In the world of gaming a handful of games are announced in Japan that we immediately assume will never hit Western shores due to their obscurity or weirdness. Yet every so often one will come over, either as a gift to fans or in the hopes that it will be attractive to a niche market. In this case, it’s Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F, a niche game that makes other niche games feel somewhat mainstream, and it’s being brought to the West by the brave and possibly insane Sega of America. Since they were somehow able to bring this game over, all I’m left to ask of Sega of America is ‘where is Yakuza 5?’
The majority of those reading this review will likely be asking themselves what “Hatsune Miku” stands for. Hatsune Miku is the poster child of Vocaloid software, which uses all of the sounds used in the Japanese language, recorded by voice actors/actresses, and strings them together to turn them into songs. Hatsune was first released on Vocaloid 2 in 2007 and quickly grew to fame online with various user created songs which, between Nico Nico and YouTube, have over 200 million views. These days, Hatsune Miku sells out concert venues playing “live” via animated projections and is featured in various rhythm based video games.
Project DIVA F is a rhythm based game that features songs from Hatsune Miku, Rin, Len, Luka, Kaito and Meiko. During songs, a promotional video takes place in the background while you play the game. On the screen you will see an outline of the PlayStation symbols (Circle, Triangle, Square and X), and your goal is to tap the correct button at the right time. To help you time it right each black symbol has a clock hand that goes clockwise; when the hand hits the top again is the optimal moment.
There are only four action types. The first, as mentioned above, requires that you tap the shown symbol at the right time. For extended notes you must hold down the face button until the note is finished. Combo notes show up as an arrow that you must tap at the same time as you use the face buttons. And finally, Scratch/Star Notes require you use either or both of the analog sticks; when the stars overlap the stationary symbol on the screen you need to push any stick in any direction to essentially tap the stars.
The gameplay is simple, then, but it becomes more difficult and even somewhat sadistic as the game progresses and the challenge ramps up. There are four difficulties - Easy, Normal, Hard and Extreme - and you will certainly notice the differences between them very quickly. Easy and Normal use just 2 of the PlayStation’s symbols and are generally slower compared to Hard and Extreme (which use all four symbols and often use combo notes). But that’s where rhythm games like this shine; when you’re pushed mentally until you hit your stride, tapping the right buttons without thinking. These sections of sadistic button tapping occur frequently as you progress and are a joy to play, even though you’ll often fail in the end.
When it comes to rhythm games, one’s enjoyment of the featured music is just as important as the gameplay itself. In Project DIVA F the majority of the music consists of J-pop and some rock music, as well as the Nyan Cat’s theme. If you have never listened to a Vocaloid song before listen to these three songs to figure out where you stand: Odds & Ends, Fire Flower and Tengaku. With Vocaloid there isn’t much middle ground, so as soon as you’ve listened to those songs you’ll know exactly which side you stand on. DIVA F has a strong collection of Vocaloid songs. There are a few odd ones but the majority are good and there are even some of my favorites. Many of these catchy songs will get stuck in your heads for days; often times you will randomly start humming one before even realizing it.
By far the strongest part of the gameplay is the fast pace of the button tapping. Sadly the Star Notes don’t mix well this concept. While star note sections can be just as fast paced as the button sections, the difficulty level for them is disturbingly easy, and it’s very rare to not perform these sections perfectly. While they only take up a small amount of each song, star sections nonetheless feel out of place.
When beating songs on different difficulty levels you unlock more items to buy from the store, which is split into three sections: Modules/Customization Items, Furniture, and Gifts. To buy items at the store you will need to spend the Diva Points (DP) you’ve earned completing songs. Modules are costumes for each character that not only alter their outfits but also hairstyles, hair color and occasionally other characteristics. Along with Modules you can customize you singer with customization items for their Head, Face, Chest and Back. You can then customize your singer in any song you have beaten with both Modules and Customization items and either play the song again with these alterations or you can choose to watch the promotional video of your customized character instead, without needing to worry about pressing buttons.
While there are a variety of customization options in changing how your singer looks, there is one glaring omission in the realm of customisation, namely that there’s no option to change the subtitles in the promotional videos from Romaji (Japanese in English lettering) to English. While this isn’t a deal breaker, it does seem very strange for everything else to have been translated in the game but not the song’s words themselves.
Outside of the regular gameplay you can visit the singers in their rooms. Inside, you can customize their room with any furniture or themes you’ve bought at the store. When certain furniture is placed in the room you can trigger an event, which usually shows one or more of the singers interacting with the item while making cute sounds. You can also directly interact with the singer, petting their heads in order to raise your “relationship”. If you pet them incorrectly they will get mad and won’t let you touch them for a certain amount time, but if performed correctly it will raise their affection for you, and after achieving 3 positive increases in a row you play rock, paper, scissors with the singer in a mini-game. You can also just give them gifts they like to raise their affection. After each level raise you unlock a new item in the shop that’s related to that singer.
Project DIVA F includes a level editor, so you can make your own levels from either the songs in the game or from MP3s on your hard drive in editing mode. In this mode you have complete control over everything from who’s singing to every single movement, as well as the ability to select camera angles and visual effects. You even control the gameplay mechanics during the song. Anything you create in editing mode can be uploaded onto the PSN for other players to download (except the MP3 if it’s not from the game) and likewise you can download other players’ creations.
Visually, the game is very appealing, with detailed high-resolution character models and colorful backgrounds. Several of the games promotional videos, like Kagamine Hachi-Hachi Flowery Battle, use 2D art to contrast nicely with the 3D backgrounds and characters. On the flip side, while the colorful videos look great, they can often cause you to miss or lose track of the next button to tap because of all the activity in the background.
A nice touch is that random pieces of fan art (from over 200 in total) act as the game’s loading screens. The quality of the art varies from doodle level to professional, which is fine. Unfortunately you will have to spend quite some time admiring these pieces of art since the loading times can be pretty lengthy and are extremely frequent.
It will take you about five hours to beat and unlock all of the songs on normal. While that may not sound like much (and it isn’t), Project DIVA F can last much longer if you want it to, be it either by challenging yourself to complete songs on extreme difficulty, or to best your high score, or even making your perfect stage performance using the editing tools. If you enjoy the core game then you will get much more than five hours’ worth of content out of Project DIVA F.
Hastune Miku: Project DIVA F is a delightful experience; a unique combination of pure button-tapping madness and some awkward diva petting in-between. While it can be a bit rough around the edges and certainly won’t appeal to most gamers, that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. If you’re looking for a rhythm game that’s a little bit different and quintessentially Japanese then you could do much worse. Hopefully this is not just a one-time deal, but rather the first of many Hatsune Miku games that make it over to the West.
This review is based on a copy of Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F for the PS3