Let’s travel back in time by about a year. If anyone asked me back then, “What’s a Japanese franchise that will never, ever be localized in English?” My answer would have been without a doubt and without a single moment of hesitation – “Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA.”
And here we are, with the virtual diva Hatsune Miku happily dancing and prancing on my monitor, telling me with her anime-like smiling face, “You were wrong, neener-neener!” and me smiling back like an idiot, because I’m damn happy, for once, about having been proven wrong.
Seriously Sega, prove me wrong some more, maybe with Valkyria Chronicles 3 or Yakuza 5…but I guess I’m digressing.
Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F‘s visuals are simply charming. While they’re not the fruit of technical miracles, they’re brought up to HD standards from the original PS Vita version beautifully, with very little aliasing and clean, crisp textures that make you wonder if the game was made for the PS3 to begin with and then just downscaled for Sony’s portable.
The game is colorful, with clean, elegant menus paired with great art direction and a degree of creativity that puts the rest of the Rhythm genre to shame. After playing Project DIVA F all the Guitar Heros and the Singstars of the world will look quite drab and even a little sad in comparison.
But make no mistake and don’t let yourself be misled by the eye-catching graphics and the apparently friendly anime-like characters. This is a rhythm game with a pedigree, and if you approach it lightly just because of its superficial visual charms, it’s going to brutalize your ego like none other.
The game requires you to hit the face/directional buttons of your controller at the right time when the markers pass into the target box, and a rather high level of precision is required to do it right, and especially to line up the combos of “good” and “cool” results that will push your score up and let you clear the song. If you’re the kind of gamer that starts a game by pulling the difficulty level all the way up, your pride is going to get you in trouble, as the notes are going to literally pour from the screen and into your face, leaving you frazzled and confused unless you already know what you’re doing.
Most players will get a much better experience by starting with the easy level of difficulty, where things are a lot more manageable, even if still challenging and fun, especially if you’re not used to rhythm games. I’m not ashamed to say that I failed quite a few songs on easy the first time I tried them, and that’s actually a good thing.
Mastering the extreme difficulty level requires a very keen eye and a lot of training, as you seriously won’t have time to think. Either you’ll be able to get “in the zone” and simply hit each mark by pure instinct, or you won’t. It’s really that simple. Getting there regularly will probably take most people hundreds of hours of gameplay.
Since the previous games of the series, Project DIVA F adds a new kind of input called “Scratch Notes,” that on the PS Vita version required to slide the finger on the screen. On the PS3 version this has been replaced by flicking the analog sticks. While the purists of the genre are probably going to cringe at the idea, as the peculiar kind of input basically forced the developers to make entire sequences of those notes without mixing them with other kinds of input (as it would be extremely awkward to move between the analogs and the face buttons in complex sequences), I actually found them a great way to just relax and unwind for a few seconds during the most complex strings.
Unfortunately the gameplay isn’t free of flaws. While the visuals of each performance are beautiful and very creative, they’re also very distracting, and you’ll often find yourself desperately squinting to try and actually see the notes as the colorful effects almost purposely attempt to thwart your efforts to do so. As a result it’s often very easy to struggle to enjoy either the gameplay or the visuals, or both, because they fight for your attention so fiercely that it’s difficult to keep on track unless you focus very hard on one of the aspects (and of course if you focus on the visuals the song is going to fail very, very quickly).
Of course, as a rhythm game, Project DIVA F lives or dies on the quality of its music, and this is where it’s most impressive. There are no Beatles or Rolling Stones here, “just” a rich selection of the songs created by fans of the Vocaloid (a vocal synthesizer created by Crypton Future Media) genre. This means budding Japanese musicians often with no formal musical education or training, but fueled by lot of passion and great instincts.
As a result the songs are extremely catchy and varied, but either you’ll love them or you’ll hate them, and in both cases they’ll probably nail themselves in your brain like few others. Personally, I always loved them. While they lack the natural flavor of actual songs performed by a human singer, they replace it with sheer creativity, and listening to them can easily be defined a very unique musical experience.
An added advantage of using the Vocaloid system over traditional prerecorded songs is that the game will very intuitively let you know where you did wrong. If you hit an “Awful” note, the song will stutter for a moment, giving you a very clear audio clue on where you need to improve.
While the main rhythm game will probably keep you busy for a long time, especially if you’re willing to challenge yourself with the higher difficulty levels, the game comes packed with a lot of extras, collectibles, unlockables, costumes and accessories to outfit your divas according to your taste.
The “Diva Room” feature allows you to get up close and personal with your favorite songstress, giving her gifts and interacting with her (you can also customize the the room itself by buying furniture and collectibles) , while the Studio mode will let you just sit back and watch live performances while controlling the camera, and take staged pictures.
The biggest feature that most will overlook is the extremely deep and fully featured Edit mode that allows you to create your own songs, including lyrics, target keys, animations and so forth. You can even use your own MP3s. It’s a very complex system, but the results you can achieve once you master it are rather impressive, and while it’s not the full Vocaloid program, there’s a whole lot to play with, and it’s quite rewarding once you get the hang of how everything works.
You can also share your edited songs online with others, and download theirs. Unfortunately this is, to be brutally honest, the weakest point of the game’s feature suite. There’s no way to rate other people’s creations, and as a consequence the only way to order them is by submission time. This means that you’ll be fully blind in what you download, and you’ll have to struggle a lot to find anything enjoyable in the mess of submissions. This is a development oversight that I really fail to justify in this day and age.
Ultimately, one of the most charming element of the game is that it’ll immerse you fully in the Vocaloid culture and community, not only in the variety and creativity of its songs but also in its less evident elements, like the loading screens made entirely with lovely fan art spanning a myriad of different styles.
Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F comes packed with some flaws, even relevant ones, and it’s not for everyone. As a matter of fact it’s probably one of the most niche-oriented titles you’ll ever play, but if you’re a fan of rhythm games or a lover of the Japanese musical culture with the patience and determination to tackle the game’s often ruthless level of challenge, you owe it to yourself to be part of this mostly great and unique experience.
I thought this game would never make it across the ocean to the United States, and being able to play it in English still feels like a dream. If it is, please don’t wake me up.