2015's Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA X was a little bit of a departure for the long-running rhythm game series. Rather than adhering to the traditional, gameplay-focused framework of the franchise set up in earlier instalments, X thrust players into a sugary sweet narrative starring the popular virtual popstar and her equally saccharine friends trying to save their world through the power of song. Depending on your tolerance level for cutesy characters with improbable haircuts discovering the meaning of friendship by joining together to sing songs about (among other things) accidental pregnancies, the storytelling was at best silly and disposable and at worst intrusive and counter-productive.

Enter Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA Future Tone, a game which seems to have been created with the express purpose of not only eschewing any attempt to craft narrative justification for singing, dancing, and high score chasing, but also to offer the most value for money of any game in the series to date. The story is gone and there's absolutely no other fluff here: you'll begin with a short tutorial explaining the various types of button presses you'll need to use throughout the game, and once that's over, you're free to start working your way through all of the songs at your own pace.

For veterans of the franchise, there's little in Future Tone to differentiate it from the games in the series prior to Project DIVA X in the gameplay department. For the newcomers, you'll start up a stage and Hatsune Miku will sing songs created by a vocaloid synthesizer while an appropriately cheesy music video plays in the background. In order to amass a score impressive enough to clear the stage, you'll need to watch intently for button prompts to appear, wait for a matching icon to move across the screen, and it's once the two meet that you'll need to input your command.

You'll need to tap all four face buttons, the directional buttons, L1 and R1, or two or more of these at the same time, and how many of these button prompts you'll be required to deal with will be dependent on the level of difficulty that you're playing on. If you time your button presses well, you'll start racking up a combo, and if you miss too many of the prompts, your life gauge will deplete and it's Game Over. Easy mode is a fairly pedestrian affair requiring little of any musical skill to progress, while the Extreme setting will throw commands at you with such reckless abandon that those unprepared for the challenge will likely wonder if it's even possible to hit all of the notes without possessing four hands. The balance between being accessible to new players and providing a workout for the fingers of players with serious chops has always been a strong-point for the series, and Future Tone is no exception. There's no better series of rhythm games on current PlayStation hardware, and that's unlikely to change until a certain rapping dog comes out of retirement for one last job.

The biggest changes to the formula following Project DIVA X are outside of the core gameplay, and these changes will likely be of most interest to fans of the franchise. In X, only Easy and Normal difficulties were unlocked at the beginning of the game and you were required to trudge through the story in order to unlock the more challenging options. Future Tone wisely throws that out of the window and lets you start with Hard Mode right from the beginning, offering up the Extreme difficulty option as a bonus for passing a stage on the Hard setting. This might not seem like a big deal, but for accomplished players of the series, having to work through every single song at least twice just to get to the most challenging options was a bit of a grind, and one of the most prominent issues with Project DIVA X.

The other change that is likely to please fans of the franchise is in how the game is being rolled out. The base Project DIVA Future Tone is essentially a demo that gives you access to the tutorial, a couple of songs to work through, and a few outfits to dress Hatsune Miku up in for free. From there you can download two different content packs. There's Future Sound (around 120 songs largely taken from previous games in the series, some of which never made it to the West) and Colorful Tone (around 100 songs taken from the 3DS game Project Mirai DX and the arcade title Project DIVA Arcade). We'll do the maths so that you don't have to: buying both content packs gives you access to well over 200 songs to work through, as well as a plethora of costumes, haircuts, and accessories to customise your popstars as you see fit. After the paltry 30 songs on offer for Project DIVA X, Future Tone is a tantalising option for fans of the franchise.

Conclusion

The core Hatsune Miku gameplay has barely changed, so if you liked it before, you'll like it now. The most compelling case for picking up Project DIVA Future Tone lies in the options you're given as to how much of the game you want to buy. While the free, base package won't give you much to sink your teeth into, either of the reasonably priced add-on packs offer an awful lot of bang for your buck, and combined they make up the most robust and complete version of Hatsune Miku ever released.