Review by ACSeraph

"An imperfect step towards the Project Diva future"

Despite never reaching the western world, Sega's Project Diva series of rhythm games is considered a AAA series on the PSP in Japan. The games are known not for simply having tons of cute Vocaloid fan service but also for being exceptional rhythm games in their own right. Even without the Vocaloid branding the games could easily stand on their own against other games in the genre and that is their greatest strength. So, when Project Diva f was announced for the Vita, thus bringing the series into a new generation, the atmosphere surrounding the game in Japan could best be described as “hype”. Really hype. There was advertising absolutely everywhere. Months before release there were huge displays running videos of the game in every major game store. There was even a limited edition Hatsune Miku Vita being released alongside the game! At least in Japan, it was the biggest release for the Vita so far, so the question was whether Sega could live up to the excitement they had generated.

But before we move on let's get everyone up to speed. For those who don't know, Project Diva is a fairly simple music game based on Yamaha's Vocaloid characters. Vocaloid is a kind of synthetic voice software that lets users create their own music to share or sell. Type “Vocaloid” into the Youtube search bar sometime if you want to flush a Saturday down the toilet. There are many distinct Vocaloid voices that were created by Yamaha, and each is personified by a different character. The title character is Hatsune Miku, an android pop-star from the not too distant future in the form of a cute 16 year old girl. Since all of the music is user created the style varies drastically from artist to artist even when they are using the same voice software. This is one of the coolest things about Vocaloid really, there truly is something out there for everyone as long as you like the way the synthetic voices sound.

All of the games in the Project Diva series follow a similar formula. There is a large song list composed primarily of songs from popular Vocaloid artists. Most of the songs feature the Hatsune Miku voice, but songs featuring other character voices are also included. Each song features a unique 3D video and you use the face buttons to play notes as they appear on screen. Of course if you miss too many it's game over. On top of this every game in the series has an insane amount of unlockable costumes that can be used in the videos, and a mode called Miku Room that has various non-game related functions. The main difference from one game to the next has been the song lists and various tweaks and additions to the gameplay formula.

Like its predecessors, in Project Diva f notes appear in various patterns on screen as black silhouettes in the shape of the PSV face buttons. Colored notes then fly in from off screen and you have to hit the corresponding button as it lines up with its black silhouette. It sounds more chaotic than it actually is, because you can easily read the rhythm of the notes based on the spacing of the silhouettes, and the colored notes really only aid you in keeping the tempo. Its a pretty unique system among rhythm games, but after a little bit of practice it will quickly become second nature. Starting with Project Diva 2nd two new kinds of notes were introduced and they appear in Project Diva f as well. The first is the “arrow note” which appears as a colored arrow shape. So for example, if the note is a blue down arrow, the game wants you to hit X and down at the same time. The second type is a “hold note” where the note has a line attached to it. For these you simply hold down the button and then let go with careful timing at the end of the line. For its part Project Diva f adds a new star shaped note called a “scratch”. For these you have to slide your finger across either of the touch screens as the notes line up. It's important to note that a simple tap will not suffice, you have to actually slide your finger across the screen for the note to read, something that ends up being a fatal flaw in the new system.

Now, basically the gameplay in Project Diva f is the same as previous games, which is to say its awesome. But while the new scratch system sounds good on paper, the reality falls flat in multiple ways and it really hurts Project Diva f overall as a game. First of all, the required sliding motion makes it much more difficult to have perfect timing than a simple tap and so you end up receiving “fine” timing instead of “cool” on sections you could easily perfect if the game just used the buttons. Secondly, even though you have to option of using either touch screen to play the notes they both are equally awkward to reach. You have to completely change the position of your hand in order to play them effectively which takes you out of the zone, and also poses a problem when you are having to do spit second switches between touch and button controls at the Extreme difficulty. Thirdly, and I don't really know about the rest of you, but my soft fleshy material surrounding the poking mechanisms you people call “fingers” isn't totally smooth and dry all the time. Indeed they seem to secrete a tiny amount of oil that gives them a sort of gripping power. Guess what? That doesn't bode well for sliding your fingers across the touch screen at extremely high speeds with strict timing. What happens is sometimes your fingers stick to the touch screen a little, which causes the slide not to read, and BAM there goes your perfect run. This is, in a word, infuriating.

But fret not! There is a solution. Sega must have realized that there were some problems with the touch controls so they added in a fail safe. For all other notes in the game the accuracy scores are “cool”, “fine”, “safe”, and “who cares you suck”. Safe and below will break your combo, so effectively they all mean “miss”. But star notes only come in two flavors, “cool” and “fine”, and this doesn't mean you have to have good timing either, it just means that if you were even remotely close with your timing you will score at least a “fine” and not break your combo. Because star notes typically appear in long sections that feature nothing but other star notes you can actually scratch away at the touchscreen like a madman through the entire section with no timing whatsoever and you will not miss a single note. Its not fun, but be thankful its there, because if star notes required the same timing as other notes in the game Extreme difficulty would have been effectively ruined. I think what happened was Sega, much like the early developers for the original DS, saw the Vita's touch screen and said to themselves “It's there, so we have to use it!” Unfortunately in doing so, while they didn't ruin the game, they did do some significant damage to it.

The second major gameplay change is how the scoring system works. In previous games the scoring is very straight forward and based entirely on your accuracy and combo score. There was also a small section of each song designated “chance time” where you couldn't fail and every note you hit added a score bonus. If you managed to clear it without missing any notes you received a huge score bonus. Chance time still exists in Project Diva f, but it has been greatly expanded into a much more satisfying system. Now as you hit notes in chance time you fill up a giant star note meter. The last note of the chance time is the giant star note, and if you filled the meter and manage to hit the note, you not only receive a huge score bonus but it will change events in the background video. It is incredibly satisfying when you hit them because of this, and even though it can be difficult to switch quickly from standard button notes to the touch screen in order to hit the giant star this is the one place where I actually thought the touchscreen felt good. Had they only ended the use of the touchscreen controls here the game would have benefited greatly. On top of the improved chance time there are now numerous technical zones throughout the song. These are like mini chance times where if you clear the zone without missing a note you get a big score boost, but if you miss even one note you get nothing. In order to get high ranks at the end of the song you need to be able to clear the technical zones and the chance time which is a nice goal to strive for as you work your way towards total perfection. The only problem I have with the technical zones is that many of them are wasted on star note sections, so you can just mad-scratch your way to a bonus every time.

That about covers the gameplay, but this is the Vita baby! The new generation! How are those supah-graphics? Well while I can't say that Project Diva f makes a very good case for the Vita hardware, the graphical design and the video direction is incredibly good. The problem is that the graphics aren't very sharp. They have a kind of blurry, filtered look to them that seems like a common problem in Vita games. That said, basically everything else about the presentation is an exponential improvement over previous games. The character models are about the same quality as the PS3 Vocaloid games, except that the character animations are vastly improved and expanded. In particular the range of emotions and facial expressions the characters have is absolutely incredible. On top of this, while the Project Diva series has always been known for its nice video direction, Project Diva f takes it to a whole new level. Every single video in the game is interesting and unique. There are so many creative ideas, that range everywhere from cute, to moving, to funny, to horrifying. Of course there's a massive collection of cute and sexy costumes to go along with it, and even that has been expanded on. In addition to costumes you can now buy accessory items like hats, glasses, and wings to further customize your characters.

And seeing as this is a music game, what about the song list? Well much like its predecessor Project Diva Extend, it doesn't try to play it safe. There's a ton of variety featuring many different Vocaloid characters. There's the typical J-pop that characterized the first two titles, along with horror themed songs, 8-bit techno, rock, Japanese folk music, and much more. It is at least as good as the Extend soundtrack, and possibly better. Another note is that unlike other games in the series all but one song is totally new, and that song actually came from the 3DS game, so the video and gameplay are different enough that it might as well be considered new too.

All of these improvements come together to create what should have been the absolute best Vocaloid game to date, and that isn't even considering the massive expansions made to the Miku Room feature. This is an excellent game that is absolutely worth the time of any Vita owner, and the improvements really do outweigh the mistakes the game made. It's just unfortunate that Project Diva f trips up on its own star note and blows its perfect score.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 10/23/12

Game Release: Hatsune Miku: Project Diva f (JP, 08/30/12)

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