Back to Vocaloids, huh.
I know this doesn't come across at all in text but I'm holding my head in my hands and sighing right now.
On a serious note, we took our own screenshots this time! God bless the built-in snapshot feature on the Vita! Click to embiggen them, if you so desire. However, because we got our own shots, I have the unenviable task of informing you that there is a secret page lurking here. How will you find it? I'll give you a small clue- it's a link hidden as normal text, related to something intrinsically linked to anime culture. If you're smart and foolhardy enough, you'll find it... Also, we still have no idea how to parse Vocaloid names- do we do it like we do in the mean streets of England, i.e. forename first, surname last, or how it's done on the Vocaloid's home turf, the other way round? We gave up, so we tried to stick with just their first names... Except where we can't avoid it.
Also, once again we mostly skipped the DIVA Room and Edit Mode features, because they're auxiliary. Well, we think so anyway.
On the plus side, at least this time we didn't have to phone for help, like clueless punks. Probably a bad sign, that.
This is the continuing story of how I became the worst Vocaloid fan in the world.
(To make any sense of this review, you'll probably need to read our review of 2nd first.)
So, what's been happening in the world of Vocaloidin'? Well... I dunno. I'm sure that stuff probably happened, but I certainly wasn't privy to it. I was too busy playing catch-up and finding out that there's more Vocaloids than bloody Pokemon out there to actually keep up with the here and now of the whole thing. Gotta catch 'em all! It's quite complex, with many different companies beyond Crypton Future Media making their own 'oids, if you will (some of the more amusing variant names include UTAUoid and Megpoid). Not all of them are hits, obviously (I've heard some voice banks bad enough to set off car alarms for a five-mile radius) but beyond the Project DIVA cast, some of the better 'oids out there include Yuzuki Yukari (running on Vocaloid3 technology) and Miki (probably the most accessible 'oid, almost sounds human)... What I mostly learned is that the Project DIVA games are a decent introduction to the concept but miss out on whole swathes of content. Not that I'm an expert, far from it- I'm sure I only classify as a casual Vocaloid fan, and this obviously makes me THE ENEMY.
... So let's get back on track, here's another Vocaloid game. After 2nd, there was a stand-alone pseudo-sequel/expansion called Extend to finish the series off on the PSP (which I skipped because half the song roster is repeated, and also I'm cheap), and the series would leap to more powerful hardware (excluding Arcade, and all those Dreamy Theatre PS3 'ports') for Project DIVA f for the PS Vita (the version we're reviewing) and PS3 (not my department). It's not a cheap 'slap a new lick of paint on the old games and call it a day' job either, as it was fairly expensive to make, and
Sega don't even know if they can do a sequel hahaha of course there's going to be another one, you fools. Ahem. Even so, it sounds like it was pretty expensive to make, which I found pretty surprising as I assumed Sega could crack these things out forever (with Miku or not, indeed- the PSP game's engine was modified and reused seemingly without Dingo Inc.'s involvement for a K-ON! game, based on an manga/anime that I assume is about girls playing guitars and eating pudding).
Anyway, it should once again be obvious that Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA f is a rhythm game.
The basics are the same as the PSP games, so we'll just go over them briefly again. As the promo video (PV) plays in the background, notes will drift on-screen from all directions, coming in four varieties- normal (press them!), Hold (hold until the line ends!), Direction (press both the button and corresponding direction at once!) and new to this game, Scratch (rub the screen, we'll get to these).
Destroy them all! Press the buttons in time with the voice/music to pass! To clear a song, you need to survive until the end and rack up a certain number of FINE and COOL notes, which also maintain/refill your health meter, whereas SAFE (just got it) notes don't count, and SAD and WORST (you missed) notes take away from your life meter, and if it empties entirely, you fail. There's some new bits and bobs though, most of which we'll be dissecting in a moment, like the reshuffled Chance Time and all-new Technical Zone. The other parts of the Project DIVA experience- Edit Mode, the kinda-weird DIVA Rooms, the often-baffling loading screen artwork and the like- are all present and correct, so if you have any familiarity with the series, you'll be at home here. Then again, you'll probably have this game already, but let's not split hairs.
The thing is, they tried to fix all the problems present in the PSP games...
And they nearly got it perfect. Nearly.
First, let's deal with the biggest problem with the PSP games, the lack of feedback. Playing 2nd was basically like popping bubble-wrap, where it felt like you weren't doing anything or contributing to the song- you were just pressin' buttans. The PV would play on, regardless of your actions, and the only way to alter things would be to fail the song entirely, making it slightly unsatisfying at points and very difficult to gauge how well you were doing. In f, most of the new mechanics seem to be geared towards getting rid of those feelings, and while they don't fix the experience enough for 5 stars, they're an improvement.
Let's start with the Scratch Notes- these star-shaped notes require you to rub the touch screen to pass them, which helps get you a little more into the game and give some variety to your button mashing. They're usually quarantined in their own portions of the song, but sometimes show up amongst other notes to keep you on your toes, and they work a lot better than expected (as long as you don't lift your finger- keep it on the screen and rub in time with the notes to register it). The main criticism here is that a few songs on Extreme have Scratch Note patterns that are less like typical PD sections and are just total gibberish. You can sometimes pass these by just flailing around on the touch screen. There is a logic to them, but the first couple of times you play them you won't see it. It's not the best use of the touchscreen, I'll admit, but they're not as obtrusive or annoying as you might think, and it could've been worse- can you imagine if you had to touch them exactly where they appeared on screen as well as traditional button presses?
(It's also a nice touch that a handful of the PVs, mostly the ones near the end, actually incorporate button presses into the video.)
The rejigged Chance Time helps too, both in terms of feedback and difficulty- like before, it's usually at the end of a song, but this time hitting notes builds up a star meter in the corner. At the end, a huge Scratch Note will appear, and if you filled the meter, it'll be glowing- hit it and you'll change the ending of the PV (the audience gets trapped in a giant cage in Secret Police, sprinklers go off and a rainbow appears in Summer Idol, etc.) but if you weren't good enough, it'll do nothing. It's a minor thing, but as well as making you feel like you're contributing something to the song, it'll also give you a big boost towards clearing the song if you nail it. The Technical Zones, two per song on Normal and above, are similar- keep a combo going through the entire sequence, and you'll get a stage clearance boost. Combine these with the new status bar at the bottom of the screen- it's a much better visual representation of how you're doing than the orb from 2nd, and it marks where each rank minimum is- and you can gauge your skill a lot better, so the frustration you'd get from surviving a song but not passing is really rectified this time. A good example is when I was playing one of the harder songs, NegaPosi*Continues, on Extreme- unlike my first time playing 2nd, where I had little idea if I was really improving while playing Romeo and Cinderella, but this time I could see the bar getting further and further each time, which encouraged me to keep at it.
Smaller details added to the game build up and make the game feel more satisfying as well. This is stuff like the vocals being muted when you miss notes (this was in the very first game and removed from 2nd/Extend for some reason- it's not perfect as it plays the voices even if you get a Sad, but it's better than nothing), a new pass/fail system (Cool/Fine Notes and TZ/CT clears add to an overall percentage, which determines your rank), which make gauging performance a lot easier than last time (only whinge here is it doesn't do as detailed a breakdown of your combo points bonus), Direction Notes giving more points if you tap both buttons at once rather than hold then press, and finally the Challenge Items. First introduced in Extend, these are the opposite of the Help items in that they impose harsher playing conditions upon you, like giving you a set amount of non-regenerating health, only letting Cool notes count towards song completion, and so on. There's not many of them, but they add a reasonable challenge if you're looking for it (and veterans from 2nd might be, my life meter emptied a lot less in this game) and also benefit your DIVA Points- using these items can double, triple or quadruple DIVA Points earned from a song, which alleviates the grinding needed to buy all the stuff in the shop.
As for the difficulty, this was a problem in 2nd, where the first few songs in the game included some overly-difficult note patterns, essentially roadblocking me from unlocking new songs. I had no such problem this time, although this is almost certainly down to me actually getting good at the game rather than the difficulty being toned down. I only started to fail songs once I reached Extreme, but I'm willing to bet starting players will struggle with Secret Police and Cat Food. They're fast-paced, but Cat Food, as the first song, makes an admirable attempt to ease you into the Scratch Notes... This didn't help my test subject (sorry, John) who made it halfway through Cat Food three times before giving up, throwing his hands in the air and yelling 'it's not even in time to the music, this is [redacted]!'. However, the new status bar and boosts you get from Technical Zones/Chance Time make unlocking songs for the first time less frustrating. Unfortunately, a distressing percentage of the Extreme songs are chock full of ridiculous note patterns, with 'doubled-up' notes (notes that overlap, requiring quick tapping) everywhere- nothing quite as punishingly long as the strings from The Singing Passion of Hatsune Miku at the end of 2nd, but it saps the fun out of things when you have to Takahashi Meijin your way through some of these songs. To the point where my hand was actually starting to hurt! The only thing that can help, if your timing is right, is you can use the d-pad as a second set of face buttons, i.e. right is Circle, down is X, etc.
The final improvements to the game come in the form of visual upgrades and more variety in costumes. While I was impressed with the graphics in 2nd, the Vita hardware (and that screen) make the game a lot more vibrant, and the character models are even more expressive. Rather than take what I call the 'porcelain doll' approach seen in the Dreamy Theater games and Arcade, this feels more like the next step up from the PSP games, with less jaggies and more dynamic lighting effects in the PVs. The costumes are all new (aside from Miku/Rin/Len's Append costumes), are as offensively colourful as the PVs, and are all customisable with the new accessories, which come in four types (head, face, neck and back) and range from cat ears to glasses. Speaking of, the shop system is the same as last time- earn DIVA Points by beating songs to spend on clothes- but has been made slightly less grindy with the DIVA Point bonuses available if you use Challenge Items. It's not entirely impossible to buy a good percentage of available costumes after clearing Normal and Hard (but let's be honest, once you've unlocked the Puyo Puyo-related garb, what is there left to buy?).
Unfortunately, the game does shoot itself in a foot a few times. The biggest bugbear is the slowdown and stuttering. Slowdown was a slight problem in 2nd- melt in particular would 'stutter' a bit in Extreme when too much was going on- but for the most part, it wasn't that obvious. In f, a considerable number of songs, especially on any difficulty above Normal, have a brief moment (usually less than a second) where the note movements will 'stutter' a little bit and slow down slightly. You might not even see it as it's usually only for a split-second, but when you do notice it, it can throw you right off your game. Worst for this is one of my favourite songs, World's End Dancehall, which is a damn shame as it was the one song that I knew was in here before getting it. That said, the first time you play each song, it's going to bother you, but certain songs are less affected than others- NegaPosi*Continues, one of the hardest songs in the game, doesn't seem to have any at all, and I had to play it a lot to clear it on Extreme- and the more you play, the less intrusive it becomes. It's just very sloppy, really- the game's running at 30 frames per second as it is, so the fact that it suffers any slowdown at all is kinda shameful! And slowdown in a music game, of all things, really now...
There's also the set-list, which is ultimately a touch weaker than the one from 2nd. To its credit, it avoids one of the problems 2nd had with repeated producers (2nd had something crazy like four ryo songs, three kz songs, etc.) with only ryo and wowaka making more than one appearance. Every song is new to the series (except Melancholic, also in Project MIRAI for the 3DS) and popular producers like kz and Dixie Flatline made new songs just for the game. The genre variety is still there (no ragtime this time, but you do get 90s-style pop choir, Beach Boys-style surf rock and 8-bit techno) and the songs that are good are really good (top choices include Weekender Girl, Sadistic.Music∞Factory and Left-Behind City). Fun both to listen to and play, some have some clever note patterns. It's just the gulf between the good songs and the bad songs is more pronounced this time, both in terms of the songs themselves and the note patterns (on Extreme in particular, some of these songs are a touch obnoxious) to the point where there's a lot more songs I just flat-out don't want to play again. The non-Miku vocaloids get a raw deal too, only two songs each to themselves again (except Len and KAITO, not even Sega likes them) and- if you ask me- it feels like they get one great song (Rin gets Melancholic, MEIKO gets Nostalogic) and then one, uh, lesser song (Luka gets MEGANE). Finally, there's just less of them, with 33 in total compared to 2nd's 46 without DLC. If you'll let me be cynical for a second, I'm willing to bet some of the old songs will be offered as DLC down the line (money for old rope, of course!) but, well, a few more songs wouldn't hurt, like.
In the end, Project DIVA f is two steps forward and one step back. Had the game not improved in all the other areas from its predecessors, I probably wouldn't have been so nice to it, especially with those technical problems. 2nd earned its 3 star score by being a decent enough rhythm game with no real feedback, but f does everything it can to fix those problems, turning it into a pleasant, more satisfying rhythm experience. In the same way 2nd had lots of little problems that built up to sap my enjoyment, f implements of a lot of fixes that build up to improve the game. For the effort, I have to give it an extra star, but it's not yet at a 5-star level. With a bigger and better set-list and all the slowdown and stutter eliminated, this would've been highly recommended to all but the rhythm game crowd who need instrument controllers to get their groove on, because throughout my playtime for this review (40 hours and counting, oh God what have I become) I was wringing a lot of entertainment out of the game... It's just there was also this nagging thought that with just a few more changes, it could've been even better. Obviously, it's not strong enough to sell a Vita to you, but if you have one, and are down with this whole Vocaloid nonsense, you'd do well to grab a copy.
Unfortunately, there's no Godzilla this time. SAD FACE.
The best we can do is Haku pretending to be that robot boss from Contra III: The Alien Wars.
For tinkering and toiling to fix a decent game, Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA f is awarded...
In a sentence, Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA f is...