Review – Death Mark

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The market of fear is flourishing on PSVita. Death Mark has indeed actually released between Yomawari Night Alone, its sequel Yomawari Midnight Shadows and the visual novel Iwai Hime Matsuri. All those titles aim at delivering a terrifying experience to the player. And at this game, Death Mark might be the best.

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As you can fathom from the title, Death Mark revolves around the “mark”. Those who come to bear that eerie symbol soon die in some atrocious way. The story opens when the main character, who has the mark on its arm, wanders in the city with nothing more than a business card saying just “Kujô manor”.

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There he hears only bad news : the mark will kill him soon, and is erasing his memory to prevent all resistance. But dying without putting up a fight is not an option : the desperate struggle against the mark and the dark forces behind it begins.

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The protagonist will have to seek rumors about urban legends here and there to find something connected with the mark. As in a good old point’n click game, Death Mark’s environments are composed of still screens on wich you use Vita’s stick to look into certain parts and retrieve key items. Exploration mechanics aren’t especially revolutionary : find a key to open a door, drive off creatures with chemicals, combine objects, etc. So far, Experience deliver the usual stuff, in a plainly linear adventure by the way.

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But where Death Mark is a little more original is in sudden secquences called Live or Die : like the naming says, your character is threatened of immediate death and you need to choose the best fitted action or line among the three displayed. The right choices are to be deduced from little hints given in the narrative or in the chapter files. Searching, logic and awereness will be necessary to get through it like a pro. There is also a limit which is no less than the protagonist’s Soul points. Any wrong answer costs a great deal of soul, or even leads to immediate death. Although those secquences have a strong psychological effect, their actual value in terms of gameplay is limited since you can restart without limitation in case of game over.

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You are not alone. Other bearers of the mark, the shirushibito (shirushi = mark, hito = person) will knock at Kujô’s door every chapter. You’ll have to choose carefully with whom you’ll be be doing your night trips, because you can take only one at a time. And it’s quite important given that some of them will be necessary to progress at some points, to cross a particular path of defeat a particular boss. Rather modest title, Death Mark includes very few animations so you’ll have to do with the character design. Art is pretty far for manga standarts but it fits this particular atmsophere, and the sidekicks are varied enough to please everyone.

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Each chapter ends with an epic encounter against the ghost that haunts the perimeter. It involves several turns in which you have to resist the monster’s offensive and then try to annihilate it when it’s close enough. You have on you all the items gathered during the chapter and the challenge will be to find out which ones to use or to combine. But that doesn’t stop here because simply destroying the ghost will only get you the bad end of the chapter. To secure the good end, bring everyone back home alive and witness the true ending of the game, you must save the soul of the ghost by another logic. Thus there are two levels of challenge in Death Mark, because you need to analyse more deeply all the clues to experience the ultimate satisfaction of seeing your favorite mates come back alive.

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But the greatest aspect of Death Mark is its astonishingly perfect atmosphere. Even more than Yomawari Night Alone, Death Mark creates a terrifying atmosphere that lasts from the first second to the last second of the game. You almost have to prepare yourself psychologically before opening every door. Such is Experience’s mastery in arousing suspense and handling the fear of the unknown. The constant but yet uncertain menace of the ghost puts you on edge during all the exploration, and the sound environment doubles that effect. The silence is widely used of course, but the game also features striking orchestral compositions in critical moments. Finally, Death Mark is full of creepy sounds that will make you jolt of sweat : a military song coming from nowhere, howls in the forest, the ticktock of the clock, the very same that periodically tells you that you have only a few hours, or seconds, to live… Death Mark has almost no voice acting unfortunately, but the ghosts’ icy muttering will drive you to anguish.

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Inevitably full of corpses, Death Mark shows atrocious deaths and misshapen ghosts who only show their true self in the last turn of the last encounter. Fear quickly turns to trauma to the point you might hesitate when turning off the lights at night (I did). Last but not least, Death Mark is game that plays with your emotions at all times, making you unsure of the outcome even in the last seconds of the good end. Well told, the Experience-developed game benefits from an intriguing story that unfolds progressively alongside the side narratives (in which chapter 3 is truly excellent), maintaining a great deal of suspense until the very end. Its only drawback is being short (10 to 15 hours long), but here again Death Mark compensates by a friendly price : 4000 ¥, that is to say 30-40% cheaper than your average PSVita game in Japan.

Gifted with an unforgettable atmosphere, Death Mark gathers all the qualities to be a champion of fear on Vita. Absolutely striking how a modest Point’n Click reaches such a high level of mastery in direction, storytelling, sound that easily competes with AAA survival-horror titles. My most intense experience of the year, and one the greatest games ever on the system.

Enough of E3! Let’s talk about other games #2017

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Zanki Zero (PS4/PSVita)

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Survival-RPG produced by the DanganRonpa team, Zanki Zero has the most interesting concept this year. Zanki is an idiom known in shoot’em up which represents the number of starships remaining before game over. In the same logic, the 8 boys and girls of Spike Chunsoft’s devastated world will have to progress and survive until no one remains. Rather advanced in its management, Zanki Zero will ask the player to quell the stress of the characters and even take care of their natural needs.

Shin Yomawari (PS4/PSVita)

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Remarkable game of 2016 in the fear department, Yomawari obviously sold well enough to warrant a sequel because Nippon Ichi Software plans to release Shin Yomawari in very territory this year. You will this time control two girls on after another, the world will be larger, including indoor environments among new frightening spots.

Tokyo Clanpool (PSVita)

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Compile Heart is on the move on Vita with a brand-new DRPG, the heroine which is… a loli prime minister ! Along with her cabinet, Natsume tackles the exploration of a mysterious black tower that crashed on the Japanese Diet building. Openly political, Tokyo Clanpool features a support rating as central criteria.

Dragon Quest XI (PS4)

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After the moral collapse of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest XI is one of the references JRPG fans must consider. Casino, horse racing, dragon mounting, smith… SquareEnix’s next hit underlines its rich content and classicism to better attract summer players.

The Great Ace Attorney 2 (3DS)

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Cool but significantly incomplete, Great Ace Attorney had sequel” written all over it. That’s now on rails and we’ll again have the pleasure to experience the Victorian and Meiji era with Ryunôsuke, but also from the eyes of his distant cousin Ryutarô.

Legend of Heroes Trails of Cold Steel III (PS4)

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Falcom likes to play with fans’ feelings with its first PS4 exclusive. Trails of Cold Steel III reshuffles the roles and calls back popular characters from older episodes. Unexpectedly, Aurelia becomes headmistress of Thors Academy, Tio makes a noticeable entrance and eccentric Dubally will once more stand on your way along with the threatening secret society she belongs to. Meanwhile, no word on your former comrades from Trails of Cold Steel II… Falcom or the master of suspense.

Nights of Azure 2 (PS4/PSVita/Switch)

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Obsequious to Nintendo’s orders in exchange for a juicy part of profits in the Fire Emblem Warriors project, KoeiTecmo had left Nights of Azure in the dark the time the were preparing the Switch version. Having recently reappeared in the press, Gust’s action-RPG showed its final casting of Ashule’s partners and detailed the swimsuits offered as an apology for the long delay.

Moero Castle Panzers (PS4)

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Compile Heart had a clear purpose when choosing PS4 as the only platform for Moero Castle Panzers. The company intends to offer the usual Moero experience (touching the girls’ body) in the best 3D they can deliver. In terms of battle, we’re now looking to tactical-RPG featuring various jobs depending on the equipped underwear (!).

A look back at some E3 2017 videos

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Transference (PSVR)

Only game to have drawn my attention during conferences, Transference is a intriguing UGO from Ubisoft. The publisher takes neurological experiences conducted in the late 90’s as base. It was about transferring human emotions into a digital space. By reflecting that in virtual reality, the French company lets us expect a mystical and deeply frightening experience.

Gran Turismo Sport (PS4)

With its Jurassic Park-like music, Gran Turismo Sport comes to reminds us that racing simulation is not just about teraflops. It’s also about impressive racing tracks, joyful atmosphere, great music and lavish show. As many aspects that Sony’s exclusive won’t lack when facing Forza 7.

Code Vein (PS4/XB1/PC)

Not very different from the trailer of last month, Code Vein’s trailer (strangely shown during Microsoft conference, BandaiNamco will have a lot of explaining to do at home) still’s worth a glimpse. It’s kind of a God Eater of darker design and world, with slower but more powerful gameplay. But more than that, the giant leap in graphics and animation is especially exciting.

13 Sentinels Aegis Rim (PS4/PSVita)

Announced two years ago, we still don’t know what 13 Sentinels Aegis Rim is for sure. Atlus brings it to E3 without even giving detail on its platforms or its genre… We therefore have to kill time watching this beautiful trailer until the publisher finally reveals everything. The music has a striking sense of grandeur, and the devastated and soulless Earth is intriguing.

E3 2017 Nintendo – The Longest 25 Minutes

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The Nintendo defense force has faith. Despite a tiny launch line-up and a cloudy future, Switch entered the gaming market with a bang. Stocks issues keep being recorded in all continents, the situation being extremely serious in Japan where costumers have to earn the right to purchase via lotteries organized in stores. As the demand seems to be never ending, observers wonder if we might be witnessing a Wii-like phenomenon.

Before entering the (dramatically important) analysis of Switch’s debut, let’s have an overview of the firm’s yearly financials. Here, we must stress that despite the 2.74m Switch shipments, the fastest-selling Pokemon game ever and the greatest Zelda of all time”, revenues still go down 3%. Operating result melted 10% in the wake of new expenditures. The net result, however, skyrockets by 521% and this is where it gets interesting. Those profits comes from 3 items : minority interests bring 20 billion yens (Pokemon GO dividends, no doubt), the exchange market was 13 billion more favorable compared to 2016, and the company earned no less than 60 billions by selling securities. By doing the maths, you realize that video games actually don’t make more profits than last year. Those artificial profits hides the truth, which is that the business is flat due to the fact that Switch cannot compensate WiiU’s rapid collapse. On the next fiscal term, 3DS shipments should go down, increasing the pressure on the new system.

The big question is : who’s buying Switch ? Who are those who frantically throw themselves on the first Switch in sight ? With 2.76 millions copies sold, Zelda Breath of the Wild has over 100% attach rate. Mario Kart 8 DX also has a high percentage, with half of Switch owners getting it at launch. 1,2 Switch is stalling, and many ports achieve mediocre sales. My interpretation is that Nintendo fans become increasingly radical : they want more Nintendo, as soon as they can grab the stuff. True, some core gamers at large join them in the Switch install base, the offer being a lot more attractive than WiiU in its time. But data is lacking to give solid conclusions. August 31st will be key in ascertaining Switch’s attractiveness as Nights of Azure 2 hit PS4, PSVita and Switch at the same time. FIFA Switch eventually came to be FIFA18 but will come in a weaker version, lacking Forstbite engine and story mode. The only question will be whether Nintendo fans quit playing Splatoon 2 to embrace EA’s football.

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Let’s stress that those will be the only occasions in which Switch and PS4 will directly face each other : despite the stupefying sales pace, 3rd parties around the world do not care about the hybrid system. NIS America may have shipped 100K units of Disgaea 5 Complete, NIS Japan disregards that and is making all its next games for PS4, PSVita and PC. Not even a little port for Switch ! Very surprising given the business opportunities that were proven by Disgaea 5 Complete’s good reception. BandaiNamco, who’s regularly provided Dragon Ball Z games for 3DS, and who’s porting Xenoverse 2 on Switch, ditches Nintendo’s new system in the case of Dragon Ball Fighter Z, one of the best games of E3. Code Vein, Namco’s brand new post-apocalyptic action IP, is skipping Switch too. The last direct that had revealed Nights of Azure 2, Fate Extella and Senran Kagura for Switch shook the web. But after this E3, we can conclude that Nintendo merely reactivated old alliances, KoeiTecmo and Marvelous obeying the Big N every time a fat check comes from Kyoto. In Japan, the balance of powers has yet to turn in Nintendo’s favor.

In the West, no one will be surprised in seeing large publishers shunning the Switch. Bungie was recently saying that Destiny 2 on Switch would be “unrealistic” because the idea behind the Switch doesn’t fit with always online. Bethesda is not doing more than the Skyrim super late port, and is almost being cynical in the way it keeps all its new games for PS4 and XboxOne. Despite outsourcing the development of Mario + Rabbids, Ubisoft has no big game to give in exchange of borrowing the Mario franchise : Switch ends up having the usual Just Dance, and Starlink Battle for Atlas, a shoot’em up based on toy models. One after the others, AAA titles shine at E3, and for none of them Switch gets the spotlight. In the mid/long term, Switch can only choke form the lack of AAA, not even having AA titles to resist. In fact, the situation hasn’t really changed compared to January 13th : Nintendo is trying to find its way alone and the line-up is as weak as before… As I said last year, the “perfect Zelda” achieved nothing in the console war.

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Nintendo intends to ship 10m Switch by next March, but that would merely make it reach WiiU’s final figure. Once every Nintendo fan has the system (adding some core gamers interested in some Nintendo IPs), how will Switch extend its influence without any of the big names that dominate today’s gaming market ? After this E3, Switch welcome a mere 10% of upcoming titles and no 3rd party developer came up with something new in the tiny Direct of just 25 minutes. And on the 1st party side, nothing big enough to threaten Sony’s and Microsoft’s market share. True, we got a glimpse of the ever returning Yoshi and Kirby, but no doubt they’re quicly developed low end games aimed at luring the masses. Xenoblade 2 received a new, improved design by jumping on the bouncy harem RPG bandwagon and Fire Emblem Warriors seems to have quite an effective casting. But those two seem isolated, not mention that their release window is still vague. To Call of Duty WWII and Far Cry 5, Nintendo hasn’t got more than a simple Metroid Prime 4 logo to oppose. The competition must be stricken with fear… Only Mario Aliasing Odyssey got a definite release date, which leaves room for many delays. In the current state of affairs, the Switch is trying to conquer the world with an army of late ports, a flurry of indies and a 500-yen Senran Kagura application. Not sure it’s gonna be enough…

By the way and if Sony and Nintendo both achieve their objectives, Switch would be largely dominated by PS4 in its first full year, Sony expecting no less than 18 million PS4. The gap would only grow whatever the reason (no enough supply or loss of interest). That said, there is no doubt that Switch will eventually sell several times more than WiiU. It’s the most powerful handheld on the market, which gives it a potential market of at least 25 million costumers in Japan alone. Even without 3rd parties to support it, the mainstream public (who still buys 3DS) should guarantee continuous sales. It will also get a main Pokemon game and a main Fire Emblem strategy-RPG, so that’s millions more clients in the bag. And with no successor for PSVita, many Japanese developers may need Switch to tap the handheld market. This is the major subject of the next few years : will Japanese 3rd parties make sufficent profit on PS4 alone ? Will their technological level improve to the point Switch ports would become impossible ? Monster Hunter World and Code Vein already signify their PS4pro/XboxOneX optimization : even before releasing, Switch was out of the league. If that becomes a general trend, then the current divide of the Japanese market will continue : older core gamers playing on PS4 in cold war with a mainstream majority focused on casual experience. At best, Nintendo can aim at peaceful coexistence with Sony, both system being complementary and a decent number of gamers playing on both.

As suprising as it may seem after 3 months of massive success of its new console, Nintendo is still a tiny player on the world stage. Not a single publisher has faith in Switch even though it’s flying off shelves, and the manufacturer itself isn’t strong enough to match ambitious and innovative rivals. This E3 is further proof that Nintendo is leagues behind and isolated from everyone.

E3 2017 Sony – The World is not Enough

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The task was a lot more complicated for the industry leader this year. Indeed since 2016, the competition brings stronger offer and Sony must face the raw power of Xbox One X and fast-selling Switch. This year, there would be no default victory.

The manufacturer can boast a renewed financial health. Despite lower revenues (-6%), the operating result stabilizes around 300 billion yens, a respectable level. However, the net profit halved, Sony not being able to avoid non deductible amortization. Sony also posted a lesser financial result than last year, but it also means purer profitability. Amortizations widely affect some lines of product : semi-conductors, components, TV & Cinema are on the wane. Unfavorable currency rates were a factor too. On the other hand, the mobile sector improved a lot, and some other keep making nice profits : photo, audio & video, banking & insurance and of course, gaming.

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PS4 is unstoppable, the growth in sales is so massive that the department registers a 50% progression in operating result, reaching 135 billions. That is roughly five times Nintendo’s ! 20 million PS4 were sold. The home console has topped 60 million install base worldwide and should overtake 3DS in the next term despite being… a lot more expensive ! In consumer value, Nintendo’s handheld has been beaten since a while. Moreover, let’s notice that given the gap in Japan (18 million in favor of the 3DS), PS4 has already reach a bigger install base than 3DS in the West. Currently, ¾ of 3rd party games to come are either for PS4 or PSVita. Sony’s line up has a hammering strength and got more key titles during pre-show : Dissidia Final Fantasy NT, Far Cry 5, Little Witch Academia, Need for Speed Payback or Darksiders III. Games that won’t be seen on Switch… Ni no Kuni II Revenant Kingdom, Ace Combat Skies Unknown and Gran Turismo Sport also come back with attractive trailers.

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With such a pre-show, what the hell was going to be in the conference ? Well, like last year, nothing… IF memory serves, we’ve probably never seen such a boring show from Sony at E3 : the rhythm was slack, the long list of VR games we don’t even recall the more of was pitiful, there was zero surprise announcement and the gameplay shown was horribly generic (Days Gone of War, etc.). After what seemed to be less than 55 minutes, disastrous is the only word that comes to mind. But where the fu** are Atlus, Sega, KoeiTecmo, Rockstar, SCEJ, BandaiNamco (well for the latter we know : at Microsoft’s) ? SquareEnix had no better to show than a fishing mini-game in the (dumb) FFXV universe. Don’t those guys have better to bring in the biggest show of the planet !? No creators invited on stage either, which made the conference lack human passion, whereas Ubisoft delivered it brilliantly : Sony had no friends that night… With such a presentation, why send all those big games on the back in pre-show ? Why give the rendezvous at 3 a.m. if the major stuff starts airing at 2 ? The organisation, even more still than the lackluster content, has been a gigantic failure.

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Only point to its credit, Sony puts an ends to 5 years of Monster Hunter exclusivity on Nintendo platform by welcoming Monster Hunter World on PS4. This announcement has a considerable impact in terms of brand, especially at home. With splendid 4K screenshots immediately shared everywhere in the world, Monster Hunter World on PS4Pro obliterates Monster Hunter XX Switch on the technical side, and offer the first true evolution of the series in 10 years. Japanese forums caught fire. Still, Monster Hunter World is not a portable game. When Monster Hunter 3rd was ported to PS3, it had sold roughly 10% of its PSP counterpart. Monster Hunter fans are used to enjoy hunting experience on the go, so there’s a natural limit to Monster Hunter World’s success on PS4. Without the game being ported on a hypothetical PS4 mini portable, PS4 will only marginally resist to future Monster Hunter titles on Switch.

It remains that Sony’s advantage only grows after this E3. EA, Bethesda, BandaiNamco, Activision and Ubisoft aren’t keen on using their Switch dev kits : every third party title of the show was running on PS4, while Switch had at best a dozen of games (some of which being late ports). Even with the snooziest conference, Sony isn’t threatened one second by an isolated Switch.

The conclusion is still a terrible E3 for Sony whose offering has declined over the years. In its communication, the manufacturer clearly failed to give a clear view of what kind of greatness” awaits for Playstation players. The bright future turned into a grey mist. Microsoft caught up on the technology, Nintendo went one step ahead in terms of innovation, but Sony doesn’t gather its strength to respond and remains passive. Its hold on the market is strong, but inaction is the greatest danger.

Review – Cyberdimension Neptunia 4 Goddess Online

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I had been exactly 1 year, 2 months and 2 weeks since Superdimension Neptune vs Sega Hard Girls when Cyberdimension Neptunia 4 Goddess Online hits Japanese shelves last February. Compile Heart had declared in April 2016 that this time they would take their time and not disappoint. 1 year later, what’s left of that promise? Not much I’m afraid…

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For that 2nd PS4 exclusive, Compile takes a similar approach to Hyperdimension Neptune U, which means a action-RPG spin-off that tells a small parallel story to the main episodes. In this one, Neptune, Blanc, Vert and Noire are testing a VR MMO, the famous Four Goddess Online played by Vert in the main series. For that, Cyberdimension Neptunia has little story focus, despite the hacking part which slightly bolstered the interest. In the end, the narrative had little surprise and very flat story-telling.

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The city is where you’ll chat with all the characters. That’s the place where all the funny things happen via chatting here and there. You’ll make acquaintance with Kiria & Kuronekohime, two lovers intending to clear the game before Neptune’s party. The reference made to Reki Kawahara’s universes is pretty clear and there are some cool Easter Eggs to Sword Art Online, plus some clever jokes like confession part in the cathedral or Uzume’s strange pet. But in terms of overall side content, it was light and somewhat boring. Some anecdotes were very strange, not to say embarrassing like Vert’s tea lectures. I’m still wonder how we came from console wars to tea… That felt horribly out of place, sign that no interesting renewal has been found for the series.

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Characters were notably under-used : Kiria & Kuronekohime vanish at mid-game and personally I’d have wanted further story development for Mein who has been the most sympathetic new girl. It is quite striking to notice that Cyberdimension Neptunia is the first episode that does not introduce a new playable character. The 4 little sisters quickly join your party, followed by Purple Heart, Black Heart, Green Heart and White Heart who are separate characters in this title. That makes a somewhat underwhelming total of 12 playable characters when recent episodes did much better on that.

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But as far as I’m concerned, the most disheartening side is that there are few illustrations, most of them not that fantastic. It’s pretty, but bland. Tsunako’s talent is misused and you could sense that in the interview just before release. Cyberdimension Neptunia is at the end of a political process aimed at watering down the experience by removing fan-service as much as possible to make it some classic kawaii JRPG. But in doing this, the series is just becoming shallower and fades in comparison to Senran Kagura Peach Beach Splash for example. Here again, that goes against what had been said in the April 2016 interview : it’s clear that there is nothing to expect anymore.

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Funny to notice that after April 2016, official speech focuses on only one thing : Unreal Engine 4. Compile had promised a revolution thanks to the powerful engine. In a way, it’s a success : Cyberdimension Neptunia is definitely seamless compared to past episodes, to the point you really feel the series has made a step forward. Movements so quick that you have to re-learn how to play. It’s a real pleasure to witness the Neptunia universe running at 60 fps. Special effects and lightning effects have also improved a lot, and some character (not all) models seems sharper than before. However, environments still looks pretty barren, and maps are somewhat tiny. Level design is bad and exploration is absent. Once again, we’re far from what Megadimension Neptunia VII had offered in that department.

It’s a game in a game, so the characters get fixed jobs inspired by classical RPG, that are different to what you’ve been accustomed to : Noire is Black Knight and fights now with a spear, Rom and Ram become respectively Samurai and Ninja, and therefore fight head to head against monsters. All characters can equip 4 skills or magic spells, which you choose via the rear buttons, just like in Dragon Quest Heroes for example. Those are pretty much welcome to complete the one and only combo available per character, first sign of shallow gameplay. Locking proved very unstable and unable to give a clear sight in battle. Dodging is totally ineffective, but there’s a reason for that : Cyberdimension Neptunia’s gameplay is based on guard & counter. Hitting after a successful guard trigger a counterattack, something that quickly becomes natural all game long.

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The problem is that it produces a static and lackluster battle system. There player may be bored quickly by such lack of variety, another problem being the low challenge. You have a whole second to launch your counterattack, enemies are weak, brainless and your own characters gain experience and levels at breakneck pace. There aren’t many enemies on the map either, so you don’t have the same enjoyment as the PSVita action games.

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Bosses are considerably rehashed within the game, and show poor battle patterns. Game over doesn’t even exist. So in the gameplay department alone, Cyberdimension Neptunia seems a major failure to me, only the final being tough enough to bring some fever.

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The lack of care in the development is obvious when you look at the general picture. As unbelievable as it may sound, the live 2D, which was born with the series, is out : 2D models are sadly fixed and lip sync is nowhere to be seen either. The use of Unreal Engine 4 didn’t go very far. Cut-scenes are rare (2 or 3 tops) and fail to impress too. Photo mode doesn’t stop the action, so a lot less good than the one in MegaTagmension Blanc + Neptune vs Zombie Army. The multiplayer has been simply dreadful since only the room host could benefit from correct frame-rate. It took Compile and Tamsoft about 30 days to address this problem among other bugs. Far too late : a game that can be platted within 30-40 hours doesn’t last you one month…

1 year for this?”. That’s what I wondered while watching the end credits of Cyberdimension Neptunia. Despite the unquestionable graphical improvements, we find ourselves with an episode delivering very little in every other aspect instead of tackling long-lasting drawbacks. A game of a series that has lost its true self, with insufficient volume, and that ultimately come to remind us that graphics alone don’t make a great game.