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[Review] Neptunia Game Maker R:Evolution

Posted on May 19, 2024 by in Reviews, Switch

System: Switch
Release date: May 14, 2024
Developer: Compile Heart
Publisher: Idea Factory

I think the most surprising thing about Neptunia Game Maker R:Evolution is that it’s taken Compile Heart this long to produce it. Since her introduction in Megadimension Neptunia VII in 2015, the older Neptune has proven to be a fairly well-received and popular character in the franchise, and she has been long overdue for a game where she is the central protagonist. Now, finally, she stars as president of a game development studio, alongside three brand new characters, ready to depart on her own adventure. It is, I am pleased to say, one that is well worth experiencing, although perhaps not on the Switch if you have other options available.

As with most other titles in the franchise, Game Maker takes place in Gamindustri, a land where rival Game Makers – characters based upon real-life companies and developers – are locked in a constant battle for supremacy with one another. Our protagonist this time is Neptune (an older, more mature version of the Neptune from previous titles, who also features in the game) who takes up the mantle of president of a new company, Victory, alongside three “Failed Goddesses”. Like many, they want to make their mark on Gamindustri by creating games that everyone can enjoy. With well-established forces such as the First Makers, Second Sisters, and Gold Third already dividing the land between them, a mysterious and sinister presence operating behind the scenes, and their own past as failures to contend with, however, this will not be a straightforward task.

The Neptunia franchise has spent many years now building up the world of Gamindustri, and although each new game has never been entirely inaccessible to newcomers, they have often relied on existing knowledge of events from previous games, as well as a familiarity with the cast, to get the most out of the experience. Having played every Neptunia title since the first game, this is the first time I haven’t had the feeling that this game was designed solely for fans of the series: Game Maker feels like a soft reboot for the franchise in many ways, despite the subtle references to past titles and returning characters that you would expect. It’s a continuation of the series that plays upon existing relationships and themes, but acts more than any other title as a standalone entry that makes it the perfect jumping-on point for newcomers.

Neptunia Game Maker R:Evolution review

This is due in no small part to the main characters being newcomers themselves: your protagonist Neptune and the three Failure Goddesses who make up your main quartet of party members are not well-established, major players in this world. For much of the story you’re on the fringes of the central conflict and largely unaware of what is going on behind the scenes. The First Makers, Second Sisters, and Gold Third are all quite removed from the proceedings initially, and your introduction to them is gradual, allowing new players to get to know them at a more digestible pace and, most notably, to allow the story time to build up, making the later chapters and payoff for that setup feel much more satisfying as a result. Unlike its predecessors, Game Maker does not immediately throw you into a world in crisis, but gives you time to acclimatize. This might make those opening chapters feel like a slower-paced experience, particularly for returning players who just want their favorite characters in their party again, but it gives the game a chance to explore its new characters.

I felt that the new characters themselves were particularly noteworthy for their personality and charm; being representations of older systems that many players will not have played and may not have even heard of (personally I had never heard of the Apple Pippin before Pippih) they are less reliant on tropes and characteristics that are associated with their real-life counterparts than returning cast members, and although they aren’t without personality quirks – Jagaa is especially fond of random acronyms – these feel less forced than the norm, and make their interactions with one another and other characters feel more natural; as always, those who are more familiar with their real life inspirations will no doubt see the more subtle references in dialogue and appreciate them more for it.

Game Maker also explores themes new to the franchise: console exclusivity, the landscape of indie developers and how this compares to and competes with bigger budget studios, and the various motivations behind game development, are all central to Victory’s story and their place in the world. The usual themes of video game piracy, social media influence, and the host of anime and video game tropes that broadly define Gameindustri and its various cast members are still front and center; that signature Neptunia charm that defines the series that fans will know and have come to expect permeates the entire game, and the various references and callbacks to past installments are there for returning fans. But on the whole this feels like a much more relaxed narrative than is typical of the series, making it a welcome change of pace that is both refreshing in and of itself and perfect for newcomers who are unfamiliar with Neptunia.

Neptunia Game Maker R:Evolution review

All of this is backed up by some brilliantly animated, highly expressive anime-style portraits, and some excellent voice acting, with both English and Japanese voiceovers matching the animations and expressions perfectly. There is substantially more English voicework in Game Maker than its predecessor, Sisters vs. Sisters, with the majority of story cutscenes being fully voiced, which is filled with its usual cheek and charm. This maintains the standard of quality maintained by all Neptunia titles, and returning players will have their preference for either voiceovers at this point. The larger amount of English voicework makes this title slightly more accessible for newer players, however.

Game Maker’s gameplay revolves around Company Management, which meshes together many ideas from previous Neptunia titles in a way that manages to feel unique and quite satisfying, with many elements being more refined to better fit the theme. These management sim elements are a nice, often welcome break from the visual novel format of the narrative, and an interesting departure from more combat-oriented past titles. Your base of operations is Victory Plaza, which changes appearance based on the genre of game that you choose to specialize in, and can be redecorated with boost items that you’ll unlock as you progress through the story. The Disc Development system returns in a more refined format, and with a greater emphasis placed on it than in past titles. You’ll first need to select a Genre, Style, and Creators from those that you’ve managed to recruit in order to make game discs, rather than mashing together random elements and hoping for the best. Discs can be further customized with additional effects to make them more useful in battle, and later advertised with commercials, boosted to be more appealing in certain areas with trends, and refined with DLC. As you expand your company via the skill tree and unlock additional genres, you’ll be able to make a wider variety of game discs, and will also receive requests for specific discs to further improve your company. You’ll also receive a small batch of user reviews based on the rating which are a particular highlight; there isn’t much variety, but the scathing commentary you’ll receive for lower rated scores in particular never failed to make me chuckle.

The system is let down slightly, however, by the arbitrary wait times for disc creation. These are typically never longer than around five minutes and can be shortened by using Creators who specialize in the genre or style of game you’re trying to create, but it can mean in the earlier chapters in particular that you’ll spend a lot of time waiting around for games to be completed, and will often be short on CP, meaning that you’ll unfortunately need to engage in battles to get more CP to fund your expansion and disc development efforts. Initially this can be quite an unrewarding process, as you won’t be able to get very high reviews – and subsequently better discs or rewards – until later in the game, but this ties in well with the fact that you’re a very small company competing with characters who have been around for years now and, prior to this game, have always been the main protagonists. The process of carving your own niche in Gamindustri is a slow but very satisfying one.

Neptunia Game Maker R:Evolution review

Earning CP will also allow you to expand your influence into other areas of the world map, unlocking new dungeons to explore. If you’ve ever played a Neptunia title before you’ll recognize the enemies and level design, as many have been taken directly from past Neptunia titles, and are as linear and unimaginative as they have always been, are populated with the same enemies, and play the same music tracks. You’ll occasionally be required to solve a few simple puzzles to proceed, such as activating switches to open doors or pushing minecarts to gather crystals to unlock barriers, but for the most part these are twisting linear pathways with the occasional dead end. You can also occasionally stumble across NPCs who will ask you to either kill a specific number and type of enemy, or locate another NPC in the dungeon, for a small reward. Fully exploring the area will increase your popularity, improving your sales and earnings report at the end of the chapter, but this feels distinctly at odds with the rest of the more management-style gameplay, even if it does loosely tie into it.

Combat in Game Maker follows the same real-time format as Neptunia: Sisters vs. Sisters, although with some notable improvements that make it feel more refined than its predecessor. Lock-on is automatic and feels more precise, making pulling off strings of attacks easier and avoiding having your character frequently missing and striking empty air. There is once again a notable lack of challenge, as enemies are quickly stunned by attacks and the focus on chains means that you’ll be able to button mash your way through most encounters, including bosses, without any difficulty. You’ll gain levels at a reasonable pace and unlock new abilities as you do so, allowing for some greater variety as you progress if you choose. The ability to use four party members this time around is something that long-time fans of the series will no doubt welcome as well, as each game in the series has always primarily focused around a quartet of characters rather than a trio, and being forced to bench one of them due to party size restrictions has been a continual source of frustration.

Unfortunately, despite all of these improvements, Game Maker struggles to maintain a consistent frame rate during exploration and combat, with things slowing noticeably when you switch between allies in battle – something you will be doing several times during every enemy encounter to continue your chain – and when panning the camera on the field, and entering battle prompts a notable loading screen each time. Riding Neptune’s motorcycle, although faster than moving on foot, proves to be an unwieldy and unpleasant experience at the best of times, and the odds of crashing into walls (or worse, enemies that will pop up out of nowhere) is extremely high, and it is actually faster to run around for the greater maneuverability it offers. It also takes several seconds for character models to load in the menu screen, although thankfully this doesn’t stop you from accessing different parts of the menu itself. Overall, the game struggles to run smoothly on Switch, so if you have the option to play it on another system, this may be something to consider.

The Verdict

Neptunia Game Maker R:Evolution was a nice surprise. It stands out from its predecessors for its more evenly-paced narrative, fantastic new characters, and its accessibility to newer players. It is let down slightly by its sub-par performance during dungeon exploration and combat, but if you’ve been looking to jump into the Neptunia franchise, this is the perfect game to start with.

Neptunia Game Maker R:Evolution copy provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.

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