Platform: PlayStation 4
Developer: Compile Heart, Tamsoft
Review Date: 1/3/20
A story of love, friendship, good vs. evil, and eggplants. Four young women from the different nations of Gameindustri are given early access to beta test a new online game called "4 Goddesses Online." In the game, the characters have to wake up four goddesses to save the world of Alsgard from being destroyed by the Demon King, but a cheater shows up and a code cracker threatens to shut down the entire system. The first act has you take out the cheater, while the second act pits you against the Demon King and his minions.
None of it makes any sense, but the game realizes this and embraces its own silliness with clever self-awareness. The game's protagonist, Neptune, constantly breaks the Fourth Wall to explain things, introduce characters and concepts, and bring the player up to speed on the entire history of the Neptunia series. It's the first game in the long-running series to use the Unreal Engine and feature real-time combat, which sparked my interest because I don't enjoy turn-based strategy games. I don't really enjoy RPGs, either, but the characters and premise intrigued me enough to check it out.
The game itself is a pretty simple and straight forward murder simulator. There's a hub city where you can buy and sell supplies, upgrade weapons and armor, and accept quests. Outside of the city, you plunder resources and cheerfully kill everything in sight, which increases your experience and opens up new and more difficult areas. Since the game is simulating a group of people playing a MMORPG, there's a lot of lingo that I wasn't familiar with, and being a JRPG, there's A LOT of talking. The massive amount of dialog is mind-boggling, and what's even more impressive is that it's fully voiced. There were only a handful of conversations that weren't voiced, and I'm guessing those were bugs. Thankfully, the writing is very good and the voice acting is superb, or else I would have never lasted more than an hour. The dialog does an excellent job of fleshing out the characters and exploring the social dynamics of both the players and the NPCs.
Nearly every character in the game is female, which gives rise to a fair amount of fan service and gender fluidity. On several occasions I was confused by characters who I thought were male that ended up being female, and it's even more confusing when one of the female characters describes herself as a prince. Maybe it's a Japanese thing or a lost-in-translation thing, but words that have a gender built into them can cause a lot of headaches and confusion. There's definitely a "girls just want to have fun" vibe to the game, as well as some innocent lesbian undertones. One of the characters comes out and says "girls should only date girls, because it's more fun that way." Again, in this context is "dating" considered a romantic and/or sexual thing, or just girls hanging out with each other? All of the gender dynamics definitely keep you on your toes and require an open mind to process.
The characters themselves are pretty stereotypical anime archetypes. Neptune is the leader, and probably the most well-rounded character as far as skills go. She's exhaustingly exuburant and talks non-stop, which must have been a challenge for the actor who portrays her. She's annoyingly positive, impossibly optimistic, and a bit of an irresponsible air-head. Noire is a sassy and sarcastic character who is the fighter in the group, and cosplays as a hobby. Blanc is the healer of the party and an aspiring writer, while Vert is a hardcore gamer and a hardcore pervert. The characters' younger sisters also show up as support players that can be swapped in and out of the party if you want. While they take part in the story, they don't level up unless you explicitly play them. Similarly, in the second half of the game the goddesses become playable characters, but there's no compelling reason to play as them.
What fascinates me is how quickly I was drawn to Noire. Everything about her seemed tailored to attract me. She's by far the cutest girl of the bunch, has the best wardrobe, is the strongest fighter, and has a fierce and feisty personality. Even though the other characters might be easier to play or have better abilities, there was no question that I'd be playing Noire for the entire game (although I did briefly dabble with Uni, who is Noire's cute and sassy younger sister). It really makes me wonder who other people play and why. Noire is essentially the same character as Rei Hino in "Sailor Moon," who I'm also extremely fond of. Continuing with the "Sailor Moon" archetypes, Neptune matches Usagi perfectly and Blanc is effectively Ami's counterpart. Noire is self-conscious and tries to hide her cosplay hobby even though everyone knows about it, and there's even some discussion about whether she's really a guy because of her long black hair and twintail hair style. Again, I don't know if that was lost in translation, but that rationale made absolutely no sense to me.
As far as presentation goes, the game looks solidly mediocre. The bright colors and smooth textures give the environments a fun and friendly feeling, and the music is appropriately lighthearted. Collision detection is a bit wonky and jumping is often problematic when it comes to uneven surfaces, which is probably due to the Unreal Engine. It's a problem I've seen in other titles that utilize the same technology. Apart from the previously mentioned audio bugs, the other recurring bug I ran into was that my character would often get stuck in place during boss encounters, and the only way to free myself would be to switch to another character. Unfortunately, the controls for switching characters are clunky, and I'd often end up changing other settings in the process before getting back to the main screen. To make matters worse, there's no option to pause the action, so whenever you bring up a menu to change something, your character is defenseless. Documentation is a bit spotty, and it's unclear how to use certain items and perform certain moves. The game runs pretty smoothly, but it takes an EXTREMELY long time to load, presumably because it's caching everything in RAM. The loading screen is more than three minutes long, which is enough time to actually fix and/or eat a meal. I remember doing PlayStation development back in the 90's, and your game wouldn't pass validation if you had any delays longer than ten seconds. The plus side to loading everything up front is that once you're in, there are no other delays, and moving between areas is seamless.
Overall, I enjoyed playing "4 Goddesses Online." It's a fairly easy game to play and the difficulty ramps at an appropriate pace. There are skills, combos, and tactics that you can try to finesse, but I just spammed the attack button the entire time. There's lots of grinding and back-tracking to meet objectives and strengthen your skills, but it never becomes tedious. Visiting older areas becomes a lot easier at higher levels and you can blaze through them with hardly any effort at all. The characters are charming and the game proudly embraces its Japanese roots. While the endless chatter can be exasperating, you eventually come to really know and care for the characters and their various quirks. Once you finish up the main story, the final third of the game revolves entirely around boss quests, so you can keep playing and honing your skills if you want. But for me, having story closure was all I cared for, so it was easy for me to put it away after that.