Most music games sell based on the popularity of the licensed songs in their roster and gimmicky plastic peripherals. But what about a title where the majority of the gaming marketplace may not even recognise the songs, let alone understand the lyrics? Enter Hatsune Miku: Project Diva f – a rather unique audio-based release made with input from the fans, for the fans, which manages to overcome all linguistic barriers.
The game is fuelled by the recent vocaloid craze, a species of music heralding from Japan which has since invaded Western ear-holes. Vocaloid is basically a piece of software which allows musicians to create songs using phonemes of sample of voices. As the songs are made by selecting the pitch of each digital sound sample to makes up a word, this means that creators are not restricted by the speed of human singers, meaning that many vocaloid songs are performed at crazy fast tempos. There are a variety of different software styles which use different tones to create new voices, and each different voice is characterized by a virtual anime-style idol and digital singer. Hatsune Miku is the most famous and popular of these vocaloid stars, with a voice sampled from Japanese voice actress Fujita Saki, but alongside her are other fictional singers such as the twins Kagamine Rin and Len, Megurine Luka, Kaito, and Meiko, all of which star in Project Diva F. Got all that? Good, now let's get to the actual gameplay.
Despite the high-pitched Japanese voices, the main thrust of the title is much of what you would expect from any handheld rhythm-action title – think Elite Beat Agents with more dazzling, flashy lights. Each track is accompanied by a colourful backing video, with various timed on-screen button indicators popping over the top in time to the beat. While this may all sound rather simple, the release can be punishingly hard, and depending on the difficulty that you've selected – Easy, Normal, Hard, or Extreme – it can take a few attempts to nail the complex d-pad and button patterns which swoop across the screen. There are certain points in each song which if you can perfect will boost your overall score, such as the Technical Mode which asks you to rank up a perfect 'Cool!' point combo on a specific, and often difficult, segment of the song. Chance Time is also similar to this, and presents a star at the end for you to swipe at the right moment on the touchscreen in order to maximize your high score. While the touch sections of songs do make for a better challenge and help to mix up the gameplay, unfortunately the random way in which on-screen prompts appear means that you can often accidentally hide the next note with your finger, ruining that combo you've been building up. However, the PlayStation Vita's mechanism for activating stars with the touchscreen is decidedly superior to the PlayStation 3 version, which has you using an analog stick.
There's no career mode as such, so once you boot up the game you can jump straight into playing a few tracks, with more unlocking as you complete each stage. There are 33 core songs available, including some old favourites such as Black★Rock Shooter, Weekender Girl, Nyanyanyanyanyanyanya!, and World's End Dance Hall, with a few supplementary tracks available in the augmented reality mode and via DLC. As long as you don't mind the auto-tuned voices, there is a reasonable amount of variety between musical genres such as catchy pop tunes, emotional ballads, electro-beats, and rock songs with more guitar solos than you can count. The backing videos, whilst mostly composing a story involving the vocaloid idols based around the tracks, can be at times quite humorous, symbolic, and every so often feature a bit of cheeky fan-service (Glasses, we're looking at you). You can also change the sound effects of the notes that you hit, from the standard clap, to symbols, bleeps, and even a yapping dog – although, we really don't recommend that last one.
Unfortunately, there are a few niggles that let the title down. Loading screens between songs can be aggravatingly long, sometimes lasting around 20 seconds or more. Furthermore, sometimes the pattern of on-screen prompts can become too messy and confusing to comprehend quickly – especially during fast-paced tracks and in higher difficulties. At times, prompts can even blend into the colourful background videos, making it hard to see what you're supposed to do. It's also worth mentioning the frustrating placement of the Vita's speakers beneath the d-pad, which can cause the sound to become muffled by your thumbs. Of course, this is no fault of the game itself, but should be taken into consideration if you're lucky enough to own a PS3.
One thing that's certain, though, is that the release looks fantastic on the Vita's smaller screen, complemented by sharp, eye-catchingly bright hues. You may find the music videos in the background slightly distracting at first, but you'll soon develop that glassy-eyed stare that all past Guitar Hero loving players have been forced to adopt in order to overlook the flashing animations – which is a great shame, as for the most part the background videos are well made and rather entertaining. The anime-style character models all look rather cute, despite the odd rigid dance animation, and are benefited by a large wardrobe of over 90 costumes and an additional 100 accessories to dress them up in. Annoyingly, changing a character's outfit is a rather unnecessarily tedious experience, with several menus to flick through before you can clad Kagamine Len in a pair of sweet yet equally ridiculous cat ears. On the plus side, your choice of outfit is integrated into the music video, sometimes with hilarious consequences as you watch Kaito writhing during his heart-felt gothic ballad Ashes to Ashes brandishing a silver bell.
If you haven't yet worn your dancing shoes down to the sole, the game also includes a few extras gameplay modes, such as the Edit Play feature, AR mode, and the Diva Room. The latter of these features allows you to hang out in the bedrooms of your favourite vocaloid stars and lavish them with gifts to bond with them. You can also use the touchscreen to lovingly pet these characters to make them smile, in a strange Nintendogs-style fashion.. Most of these options can be considered a novelty, as most players will only visit them once in order to pick up Trophies – but it's nice to see their inclusion all the same.
Hatsune Miku: Project Diva f is a great rhythm game, but certainly won't be everyone's glass of strawberry-flavoured milk. If you're new to the vocaloid scene, we urge prospective buyers to have a listen to a few songs first. However, if fast-paced, electronic beats are your thing, don't let the few gameplay niggles deter you from having a head-boppingly good time with everyone's favourite green-haired girl. Trust us on this one – you'll all be humming along to Remote Controller in no time.