The sound of a rhythm game populated entirely with the music of Japan’s own Hatsune Miku will be an instant turn-off to some. Music can be one of the most divisive subjects around; a game centered around songs made using vocaloid software – think entirely artificial, auto-tuned singers – might seem a nightmare, only slightly removed from the circle of Hell set aside for Justin Bieber and Brokencyde. But, in Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA f, by rounding up some of the very best creators and artists, Sega have managed to construct a setlist that was as surprising as it was entertaining. There’s a hefty disclaimer to make, however; from the outset, if you have no tolerance for J-Pop, vocals that hit hamster-squeal levels or those unnerving quirks of some Japanese titles that might make for strange looks on the Tube then go about your daily business. If, however, that sounds right up your alley then continue on to find out why this game is an unexpected pleasure.
Also available on the PlayStation 3, both versions are near identical save for some different control mapping and a few platform specific songs. The tracklist of thirty-or-so songs (not including bonus cuts) might not have the recognisability of a Western game but the unfamiliarity makes initial song playthroughs both a challenge and a journey of discovery. Fans will find some excellent and well-known choices - BLACK★ROCK SHOOTER among them – and the inclusion of the Nyan cat song and Leekspin music will undoubtedly strike a chord with those aware of their respective memes.
A music game with awful music defeats the point of a title (although don’t say it can’t happen… looking at you Guitar Praise), but Project DIVA f has some standout hits that suit the frantic button-matching format. Not all are sung by the twin-tailed, blue-haired songstress herself – one standout track comes from Rin and Len Kagamine. Remote Controller is a perfect rhythm game track with a driving beat, catchy hook and a music video that hits all the right notes including a nice call-out to the Dreamcast. It’s also one of the songs that sounds distinctly less artificial than the rest, perhaps because of its electronica style or the subject matter itself. Take a listen and judge for yourself:
So catchy and vibrant, it lends itself to button mashing so well that the tunnel vision, that laser-focus that signals near-complete synchronicity with a game, sets in as soon as the equalizer kicks in with the beat.
With difficulty levels from basic all the way to extreme, this is a game that will take a long time to master. Even those experienced with the higher tiers of Rock Band or Guitar Hero will find this a new beast to tame – the gameplay itself is closer to the karaoke mini-game found within Sega’s Yakuza series. Essentially, icons representing the face buttons will float in from off-screen to align with corresponding prompts that can appear anywhere, all set against the backdrop of a music video. Held notes appear as solid lines while certain presses require a corresponding direction to be hit simultaneously, adding that extra bit of brain-bending quick comprehension on the insane higher difficulties. Timing has to be almost exactly perfect, with grades from ‘Bad’ to ‘Cool’. With the exactitude needed to string combos together you’ll be wearing your fingers down to bloody nubs in your bid to hit a perfect run.
Special sections appear as well. Some notes are star-shaped, whereby Vita players must ‘scratch’ (or rub) the screen in time to the notes, while this is mapped to an analogue stick on the PlayStation 3. Other sections must be nailed to score a huge bonus and a final rainbow coloured section will unlock a bonus encore if enough points are accrued. Further still, there are unlockable mods that will directly affect the song playthrough, taking the amount of combinations and approaches to mind-boggling levels.
You’ll find that ‘just one more go’ trait start to creep in the more tracks you unlock, hoping to best yourself. With its short-burst gameplay and portable convenience, Project DIVA f is a game suited for the daily commute – this is exactly the type of thing you’d see everywhere on Japanese public transport, heads down as the neon changes to suburban streets burnished by an ochre sunset. If that imagery doesn’t reveal it, this game has an entrancing effect for Japanophiles and especially those lucky enough to have visited the country. The J-Pop, the dazzlingly colourful visuals and even the very gameplay itself have a nostalgic allure, the culture clash similar to those first nights walking Akihabara’s gaudy streets. Enclosed in your hands is an artefact of pure, distilled Japanese pop culture.
Rather amazingly, the rhythm game is but one facet of the overall experience. Project DIVA f is heaven for those wishing to tweak even the finest details. Every song can have a different vocalist swapped in, altering not only their vocals but splicing them into the music videos too (proving that these backdrops are generated on the fly and not baked-in promos). This is more fun than it sounds, given that videos can be simply watched without any need to play. If you feel particularly devious you can create the note paths you’ll need to hit, using an intuitive grid overlaid on the screen. This rabbit hole of customisation goes deeper, friends, deeper than simple songs.
The rhythm game occupies just one small option on the main game menu. Playing and completing songs earns Diva Points – these can then be spent in the other half of the game, a basic simulation where you can drop in on each of the vocaloid singers. Similar to the gift system in Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball, you can buy outfits, furniture, presents and more to offer to your diva-in-training or to customise their boxy residence. This directly contributes to an affection meter and unlocks short vignettes where they’ll interact with whatever prop has fallen into their lap. Occasionally they may play a game with you, although it’s rudimentary – Rock, Paper, Scissors with a rather unfair game of chance dictating the scoreboard. It’s not a deep simulation and can grow tiresome quickly. There’s also the ever-so-slightly weird interaction where you rub the character’s face to get them to like you. At least it doesn’t give you the option to rub anywhere more questionable, but it’s one part of the game that errs too much toward otaku pandering.
Add in network capabilities – leaderboards, the ability to share your own customised tracks and more – and this downloadable title packs a huge amount of replay value. Downloadable AR cards allow you to stage your own concerts using the Vita’s camera, justifying another of the features of Sony’s little wonder-machine. The amount to do is simply hard to comprehend and, although it’s a totally different species, this game could hold its own against most other music games. Even the loading screens are so varied that it’s rare you’ll encounter the same one within your first playthrough,
You’ll need to have a certain mind-set and an ear for songs that might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA f is exactly the type of game that deserves localisation in the West. Every pixel has been tailored to offer the fans what they want and there’s a real feeling that it’s a collaborative effort, given the songs and a great deal of the artwork are fanmade. As a handheld game it excels, able to offer short bursts of play and longer, more intricate constructions in equal measure. Sega have triumphed in bringing this to unfamiliar Western shores and rhythm game experts and newcomers alike should seriously consider giving this a try. Now, Sega, about that localisation of Yakuza 5…