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Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F review: Rhythm and hues

JG Carter

Remember Clippy, the virtual "assistant" that drove thousands of innocent cubicle drones to despair back in the late 90s? Imagine that instead of becoming a running joke and an omen of Microsoft's cultural obsolescence, Clippy instead became a multimedia icon with his own TV show, energy drink and video game series. That's what happened to Hatsune Miku, the bobble-headed mascot for an obscure voice synthesizer program who went on to become the world's first bona fide virtual pop idol. The future is here, ladies and gentlemen, and it's basically Clippy crossed with an autotune machine.

Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F may superficially resemble the pop music shovelware that haunts the bargain bin at your local Walmart, but there's a degree of artistry here that puts it above the usual Celebrity: The Game slop. That's not to say you'll like Project Diva F if you're not the proud owner of a pair of Miku-brand underpants. The virtual dollhouse segments will likely leave you bewildered, but there's a competent music game at the heart of Project Diva F that may keep even non-fans entertained.

Gallery: Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F | 3 Photos

The core of Project Diva F is your usual rhythm game fare: You select a song (from a rough total of 40), a difficulty, a character to perform the song and then start hitting buttons in time with the music. Button prompts appear on the screen while secondary prompts glide towards them. Press the correct button when the two prompts intersect and voila, points and adulation. As you progress, the game mixes things up with notes that need to be held, or pressed in conjunction with a direction on the d-pad, and "star notes," which require a quick flick of an analogue stick in any direction (standing in for the touchscreen used in the Japan-only Vita version). Oddly enough, despite often being worth more points, star notes are easier to hit and have more forgiving timing than their regular counterparts. At the end of the song, assuming you made it through, you're given a performance rating and a suitable amount of Diva points, which serve as the game's currency.

The music videos that play in the background during the gameplay are rendered in full 3D and any changes made to your lineup are reflected in the video, right down to the costume and vanity items you select.

Where Project Diva F starts to deviate from the traditional music game model is also where it starts to get a bit wobbly. In most music games, the important information – like which key you're supposed to press – is presented up front, usually in a visually neutral part of the screen. Not so in Project Diva F, which litters prompts all over the screen and has secondary prompts flying in from all angles like it expects you have three eyes. When it works, it's great. Good patterns will draw your eye around the screen in a natural way, which feels more engaging than waiting for the prompts to hit a static line. I found myself getting into the "zone" far quicker in Project Diva F than I do in most music games.

The downside is that the difficulty isn't really determined by how complex the song is, but by how complex the developers made the prompt pattern. Playing sometimes seems more like a vision test than anything to do with rhythm. It's meant to be challenging, and it's joyously so, but failing to hit a simple four beat note because the game is deliberately obscuring what you're supposed to do is infuriating. This is made worse by the accompanying background videos. Like most pop videos, they're prone to flashing lights, fast-moving objects and quick cuts, which makes picking out individual prompts headache-inducing at times. You'll learn to filter out the visual noise, but drop a beat during an intense chorus and your chances of finding it again are slim.

There are special patterns, denoted as "Technical Zones," that reward you with bonus points should you hit every note in the sequence, but these appear at the same point in every song and don't really affect the gameplay in any substantial way. You either get the points or you don't. Compared to, say, Guitar Hero's Star Power, which can be used strategically to either keep a song going or to boost your score during difficult sections, the Technical Zones feels rote and uninspired. Likewise, Chance Time, which sees you filling a meter to hit one special note at the end of the sequence, is similarly limited.

Problems with its pattern design aside, Project Diva F actually gets a lot right when it comes to difficulty. The game doesn't really start until hard mode, with both easy and normal difficulties serving as a long introduction to the mechanics. The jumps between difficulty levels can be jarring, but they can be bridged with clever use of optional challenges that alter the difficulty. You might not be ready to take on "Nyanyanyanyanyanyanya!" on expert, but you might just be able to get through it on hard with a quarter of your usual health. The challenges also function as wagers. They cost a small sum to activate, but they can vastly increase your earnings should you survive the song.

Once you're done with the included tracks, there's an editor that lets you create your own rhythm sequences. The editor is initially intimidating and the tutorial is too brief, but it's a powerful tool and I suspect it'll add a lot to the game's lifespan in the right hands. Unfortunately, the network system Sega has implemented isn't doing much to make finding good content easy. Each user can only upload a maximum of three tracks, meaning you'll have to scroll through a lot of "song deleted" prompts to get to the good stuff. It's possible to make sequences for your own MP3s, but anyone downloading those sequences will need to find the correctly named MP3 and download it to their PS3 from outside the game's menu.

Hatsune Miku review
The remainder of the Project Diva F is a virtual dollhouse where you visit Miku and the other entirely interchangeable characters in their rooms. It isn't quite as creepy as my description implies, but nor is it that exciting. There simply isn't much to do beyond looking at the characters. You can buy them extra costumes or accessories which carry into the music videos during the actual game – pro tip: aviators for everyone – but mostly you'll be spending vast quantities of Diva points on vanity items that do absolutely nothing. You can buy gifts, which unlock short cutscenes of the characters doing sickeningly cute things in sickeningly cute ways, or gadgets, which unlock things that are almost, but not quite, mini-games. One of the gadgets is an alarm clock that lets you watch Miku sleep. In real time. No, really.

"Communication mode," which lets you "touch characters to build a better bond with them," sounded like a one way trip to creeper-town, but even that turned out to be fairly dull. Spoiler: Miku likes having her head patted and dislikes having a finger driven into her eye socket. Those are your two options; head patting and eye poking. Pat her head enough times and you can play a game of Rock Paper Scissors. That's as close to exciting as it gets.

The rest of the content is similarly frivolous. You can watch music videos, including some for a few songs not included in the game. You can take photos of the characters in various costumes, complete with a hilariously stern message that appears when you try to adjust the camera to look up their skirts (never let it be said that I'm not thorough). If you're expecting something along the lines of the Idolm@ster series, you'll likely be disappointed.

Hatsune Miku review
Ultimately, the virtual idol segments of the game are just padding, there to drive you back to the main game in an endless cycle of make money/buy stuff. The quickly increasing price tags are a good motivator to move on to the harder difficulties, but putting your hard-earned money to use is an exercise in frustration as you navigate seemingly endless sub menus peppered with loading screens.

While the extra fluff might fall flat, the core game that drives Project Diva F is definitely decent, though it's certainly not the best music game on the market, especially if you're not a J-Pop fan.

As with any music game, your mileage is mostly going to come down to how fond you are of the game's soundtrack and, unsurprisingly, Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F has a very narrow musical focus. While the Miku program has been used to craft songs in many different genres, the song selection in Project Diva F tends toward the more diabetes-inducing end of the saccharine J-pop spectrum. If you like that sort of thing, or you're in the market for a substantial time sink with a high skill ceiling, Project Diva F is worth the effort it demands. For everyone else, there are more innovative and more varied music games out there. Looking only at its core mechanics, Project Diva F is about as basic as a music game can get. It's not that it makes any huge missteps; more that it simply fails to do anything particularly interesting in a very well-trodden genre.

This review is based on a PSN download of Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F, provided by Sega.

Grey Carter is a professional writer and aspiring human being most well-known for his surprisingly poor webcomic, Critical Miss. You can stalk him on Twitter if you like @GreyTheTick.

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