Relaxing, fun and cerebral, Neptunia – an undersea puzzler notable primarily for its extensive storyline, solid production values and leisurely action – is in many ways the quintessential casual game. Based on a simple mechanic, accessible to players of all ages and skill levels, and designed to be enjoyed at your own pace, it’ll prove equally attractive to working professionals and feisty whippersnappers alike. However, being a textbook example does have its disadvantages as well. For example, the fact there’s little innovative or memorable about the game, its sluggish tempo and the general lack of challenge presented within.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – at first blush, enthusiasts of all types will find here plenty to enjoy, starting with the detailed plotline, displayed via an ongoing series of conversational cut-scenes. The saga in a nutshell: Young girl Lisa and her grandfather discover pieces of a map that lead to a secret submarine realm and promptly set out to investigate, meeting interesting characters and discovering fabulous baubles along the way.
Despite featuring a great deal more dialogue than you may expect, the script does a sound job of setting an intriguing, if oftentimes too laid-back atmosphere. Then again, this relaxed mood is obviously intentional, designed to help melt stress away, and is further accented by supporting effects like undulating waves and swimming schools of jellyfish that flit about stage backgrounds. (Not to mention, that is, the drowsily inoffensive and airy tunes which play throughout the entire episode…)
It’s an appropriate feel for a game set several thousand leagues beneath the ocean, and one where the action’s largely limited to strategic mouse-clicking. Essentially, each stage – consisting of an individual board inhabited by colored, hexagonal tiles stamped with seaweed, nautilus shells, urchins and other aquatic symbols – revolves around simple pattern matching and removal. All you need to know to get started: Clicking on groups of three or more similarly-hued tiles causes them to disappear from the board, with levels successfully ending if you remove special Neptune tiles (ones with swirling patterns) from play before time runs out.
Of course, later levels do introduce extra challenges and obstacles like stones that must be shattered, nets to blow up and sea mines that destroy all surrounding objects. But, by and large, added advancements are infrequent enough that you’ll have plenty of time to master one twist before the next is introduced.
No issue there… As much care as developer Intenium has put into overall production values, you’ll enjoy watching explosives ignite, glass shatter and bubbles swirl as you progress through multi-tiered stages that surprisingly span several vertical screens in height. Nonetheless, the adventure’s hardly what you’d call a nail-biter, especially since in main attraction Normal mode (Timed and Relaxed options are also available) freeing Neptune tiles adds more time to an already generous clock. While these concessions admittedly do make the quest less stressful and more accessible to the general masses, they’ll do little to keep experienced casual gaming vets, or older players, glued to their keyboard.
True, the action does improve with time, and the more you progress into the tale, the cooler the surprises that wait in store. (We’ll refrain from inserting any spoilers here, however). Still, for all the nice touches you’ll find, e.g. collectible statues and clues that advance the already enjoyable plot, none are must-see attractions. More’s the pity too… We’re quite taken in by the overall package. Even if, that is, it’s possible to get stuck on certain levels. (Though you can always restart, or skip ahead in exchange for losing a life.) And, of course, aggravation occasionally ensues due to blocks hiding at the edges of the screen that annoyingly prevent the view from scrolling downward when needed.
In summation, go into Neptunia with grand-scale expectations, and you’ll be disappointed. Dive into the adventure simply looking for a pleasing way to wind down after a hard day at work, however, and you’ll find that it’s full of sunken treasure.