Hatsune Miku: Project Diva f Vita
Before the popularity of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, which brought mainstream appeal to the music rhythm genre (and sadly, single-handedly killed it as well), music games were kind of a niche thing, due to their often peculiar designs. Some of my favourite rhythm games caught my love because of their unique visuals, addictive music and Japanese flavour. I’m speaking about games like the awesome Bust-A-Groove, the rocking Um Jammer Lammy, the tremendously quirky Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, and my favourite of the bunch, the legendary Gitaroo Man. Sega has been enjoying success with the genre in Japan, thanks to acquiring the rights to create Hatsune Miku video games based on the extremely popular vocaloid. Currently there are seven games in the series that span PSP, PS3, 3DS and Vita, but, unsurprisingly, this is the first time the franchise has left Japan to go international.
I could write an essay about the vocaloid craze, but it’s not hard to explore the internet and find out about the company Crypton Future Media and their synthesizer software. I do understand why Sega would be reluctant to release a Hatsune Miku game in the west – the whole vocaloid trend is very Japanese centric. It’s probably something Sega thought wouldn’t gain any attention in the west, but simply outright not experimenting with the idea is a worse perception to have, because this industry often rewards those who disregard market research. Hatsune Miku’s first English release is a great example of that, because after last year’s PS3 edition of this title and this Vita adaption, Sega recently announced that thanks to the success of Project Diva F, Project Diva F 2 will be coming this autumn for both PS3 and Vita, thus making me a happy dude, because Project Diva F is a solid, fun, rhythm game that brings back memories of the classics I enjoyed playing when I was younger.
Rhythm Game is where you will spend most of your time with Project Diva F. In here is where all the action happens across the game’s 33+ songs. After an explanation by Hatsune Miku in how to play the game, using the popular Finnish song, Ievan Polkka, as a training ground, it’s off to tackle either the easy or normal version of the game’s set list. Only a few songs are selectable at the start, as new songs unlock as you beat the ones currently available. Hard and extreme difficulties unlock on a per song basis, meaning you need to beat that song on normal to unlock hard, then beat it on hard to unlock extreme.
The concept of Project Diva F is really straight forward – press buttons in time with the song’s beat to score points. Grades range from cool, good, safe, bad and awful, with cool and good hits keeping the combo chain going. Notes first appear on the screen, with a line coming off them linked to a solid graphic of the note flying across to the shadowed outline. Hit that correct button and you’ll be scored accordingly to how close you were to the beat of the note. There is nothing complicated in the design of the game, allowing anyone to play the game with zero experience with rhythm games.
Project Diva F does a great job bringing in those newcomers, because easy mode strips the game down to the basic philosophy. The only shape that flows across the screen is the circle button, with stars occasionally making an appearance, which require the player to slide their finger on the Vita’s touchscreen in any direction, as if you was scratching a record, like a DJ in a club house disco. This limited control scheme removes any complication and lets the player enjoy the music while learning the game. Experienced rhythm players will most likely want to skip easy and go straight on to normal, which opens up additional inputs, but you won’t unlock all of them until you take on hard mode, where all four face buttons and d-pad are unlocked to send your fingers in to a tapping nightmare. The Vita version is the original release of Project Diva F, but I find the touch screen for the stars a little unnatural when it comes to the higher difficulty. I much prefer using the right stick, like in the PS3 edition, which isn’t an option here.
When everything is being used in full force, you can have all four PlayStation symbols coming on screen in sync with the beat. To help, you can press the corresponding d-pad direction that relates to the position of a button; giving room for the left and right fingers to compensate the amount of notes that can populate the screen. Sometimes button inputs will appear with a directional arrow and a solid colour, meaning you have to press the correct direction and the right coloured button to count as a hit. It starts off welcoming players with open arms, but Project Diva F spends no time staying soft, offering a tough challenge for anyone brave enough to take on its extreme difficulty setting. To make matters worse, anyone with OCD will probably want to get the Perfect rating, which is an addictive thing in its own right, but plain masochistic to attempt when it comes to the harder songs.
Breaking the gameplay down, Project Diva F isn’t exactly doing anything special with the mechanics. It’s not like Bust-A-Groove, where you had to tap specific buttons on certain beats of the song, or like Gitaroo Man, where in that game you had to follow a line with an analogue stick while pressing or holding circle to play a guitar. Yet despite its basic approach to rhythm gameplay, Project Diva F remains great fun to play, thanks to how the mechanics merge with the music. A music game often thrives on its soundtrack, and while some people will have an issue with the vocaloid voice, the music has some depth to it, covering genres from Rock to Classical, and even including everyone’s favourite cat song, NyanNyanNyan. Overall, the soundtrack is incredibly catchy, making me a converted fan of this joyous music. I can’t get enough of Secret Police.
There is one issue with Project Diva F; it’s a little too loud for its own good. On the harder difficulties, the very active music videos, rendered in full 3D that play in the background, can interfere with the note display. Most music games keep the focus in one area, usually the centre, to help the player concentrate on what’s coming up, but Project Diva F throws its notes all over the Vita screen. When notes are flying in, it can be hard to see exactly where they are when all this stuff is going on in the background. On the plus side, it makes for one attractive show, as the presentation is drizzled in coatings of colour and gorgeous graphics, but I can’t help feel that I have to sometimes fight them to overcome a tough song.
There is a rather generous offering of side-content for people who want to spend Diva Points gained from playing the game. Edit mode opens up crazy potential for fans to completely rearrange songs and their music videos, but to get the most out of it requires a lot of time and patience. Items can be unlocked by beating songs, and then bought with Diva Points to dress up your favourite Vocaloids or decorate their room with various gifts. It’s not something that appealed to me, so I didn’t spend much time in that area. I bought a jukebox, played one of the game’s songs on it and gave Miku a tambourine, which gave her the idea to call her Blue-haired friend for a dance with her. It’s cute, but not for everyone. Diva points can also decrease or increase the difficulty of songs, by using them to turn on “help” or “challenge” modifications. These can be things like gaining no health from anything but a cool grade, to not being able to get less than a safe rating in exchange for less points per note. These are interesting mods that can perk up the gameplay when one is tired from playing the same songs.
Slight presentation issues aside, Hatsune Miku: Project Diva f is a good entry for newcomers to get into the music rhythm genre. It’s willing to offer the time to learn the player, but is also challenging and exciting enough to test the best fans of the genre with its simple, yet compelling gameplay. Hatsune Miku may be a niche product in the west, aimed at fans of the vocaloid scene or people who enjoyed the golden age of classic rhythm games, but with charming music, wonderful looks and addictive gameplay, this girl might just win you over if you are willing to give her the chance to let her exhibit her unique voice and catchy tunes.