2014 has already been a great year for localised Japanese gaming, especially on PS Vita. Us Europeans have been thoroughly spoiled by the likes of Danganronpa, Sorcery Saga and Ys: Memories Of Celceta... and SEGA have just released the motherload. Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F was a smash hit in Japan, but now the Vocaloid rhythm game has finally made it over to British shores. A gutsy move to say the least, especially since much of the hardcore fanbase will have probably imported a copy.
In case you're not au fait with the term 'Vocaloid,' here's a grossly oversimplified crash course. Hatsune Miku is effectively a musical instrument: a synthesised voice represented by the image of a young lass with huge pigtails. However, canny marketing, massive fan support and an army of talented musicians turned her into a phenomenon, a virtual pop star whose songs and performances are provided by the community and those who use the software. She doesn't exist, yet absolutely does, her personality being interpreted differently by each fan and artist, whether online, in videos, in concert or even the imagination. It's fascinating and rather wonderful, especially since the resulting music is often brilliant.
Still not with me? Okay. Erm... the Nyan Cat song. She sings that. Let's move on.
If you're a fan of rhythm games, J-Pop and J-Rock, Project Diva F is going to suit you down to the ground. If you're a fan of Hatsune Miku and Vocaloids in general, however, this is going to be an essential purchase.
Rhythm games live or die on the strength of their soundtrack, so it's a good thing that Project Diva F does the business on that front. 38 songs are up for grabs, starring several characters and offering surprising variety. There are some real Vocaloid anthems here, such as Black☆Rock Shooter and Remote Controller (which has been stuck in my head for an ENTIRE WEEK) alongside some incredibly catchy tunes from various artists - my personal new favourite being the shred-tastic Secret Police. And, yes, that flipping Nyan cat song makes an appearance. J-Rock and J-Pop is highly prevalent, but there's even a little country flavour and plenty of thrashing guitar to go around too. There's not a duff track in the bunch, so long as you enjoy the genre.
Each track is accompanied by a colourful, vibrant, well-directed video in which your chosen character generally puts their weight on it, overlain by visual button prompts that fly onto the screen from all angles. You'll have to hold or tap the relevant button in the right rhythm, or swipe the touchscreen, to accrue points and survive long enough to see the song through. It's a simple idea, but feels natural and - more importantly - provides the foundation for an absolutely cracking rhythm game experience.
On normal difficulty, you'll find yourself stretched every now and again, but it's always easy to find the beat and enter the groove. You'll catch on quickly... before arrogantly switching over to 'hard' and realising that you've only been playing with the training wheels on. The game begins proper when you up the difficulty, throwing insane yet intuitive patterns of notes your way, and sometimes threatening to overwhelm your senses on songs with higher BPM counts.
Expert difficulty is... I can't even begin to describe it. It's like getting your face kicked in by Parappa The Rapper, an anime box set and the Aurora Borealis, only in a good if humbling way. I've only managed to complete five songs so far, since my hand occasionally cramped up due to the Vita's relatively shallow form factor, but it felt great. Thankfully harder tracks can be mitigated by spending in-game currency on various boosters, while show-offs can maximise their rewards by equipping tricky modifiers, acting a little like a betting or wager system.
The Vita's powerful hardware makes for a pleasingly sharp graphical experience and also factors into gameplay. Songs are cached before you play them, meaning that they can be restarted almost instantly, while there's absolutely no latency between the video and audio. This is critical for rhythm games (often requring lengthy calibration sequences to correct for specific televisions on home consoles), but it feels rock solid and effortless here. The Vita's touchscreen and rear track pad also allows us to 'scratch' the screen rather than waggle the thumbsticks for star notes, which felt imprecise on PS3. Again, rock solid now, and a perfect foundation for hours of self-improving gameplay.
As a rhythm game, Project Diva f is therefore very impressive - so long as you're into the musical genre. If you're REALLY into the source material, though, you'll find the metagame equally alluring.
You're able to pay Hatsune Miku and the other Vocaloid personas a visit in their virtual dressing rooms, where they hang out between songs. Points earned from track completion can be spent on new outfits, customisation, room decorations, items and gifts. 'Communication mode' allows you to touch each Diva to make them like you -- which is much less creepy than it sounds, honestly -- and play a tilt-sensitive game of Rock Paper Scissors. Finally, there's some curious Augmented Reality functionality, which you'll need a card for to use properly. If you get sucked in, you'll be playing songs and spending your winnings for many, many hours.
Many players will ignore it completely (fair enough, to be honest), but for Vocaloid and virtual diva fans, it's a rare opportunity to interact and engage with Hatsune Miku - she's no less 'real' in her videogames as she is online. Or in concert. That's the beauty of a totally digital pop star.
The Network mode proves to be a major wasted opportunity. We can create and share our own creations using MP3 files and an incredibly powerful editing suite, but in practice it's an absolute nightmare. Discovery is completely broken, owing to the lack of trending or popular lists and the inclusion of deleted files, while you'll need to independently download the MP3 yourself to play someone else's work. SEGA also took the frankly idiotic decision to award a trophy for uploading anything to the servers, meaning that there's an awful lot of rubbish and no way to sort the wheat from the chaff. What should have been a USP is ultimately FUBAR.
And, as grateful as I am to SEGA for bringing Project Diva f to Europe, I do have to punish them for an incredibly aggravating oversight during the localisation process. Song lyrics and character dialogue is not translated or subtitled. Yes, I appreciate that a sizeable proportion of the UK fanbase is either fluent in or has a working knowledge of Japanese, but it's galling nevertheless, especially since this should have opened up the franchise to a whole new audience. Years of playing imported games and watching anime allowed me to get the gist of things most of the time - yet a little extra effort would have paid off in spades.
- Excellent and surprisingly varied track selection - if predicated on J-Pop
- Crisp visuals and sharp mechanics
- Addictive metagame for superfans
- No translation for lyrics and character dialogue (beyond a couple of songs)
- Sharing and discovery is borderline broken, feels like a wasted opportunity
- Niche: know this going in
The Short Version: Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F is a colourful, challenging, engaging and mechanically unimpeachable rhythm game. A handful of annoying oversights aside, expect some brilliant songs and deeply impressive fan service.
SEGA should be congratulated for bringing such a niche proposition Westwards, let alone to Europe.