THE WORLD IS HERS
Japan’s most popular digital pop star, Hatsune Miku, has been slowly and steadily taking over the world. In addition to performing several of her own concerts in the US, over the past few years she has opened for Lady Gaga, modeled for Marc Jacobs, and most recently, performed on The Late Show With David Letterman. Not bad for a girl that isn’t even real. In the middle of this uptick in worldwide popularity, SEGA cautiously localized and released one of their rhythm games featuring the idol: Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F. It was an unexpected success on this side of the Pacific, prompting SEGA to enthusiastically announce the sequel not long after. Now that I’ve spent some quality time with Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F 2nd, I can say it wasn’t a fluke — this is a damn good series of rhythm games. If we scored games based on how much they made the reviewer smile, I’d have to give this game a 10. But we don’t.
There’s no pretense of a story in Project Diva; you pick a song and jump in. The gameplay of F 2nd is mostly unchanged from its predecessor: once the music starts, icons will begin streaming in from the edges of the screen, following the beat of the song you selected. Your job is to hit a button when they reach an identically-shaped target somewhere on the screen. The icons are in the shape of the four PlayStation face buttons (cross, circle, square, and triangle), indicating the button you must hit. (You’re also allowed to use the D-Pad instead of the face buttons, but more on that later.) Do it right, and you’ll score points; score enough of them and you’ll clear the song. There are also star-shaped notes which require you to swipe anywhere on the touchscreen, and notes that require you to hit two buttons or swipe with two fingers simultaneously.
It’s pretty straightforward stuff: Project Diva is a very pure rhythm game, in that you’re not pretending to dance or playing a goofy plastic guitar; you’re just following the beat. But man, it is not easy. Unlike in series like Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero, the notes aren’t just streaming down a single line; they’re coming from all sides, aiming for targets that could be anywhere on the screen. For the most part, this just means you’ll have to move your eyes around the screen. But when overlaid on top of colorful, crazy music videos, it can become a serious test of concentration to keep up. That said, it never feels annoying or unfair; it’s just part of the challenge.
The other source of difficulty is the sheer density of the button presses you’ll be asked to perform. The game locks you out of the Hard and Extreme mode of each song until you beat it on the next lowest difficulty, and it’s for your own good. I am a longtime veteran of the rhythm genre, and even Normal mode kept me on my toes. Halfway through Hard Mode, you’ll probably realize the true purpose of the game letting you use the D-Pad as a substitute for the face buttons. It’s not just to give you options, and it’s not to accommodate left-handed players. It’s because the game quickly becomes physically impossible to complete with just one side of the controller. You’ll need to work both the D-Pad and the face buttons, mentally splitting up the work between your two hands. It’s like being a drummer — you don’t do a drum roll with one hand, you gotta use both.
Extreme Mode is, needless to say, absolutely brutal, even compared to the previous game. Don’t let it scare you off though because the difficulty curve is as immaculately tuned as Miku’s synthetic voice. Once you’ve beaten the hardest song on a given difficulty, you’re immediately ready to tackle the easiest song on the next difficulty. You’re unlikely to get totally stuck (until Extreme Mode, of course). It’s a refreshing dose of challenge in a genre that’s been lacking it lately.
Graphically, the game isn’t knock-your-socks-off impressive, but it definitely looks good. The menus are clean and easy to navigate, and the in-game HUD and rhythm icons pop nicely from the background. There were a couple times in the previous game where it was tough to see the icons against a similarly-colored background, but these moments are mostly avoided in F 2nd. The backgrounds themselves are a real treat, even outside the context of the rhythm game; each song is accompanied with a music video showing Miku or one of the other five Vocaloids performing the song. It’s more than just your character of choice singing and dancing, however — these are actual music videos, each with its own backdrop and choreography. The videos are always vibrant, dynamic, and entertaining, sometimes even beautiful, and sometimes brimming with the kind of goofy, lovable charm that alt-rock videos had in the 90’s. Just like the previous game, all the videos can be watched on their own if you want to enjoy them without playing the game, which is a welcome feature that I definitely made use of. As an added bonus, the videos are all rendered in-engine, meaning that you can freely swap in any character/costume you want.
It’s often said that a rhythm game lives or dies by its soundtrack, and while I’m not sure that’s entirely true, the quality of the songs certainly matter. Going in, I was a little worried about the soundtrack; the previous game used up a huge number of the catchy mega-hits that made Miku and friends famous. I’m pleased to report that I found F 2nd’s soundtrack to be even better than the previous game. The songlist as a whole is a lot more interesting than the straightforward catchiness on display in the original. It’s all Japanese, but there’s a wide variety of genres on offer, from rock to electro-pop to musical numbers to hard-hitting EDM anthems. Not to say that the previous game was monotone, but everything, from the songs to the videos to the note charts themselves, has a lot more personality in this new iteration. I can’t get enough of songs like “Kagerou Daze”, “The World is Mine”, and my favorite, “This is the Happiness and Peace of Mind Committee”. Even the songs I’m not as fond of (and there’s only one or two) are very listenable. In fact, I think I’m comfortable calling this 40-song setlist my favorite rhythm game soundtrack of all time, which is saying a lot. For people who lamented the last game’s bias toward songs sung by Miku rather than the other Vocaloids, it’s worth noting that the same focus is present here. For me, personally, it’s not an issue (she is the star of the show, after all).
Besides the rhythm game, there’s a few side modes available. The most fully-featured is the Diva Room, returning from the last game. Here, you can spend money you’ve accumulated by playing songs in order to buy gifts and room decorations for the six main characters. Spending time with each of the Vocaloids increases your friendship level with them, the goal being to reach the max level with each one. It plays like a completely-platonic dating sim, and if you just cringed at those words, well, it’s entirely optional. I found it a fun diversion between songs, and there are some amusing scenes to watch and fun interactions to be had. It’s more-or-less the same thing as last time, but with a few tweaks to improve the player experience. For example, the game more clearly communicates when a Vocaloid is sick of being patted on the head, or really doesn’t want a seventh melon soda today. (Maybe I’m playing it wrong.)
The other side content is fun but doesn’t really hold much value for me: you can watch augmented-reality concerts of some songs, or edit and upload your own note charts and music videos for the existing songs or any other MP3 on your Vita. The video editor in particular is ridiculously in-depth; there’s a lot of freedom to create some cool stuff, but it requires more patience than I have.
The Verdict: 8.7 out of 10
I love this game. With Project Diva F 2nd, SEGA has demonstrated that they know exactly what makes a rhythm game great, and it’s not bulky plastic peripherals — rather, it’s great music, simple inputs, well-made note charts that match the personality of the song, and a good dose of tough-but-fair challenge. Compared to the previous game, it’s largely more of the same, but SEGA was smart enough to not fix what wasn’t broken. Is it for everyone? Of course not. The rhythm genre is somewhat niche now that Guitar Hero and the like have fallen out of favor. But as long as you don’t hate the sound of the Japanese language (or the sound of the Vocaloids’ voices), I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the quality of the music. And if you already agree that the voices of Hatsune Miku and friends have graced some of the most creative, catchy music produced in the last decade, well, what are you hanging around here for? You want to play this game as soon as possible.
For more information about what the score means, check out our official review scale.
Aaron Dobbe is an Associate Writer at MONG specializing in Nintendo but playing a bit of everything else too. Follow him on Facebook and pester him to get a Twitter.