It often feels like there are two contrasting ways to critique these anime-esque Japanese role-playing games. Do you rate it expecting readers to have intricate pre-existing knowledge of the tropes and experience that they're signing up for, considering that the vast majority with any potential interest will? Or do you discard this notion entirely, wipe the mental slate clean, and discuss it from the ground up? Luckily, it doesn't really matter either way in this situation, as the answer is the same: Omega Quintet is an extremely frustrating game. It actually does a lot rather well, building interesting components into the experience throughout (in battles especially), but despite its best efforts, it just can't manage to break free from the tired, irritating mess at its core.
This is the latest outing from Compile Heart, of Hyperdimension Neptunia and Agarest War fame. This time around, the developer's swapped anthropomorphised video game consoles and marriage mechanics for monster hunting J-Pop idols. Superb. The setting is as absurd as one would imagine: beasts called Blare (at least according to the translation text; in voice they're always referred to as "Beep") have laid waste to the majority of the globe, and left mind-broken survivors and pure destruction in their wake. The only hope for the small outlets of humanity still functioning are pop stars – of course – who maintain morale through song, and battle the Blare as part of the most stressful part-time job ever. Because why wouldn't they?
Luckily, any pretence of taking the setting seriously whatsoever is dropped early on following a rather exposition-heavy introduction, opting instead to focus of the antics and interactions of the core roster of cutesy teenage girls throughout their adventures. The opening hours are exceptionally slow, with 15 minute long static cutscenes – rife with exposition and filler dialogue – ruling the roost, intermittently splicing in condescending tutorials and rare gameplay segments for good measure. It's tough going at first, honestly, and more than a few are sure to succumb to sheer boredom there and then.
Things do begin to pick up once the core of the game is brought to the fore, presenting a modular system that divides the experience cleanly into two halves: Visual Novel with all of the trimmings, and classic mission-based JRPG. The average game session generally consists of a mixture of chatting with your idol friends, customising their apparel and equipment, helping in the production of their next big music video, and slaying a handful of beasts. Unfortunately, aforementioned idol pals are cliché archetypal characters that often serve as little more than a reminder of the utterly depressing side of Japanese idol culture, throwing in quips and attempts at parody here and there as if in reparation. These utterly cringe-worthy conversations are everywhere, they serve no purpose, and they feel like they never end.
When you manage to break from the vicious cycle of diabolical tutorials and superfluous dialogue, though, Omega Quintet is a solid JRPG with decent combat mechanics. Battles are traditional turn-based face-offs, with the added complication of each participant being able to position themselves in formation providing opportunity for broader strategy. Each of the different weapon categories possess a huge number of unique capabilities, as well as combination attacks with other pieces of gear. For example, guns have tremendous range and can often hit multiple targets, axes are able to cause knock-back on foes, and so on. Furthermore, the team's manager can work closely with a girl of choice and lend assistance throughout the battle, imbuing attacks with additional strength and staggering monsters to delay their turns. It's both rewarding and fun, with planning being necessary for success against the majority of bosses. Oh, and there's costume destruction that's clearly straight out of Senran Kagura.
If only the strong battles alone were enough to carry the title out of mediocrity, huh? Little niggles crop up here and there to add further weight to the annoyances in characterisation, story, and pacing. Subtitles are not available while in battle or exploration, utterly shafting those with a preference for Japanese audio. And while the static cutscenes have the gorgeous artwork that Compile Heart's known for, the rest of the game looks like an early-mid PS3 title. Meanwhile, every side-quest feels like nothing more than a meaningless fetch quest with little motivation provided to actually finish it; environments are forcibly revisited multiple times, with additional routes artificially tacked on to give the false perception of depth – and, well, the list goes on. The voice acting is really impressive, though, so that's nice.
It's definitely worth mentioning the (totally optional) music video creation, too, seeing as it surprises by being one of the most impressive assets in the title's arsenal. It allows you to completely construct your own music video using any or all of those lovely idol chaps that you've heard so much about. Everything is editable from the ground up, including singers for each individual line, dance moves, positioning, clothing, facial expressions, camera movement, and stage decoration. Surprisingly addictive, this extra makes excellent use of the PlayStation 4's gameplay recording capabilities. Prepare to lose hours to this.
Compile Heart's first foray onto Sony's shiny new system shows occasional glints of brilliance, but they're few and far between. It's a crying shame, because streamlining the experience and cutting out the worthless fat would have gone a long way to making this recommendable. Right now, though, it's only worth a look for JRPG fanatics that are starved and in desperate need of sustenance. It's by no means a bad game on the whole, but it opts to float idly on the side of numbingly average rather than attempt to stand out in any way. Well, unless you're making music videos.