Extra grindy ending conditions
The worst part is getting the endings. There are many possible endings, but not only does it depend on shares and recruiting all of the optional characters, it also counts lily ranks. Considering shares are already a grind to manipulate, increasing lily ranks, even with lily rank rate increase items is a huge grind since you have to do it with many characters. Since lily rank is based on the number of battles you do, you will end up killing the weakest enemies over and over again, and you have to do this one character at a time since the ending conditions are based on everyone's relationship with the main character. You will have to look up the conditions for each ending, but personally, I decided to not bother pursuing all of the endings and just watched them on YouTube. I already have Re;Birth3, so there is no point wasting more time on this game.
Linear versus relational progression
The problem inherent with the gameplay is that it requires grinding in order to increase the longevity of the game. Higher character levels and better items make the game shallow, so you have to make it hard to increase your level and get good items, but getting better stuff is the point of playing the game, which pushes you into grinding. Much of the grinding is technically optional, but that means you won't be able to access the full experience unless you're willing to suffer through the mind-numbing busywork. I generally consider grinding to be poor design because you're doing the same thing over and over again and expecting things to change. It feeds a compulsive habit to work hard for something, but the work doesn't actually take much skill, so it creates a false sense of entitlement that teaches you that success comes from enduring physical suffering as opposed to being smart and doing what actually matters. Then you realize the game was rigged from the start to be this way, which leads to anger.
I would say that the best type of gameplay progression is relational. Instead of linear character growth that results in old items, abilities, and enemies becoming obsolete, the game should become more complex where new enemies introduce new situations that are dealt with using new abilities. This is pretty much what shooters do. New weapons don't make old weapons obsolete, but fulfill new niches so every weapon remains useful and you have to switch to the right weapon for the right job. The Neptunia games only do this to a minor extent since different characters have different buffs, but character abilities tend to overlap and enemies don't have any new tricks up their sleeves that would make newly introduced characters shine.
The four CPU goddesses of Gamindustri have been defeated by the Arfoire Syndicate of International Crime (ASIC). They, along with Neptune's younger sister and CPU Candidate, Nepgear, are imprisoned in the Gamindustri Graveyard. Three years later, IF and Compa attempt a rescue mission using a Sharicite crystal with the power to free the CPUs. They manage to free Nepgear, but they are driven away by CFW Judge, a powerful member of ASIC, before they could free the others and the Sharicite is expended to escape. In Gamindustri, game piracy runs rampant, people worship an entity called the Deity of Sin (also referred to as Arfoire), and faith in the CPUs (represented as shares) is at an all time low. Each nation is managed by each CPU's second-in-command, called Oracles, but they can only do so much to maintain order. ASIC is attempting to revive the Deity of Sin, which will bring about the destruction of Gamindustri.
In order to fight back, Nepgear needs the help of the Mascots of each nation. Mascots passively oversee the balance and order of the world, and they can help Nepgear recover shares from ASIC. Histoire locates Planeptune's Mascot, so Nepgear, IF, and Compa go after it. It turns out ASIC is aware of the Mascots as well and sent a low-ranking member that the girls insist on referring to as Underling. After fighting, Underling escapes, but Nepgear manages to secure the power of Planeptune's Mascot.
Underling mentions her next target is Lastation, so the girls pursue her there. They meet Lastation's CPU Candidate, Uni, but she blames Nepgear for the CPUs' defeat, so Uni runs away while struggling with self-esteem issues. They ask for the help of Lastation's Oracle, Kei, but she will only divulge information about the Mascot in exchange for rare materials for a project she is working on. With the help of people they happened to come across, they locate the materials, although Underling and another ASIC member, Warechu, try to interfere unsuccessfully. Uni was also looking for the materials under Kei's direction, but rather than let Nepgear have them, she challenges Nepgear to a duel to see who is stronger, but she loses and continues with her personal struggle. With the materials, Kei divulges the location of the Mascot. The Mascot tells them that it needs to remain to protect Lastation from being completely corrupted, so it provides a copy of its power to Nepgear.
They travel to Lowee where they find Underling promoting ASIC on the streets. They try to stop Underling, but she takes a little girl as a hostage and escapes. They pursue Underling, but it turns out the girl is one of Lowee's twin CPU Candidates, Rom. Rom's sister, Ram, appears and saves Rom, so they drive away Underling. Nepgear asks the twins for help, but they see Nepgear as a hostile CPU trying to steal Lowee's shares and refuse. Nepgear asks Lowee's Oracle, Mina, for help locating Lowee's Mascot. However, like Lastation's Mascot, Lowee's Mascot needs to remain to protect Lowee, so Mina refuses to divulge the Mascot's location. In the meantime, Nepgear finds Rom on the streets looking for her missing favourite pen from when she was kidnapped, so Nepgear helps her find it, which eases tension between them.
With no leads, the girls find Underling and decide that following her would eventually lead to the Mascot, since Underling is looking for the Mascot as well. They eavesdrop on Underling's cellphone conversation and learn the location of the Mascot. When they reach the Mascot, Underling appears with monsters to distract them and Underling destroys the Mascot during the chaos. The destruction of the Mascot has unsealed powerful Killachines originally created by the Deity of Sin. They consider trying to fix the Mascot, so they recover the needed materials and manage to succeed. They return to where the Mascot originally resided to reseal the Killachines, fighting through the activated machines with the help of Rom and Ram. After succeeding, the Mascot creates a copy of itself for Nepgear.
Their next destination is Leanbox. Leanbox does not have a CPU Candidate, so faith in the original establishment is at a bare minimum. The only source of order is a pop idol, 5pb., and a Leanbox defense operative, Cave. 5pb. sings songs that boost people's morale while Cave acts as protection against those aligned with ASIC. The Oracle, Chika, has been acting strangely and deliberately allowed ASIC to work unhindered. Nepgear finds Uni, who is looking to gather shares from Leanbox. Uni met the Oracle before and thinks her current behaviour is unusual. With Uni's help, they expose the Oracle as Underling in disguise by making her recall a time the girls beat her up. Underling flees, but they follow her to her hideout where they find the real Chika and rescue her.
Chika tells them that ASIC managed to get to the Mascot, but they didn't destroy it yet for some reason. They track Underling back to her hideout, where Underling and Warechu are holding the Mascot. ASIC used the Mascot to create special discs that power up Underling and Warechu, but 5pb. shows up to sing a song that nullifies their evil power. They beat up Underling and Warechu, save the Mascot, and with Chika's permission, they acquire it to help with their mission.
Recruiting the CPU Candidates
After failing to destroy the Mascots, ASIC decides to step up its offensive and launches a direct assault against a village on the outskirts of Planeptune. Nepgear manages to save the village, but ASIC has been engaging in hostile activities in the other nations as well. First, Lowee suddenly lost a lot of shares, and this causes Rom to fall ill. It turns out Warechu has been distributing emulation chips to everyone, so they chase him down and destroy his stock of chips, which prevents the further loss of shares. To heal Rom, Nepgear gathers shares for Lowee, which will allow Mina to produce Sharicite. However, Underling and her boss, CFW Trick, infiltrate Rom's room and kidnaps the ill Rom using brainwashing magic. Nepgear pursues them, but Ram gets brainwashed as well in the scuffle. Nepgear defeats Rom, Ram, and CFW Trick, cures the brainwashing with the Sharicite, and reports back to Mina. In exchange for the help, Rom and Ram join Nepgear's party.
Nepgear is contacted by Kei, who tells her that Uni has gone missing and requests her help. Uni was trying to stop the spread of ASIC chips and tried to deal with the culprit out of town, but never returned. The place is too dangerous for the Lastation guards to investigate, so Nepgear goes in to rescue Uni. After saving her, Uni expresses her feelings of inferiority due to her failures, but Nepgear tells Uni that she needed friends all along and offers to become her friend. The ASIC member Uni lost against, CFW Brave, appears to stop the CPU Candidates, but Nepgear and Uni work together to defeat him and prove what they can accomplish together. With her newfound friendship, Uni joins Nepgear's party.
Back at Planeptune, Kei has been working on a device to amplify the Sharicite to be used for freeing the CPUs trapped in the Gamindustri Graveyard. With the Sharicite, Nepgear's party travels to the Graveyard where they fight and kill CFW Judge, and free the CPUs. But despite this victory, ASIC is coming close to reviving the Deity of Sin, so Nepgear goes around collecting as many shares as possible for each of the nations and recruiting the rescued CPUs for her party. IF receives a tip on ASIC's manufacturing operations, so the party goes to shut it down, where they encounter and kill CFW Brave. ASIC responds with more drastic measures. Underling starts a riot at Leanbox, which draws the party's attention, but this was just a ruse for ASIC to take Planeptune and kidnap Histoire. CFW Trick calls the CPU Candidates over to where he is holding Histoire to negotiate, but Noire points out that it's a trap. During their talk, the CPUs sneak around and grab Histoire, allowing them to fight and kill CFW Trick.
Planeptune is still under the control of ASIC, led by CFW Magic, the one who originally defeated the CPUs. Histoire asks all of the other nations help to take back the city while Nepgear's party goes after CFW Magic. However, killing the four ASIC leaders (a.k.a. the Four Felons) was part of ASIC's plan to revive the Deity of Sin and bring about the end of the world. The Four Felons were a vessel for the Deity of Sin's power, and killing them released their power to complete the revival. The party goes to the Graveyard to confront the Deity of Sin. It could not be defeated with conventional attacks, but with all of the CPUs and Candidates putting their trust in Nepgear, the power of all of the nations' shares focused into her and she was able to deal the final blow to save Gamindustri.
The sword endings
An alternative ending path involves the pursuit of a legendary cursed sword that can destroy the Deity of Sin because the deity cannot be killed by conventional means. After getting the sword, they discover that the sword derives its power from killing and absorbing the power of CPUs, so everyone doesn't want to go through with it. With no other ideas, Nepgear makes the selfish idea of taking everyone's shares to focus her power, but it alienates her from the other CPUs because taking their shares would ruin their respective nations. Nepgear decides she has no choice but to take the shares by force, but depending on Nepgear's lily ranks with everyone, either she will go through with the killing after defeating each CPU (Conquest Ending), or she will break the sword after realizing the terrible cost of using it and reforge it with the power of a massive Sharicite combined by all of the nations (Holy Sword Ending).
The Conquest Ending is a pretty heart-wrenching tale of killing your friends. Nepgear isn't a violent person and wants everyone to be happy, but in the face of total annihilation, she and all of the other CPUs believe there is no choice, that it's do or no one lives, which makes each kill an emotionally painful experience. In the end, it leaves a lonely Nepgear ruling over Planeptune while the other nations collapse. The Deity of Sin predicts that without the drive of competition, Planeptune will stagnate and collapse on itself, so in the end the Deity of Sin wins even after being killed by the sword.
A leader's responsibility is to her people, not herself because she has been entrusted the nation's resources to keep them safe and prosperous. If there really is no choice, she needs to reduce human lives to calculus, sacrificing even her friends to ensure the maximum number of people survive because otherwise, there would be no point in having her as a leader and society might as well be an anarchy where everyone looks after themselves. However, the existence of the other endings means that this only happens because of poor judgment. Bad stuff happens because you're dumb. The sword path is triggered by collecting shares exclusively for Planeptune, so it says that being selfish is what leads to a bad outcome. However, if you have close enough relationships with your friends, you will see the error of your ways before it's too late. But in the grand scheme of things, the Conquest Ending probably isn't the end of the world. Considering that in Re;Birth1, the CPU Candidates were materialized out of shares, I don't think Nepgear will really be the only CPU forever. She might become the new ancient goddess that creates new CPUs.
Holy Sword Ending
While the Holy Sword Ending is more elaborate than the True Ending, they are both built on the same fundamental principle of combining everyone's shares into a single vessel and then delivering the finishing blow. The Holy Sword Ending deconstructs the notion that a legendary sword is an impossibly complex weapon that exists outside of nature and cannot be replicated by mere mortals. It takes a pro-science stance to understand the sword and create a solution that satisfies everyone instead of submitting to superstition. However, this has more to do with being smart than having close friends. Because of this, the Holy Sword Ending doesn't make as much sense as the True Ending. There's no need to imbue a sword with shares when you can just channel the shares through existing channels, that is, through the CPUs who receive the power of shares automatically through the people's faith. By having faith in Nepgear, the CPUs can transfer their shares to her by proxy, which keeps things quick and simple. I would say the real lesson is, if there is a difficult problem, it's best to procrastinate in case you can come up with better ideas later.
Another problem with the sword path is, why is it that the first idea they came up with was to pursue a legendary sword as opposed to figuring out how to leverage shares? It is only after learning about how the sword works that Nepgear makes the suggestion for everyone to give her their shares, but everyone says this would destroy their nations. They didn't consider using Sharicite until after they started fighting each other, even though they have been using Sharicite for key problems throughout the game. They also didn't know about the concept of transferring shares by proxy, which contradicts the True Ending.
The whole idea of shares is to model the positive total benefit of working together instead of being selfish. While you have a lesser amount, everyone cooperating with each other gives everyone a combined strength greater than individuals alone. However, the story doesn't specifically go into the concept of comparative advantage, where everyone focusing on their strengths instead of wasting effort on their weaknesses allows the group to produce more than the individuals working alone. This is where the positive sum benefit of cooperation comes from. While Nepgear goes around solving each nation's problems and gaining their support, there is no talk about how each nation fulfills a specific niche. Lastation provides advanced technology, but the others don't really do anything special.
Anti-piracy, competition irony
It's ironic that this game paints piracy as evil, yet also conveys the idea that competition is good. Consider that console emulation provides innovations like save states, fast-forwarding, flexible input methods, higher resolutions and graphics filtering, higher frame rates, and ability to play every game on a PC. Consider that people do not want to lose access to their games because of restrictive DRM based on online servers that might be taken down eventually. Consider that cutting licensing bureaucracy can make games more accessible in the long run instead of having the rights to the game be divided among disparate parties, resulting in the game not being sold by anyone, such as what happened to Alan Wake. Because of copyright, emulation is not a viable competitor to first-parties, so first-parties are under no pressure to match emulation features. Being pro-competition means you believe in sacrificing your own market share for the good of everyone, but being anti-piracy means you believe in protecting your market share from those who threaten it. Thus, being anti-piracy and pro-competition is hypocritical.
The portrayal of the CPUs as having wildly different work ethics, being friends with each other, and the game needing balanced shares for the true ending promotes the kind of collusion and complacency that competition is supposed to prevent. On a personal level, friends are a source of fun and emotional security. On a societal level, friends can create a conflict of interest between the group and the rest of society. The story makes you feel like being a part of the harmonious in-group of friends, but it distracts you from the social implications of the power this group wields over the rest of society. These CPUs were born into their positions, they have absolute authority, they do not age, and they suppress competitive forces that are an actual threat to them. Why do fantasy settings keep using and romanticizing monarchies?