We had the chance to stop her, but now it's too late. Hatsune Miku has taken over.
At this point, Miku is a global phenomenon. The virtual pop idol recently infiltrated American culture in a guest appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman and as an opening act for Lady Gaga, but her worldwide success comes as a result of a fascinating mixture of official licensing and fan-made mythos. Miku herself may be rooted in sterile voice synthesis software, but it's the work of fans that gave her a vibrantly marketable identity.
This unique melding of fandom and Japanese idol culture defines Sega's Hatsune Miku: Project Diva series, which showcases fan-made art and music alongside slickly produced rhythm-driven gameplay. The latest series entry, Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F 2nd, introduces game-changing features and streamlines its predecessor's weaker elements while crafting a surprisingly diverse challenge for rhythm game veterans.
The Hatsune Miku: Project Diva series follows a straightforward gameplay formula that will be a familiar fit for genre fans. Players choose from among 40 included tracks, unlocking new songs, character outfits, and other features as they work their way through multiple difficulty levels.
Project Diva's gameplay resembles Elite Beat Agents and the Ouendan series on the Nintendo DS. On-screen cues pop up and span the playfield in chained sequences, and players must tap the controller's face buttons with exact timing as prompts fly in from the screen borders. Timing is gauged more tightly than in instrument-driven games like Guitar Hero, and you'll need to hit a majority of notes in each stage in order to clear it and progress to the next unlockable song.
At a glance, Project Diva's gameplay seems random and chaotic with regard to on-screen note placement, and the obnoxiously colorful backgrounds make it difficult for beginners to get a feel for the tight timing window. Stick with it, though, and you'll discover that these mechanics hide unexpected depth.
Like the Ouendan games, Project Diva F 2nd spaces its on-screen prompts carefully, allowing players to intuit upcoming rhythms based partially on visual cues. A packed sequence of notes requires multiple consecutive button presses, for instance, while prompts that are spaced further apart hint at syncopated rhythms. Familiarity with each level's backing music track is obviously an advantage, but clever visual cues allow you to tackle the game's challenges even if you're playing a song for the first time. Succeeding at a difficult track in Project Diva requires coordination, timing, acuity of visual spacing, and rapt attention, making high-level play very satisfying.
Project Diva F 2nd ups the challenge level with new types of button prompts. Like its predecessor, gameplay is largely driven by button taps, held notes, combo notes (pressing a d-pad direction along with a corresponding button), and star-shaped cues that require flicks of the analog stick (or touchscreen swipes in the Vita version). Project Diva F 2nd also introduces "linked scratch targets," which require flicking both analog sticks in the PS3 edition (tricky, but doable) or swiping the Vita's touchscreen with two fingers at once (much more difficult, and often uncomfortable).
The sequel's other major gameplay additions, "linked star targets," challenge players to complete standalone flick or swipe sequences that chain together to form on-screen shapes. These sequences don't follow an obvious rhythm based on visual cues alone, and as a result, they often interrupt gameplay flow and break combo chains when they pop up unexpectedly. While they're an occasional frustration, they thankfully don't appear often enough to detract from the core gameplay.
Otherwise, Project Diva F 2nd is a significant improvement over its predecessor. The PlayStation 3 version includes an HD lag calibration tool – something that was sorely missing from Project Diva F. Other improvements include an English option for on-screen lyrics, data import options, and item checklists, which make it easy to track the unlockables you've earned across all songs and difficulties.
The track list is similarly expanded, and now showcases a great deal of variety beyond the saccharine pop you'd normally associate with Miku and her Vocaloid pals. Delve deep into the catalogue and you'll find jazz, eurobeat, world fusion, a couple of ballads ... and at least one song about how Hatsune Miku wants us all dead.
The Diva Room mode (essentially a free-form hang-out session with the game's starring characters) has also been overhauled, and the consequences of interactions and gift-giving are now clearly outlined. Miku will now explicitly state when your friendship is appreciated and when you've become an annoyance – a helpful push in the right direction when you're trying to raise her affection levels and unlock new customization items.
(Becoming friends with Miku, by the way, involves rubbing her face until she likes you. Yes, even for a rhythm game about anthropomorphized voice software, Project Diva F 2nd can get a little strange.)
While the basics are easy enough to pick up, Project Diva F 2nd is much more difficult than the first game in the series. The initial batch of songs feature the sorts of challenging note patterns that didn't appear until the latter half of Project Diva F's campaign, and the Normal difficulty will be a stiff challenge for first-timers. Easy mode remains a viable alternative, though, and returning players will appreciate the overall boost in difficulty. Still, if you've never played a game in the series before, I'd recommend starting with Project Diva F rather than this year's edition, as its difficulty progression is better suited for beginners.
Rock Band may be dead and buried, but rhythm game fans jonesing for a fix should give Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F 2nd a shot. Its cheery aesthetic and anime styling may be a little off-putting for some, but its gameplay is solid and surprisingly challenging.
Besides, if you submit now, Miku might spare your life when the Vocaloids eventually enslave humankind. Probably not, though.
This review is based on a PSN download of the Vita version of Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F 2nd, provided by Sega. The PS3 version was also tested. Images: Sega.
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