeling like just another side story. These games could use a proper narrative shake-up that removes decades of spin-off baggage within the series’ continuity. Neptunia: Sisters VS Sisters simply can’t decide if it’s a spinoff or a sequel, and stays adamantly in the middle as a result.
Despite having one foot in the real of spin-off territory by being an action-focused twist on the series, there have been many other action-adventure Neptunia spinoffs, and Neptunia: Sisters VS Sisters has the worst combat of them all. You would think Idea Factory could have learnt from and iterated on a new direction for combat through these games, but each subsequent entry feels like they’re starting over. Neptunia x Senran Kagura: Ninja Wars, which I reviewed just over a year ago, was the best gameplay these spinoffs have had yet with responsive attacks, flashy combos, fun ability customisation, and characters with varied yet reliable play styles. It was a small and short game but it had addictive combat that felt like the building blocks for something greater. Neptunia: Sisters VS Sisters scrapped all of that.
What you actually get is a slower, clunkier take on the Tales style of action RPG combat – you have customisable one-button combo strings, your party of threee battles enemies inside a small arena within the dungeon, and you can swap between characters or combo their attacks and abilities together on the fly. The biggest issue with all of this is that the actual act of fighting feels awful. There’s a wild lack of responsiveness to your combo attacks, so it just feels like you’re mashing the button and awkwardly waiting for your characters animations to eventually play out. There is no rhythm or momentum to the combat, and the dry, repetitive sound design and basic animations ensure that even looking at the combat play out is a massive chore.
It’s a shame because the elements surrounding that muddy, miserable combat are a delight. Dungeons are bright and flashy, but fun to navigate, there are loads of silly and cute costume accessories to track down and equip, and the Disc system provides a surprisingly open-ended way to craft and customise sets of combat buffs and special abilities to let you really mix up your play style. Even more of a shame is how beautiful the game is despite it’s shortcomings. Characters have gotten new and improved 3D models, with vivid textures that shine on PlayStation 5. Music is fun and the dual-audio voice acting is a nostalgic treat – even if the English audio does, once again, skip a huge majority of the voiced dialogue.
There’s a lot to like in Neptunia: Sisters VS Sisters, but the flawed combat at the core of it all makes it so hard to appreciate – and for long-time fans of the series, it’s even harder to appreciate yet another underbaked action spin-off.