We all have our guilty pleasures.
Way back in 2010, for example, I stumbled upon a bit of Starz original programming called Spartacus: Blood and Sand. The series was crude, gratuitous -- trashy, even. More than anything else, though, Spartacus was effective at what it set out to do: Tell the story of a broken man in a barbaric age.
So, despite repeatedly having to explain to my wife why I was watching the squirmy British guy from The Mummy sexing up a room full of slaves, I stuck with Blood and Sand. Once I got over the show's obsession with pre-imperial Roman excess, I found myself captivated by its fearless writing and performances. And, eventually, the guilt began to fade.
Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F inspires a similar sense of ambivalence, though I'm not sure the pleasure justifies the guilt in this case. Scrub away Miku's creepy, voyeuristic elements and all that remains are some nice production values and an otherwise unremarkable rhythm game.
They've ticked all the usual boxes for Miku: Press the correct buttons in time with the music while characters in the background prance about, look generically badass, or party with astronauts who also happen to be cats. Sometimes you have to hold a button down or press two of them at the same time, but it never get more complicated than that. Nothing too mind-blowing here.
It gets weirder, though. This long-running Japanese franchise takes its namesake from Hatsune Miku, a virtual pop star (or "vocaloid") who performs onstage via projectors at actual concert venues all over the world. The closest Western equivalent would likely be the British band Gorillaz, although their cartoon avatars all correspond to human musicians working behind the scenes. Miku, on the other hand, is one-hundred percent synthetic -- from her dance moves to her singing voice.
Given her origins, it makes perfect sense for Hatsune Miku to star in her own rhythm game. In practice, however, Miku comes off as weirdly hollow and disjointed. That's probably because, unlike, say, Parappa or Ulala, Miku isn't so much a character as she is a programmable musical tool. Since nearly all of the game's 40-plus songs each have different composers and visual themes, Miku's personality hinges entirely on the whims of her puppet masters -- and they're not a consistent bunch. One level casts her as a menacing factory manager. Another dresses her up as a school girl. Yet another elevates her to some kind of benevolent demigod sent to look after post-apocalyptic Earth. To say that Hatsune Miku "stars" in anything is like saying cotton is the star of my T-shirt collection.
You'll find a few unique systems at play in Project DIVA F. Perform well enough during specific sections of a stage, for instance, and you might score bonus points or even unlock an alternate ending to the track. I also appreciate the way you can tinker with a song's difficulty by purchasing items before the level begins. Some of these power-ups allow for more mistakes during a song at the cost of a reduced ranking, while others make things more challenging in addition to boosting the end-of-level rewards. All of this stuff helps keep the game's rudimentary rhythm action interesting past its shelf date.
Project DIVA F also deserves credit for looking awesome, even if its extravagant background animations are somewhat wasted on players who dare not glance at anything but the next button prompt. A lot of care clearly went into the dance choreography for Miku and the other vocaloids, and the same goes for the huge variety of backdrops in the game. I particularly enjoyed the levels that overtly reference other Sega properties, like Phantasy Star Online (and made me wonder why PSO2 isn't out in the U.S. yet).
Sure, the game's animations can sometimes make it difficult to follow button cues as they zip around the screen, but a.) that's kind of an issue with most rhythm games, and b.) it's the least of Project DIVA F's problems.
Smart rhythm game design ties player input to a single, distinct element of the soundtrack. Hatsune Miku doesn't always follow this logic. Most of the time, button presses in Project DIVA F match up with a song's vocal track -- miss a note, and the vocaloid will stop singing for a moment. But there are also sections where your actions represent guitars, drums, pianos, or some other nebulous piece of the puzzle, so it can be tricky gauging which parts to focus on from moment to moment.
Worse yet, the way the game handles its note charts is often inconsistent between songs. One track might assign every rapid-fire syllable to a button while another skips over entire words in favor of more uniform button patterns. This causes trouble when your reflexes start filling in gaps based on what you hear rather than what you see.
The uneven soundtrack doesn't help, either. The technology behind vocaloids like Hatsune Miku is impressive in many respects, but it never quite sounds human to me. Every sung phoneme has this stitched-together, robotic quality to it, which I guess must be a draw for some people? Certain songs mask the effect better than others, though, and some of them are, admittedly, pretty catchy.
Catchy enough that I'd listen to them outside of the game, though? Nope.
And then there's the general air of perviness that saturates Project DIVA F. I could disregard the fact that the bulk of the game features scantily clad characters who, according to their creators, range between 14 and 20 years old. I could even ignore the suggestive poses, camera angles, and gross outfits -- one of which, an open jacket with nothing but a belt holding back enormous breasts, landed a special shout out in the game's ESRB description. Anyway, I'm no prude, and I've certainly enjoyed games with fashion sense more vulgar than this.
The game's secondary modes aren't as easy for me to dismiss. Specifically, I'm not so keen on the part where the game lets you observe Miku and friends while they do jumping jacks in their futuristic apartments. Oh, and you're also supposed to rub them down with a digital hand in order to "build affinity" or something? What? Honestly, I don't know who this is for, but it's not for me.
It's the sort of design choice that causes me call into question every other aspect of the game. Like the Photo Studio, which allows you to pose the game's cast in any image saved to your hard drive -- regardless of the motivation behind including this mode, it automatically seems suspicious in light of the creep factor found elsewhere in Project DIVA F. And someone at Sega must have thought so, too, because the Photo Studio goes out of its way to ensure that upskirt shots are (almost) impossible.
I wouldn't fault someone for enjoying Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F. Like I said before: We all have our guilty pleasures. But for me, personally, Project DIVA F isn't worth the baggage.
- Visuals: Easily the game's biggest strength. From the backdrops to the choreography and camerawork, each stage is put together with all the craftsmanship of a real music video. Remember those?
- Music: At its best, Hatsune Miku's soundtrack evokes the sort of high-energy J-pop that might precede your favorite anime. At worst, the game sounds like K.K. Slider rapping over "Sports!" from Tim & Eric's Awesome Show.
- Interface: Pretty simple and straightforward. Some of the note charts feel a bit off, however.
- Lasting Appeal: With multiple levels of difficulty, additional modes, and robust editing tools, there's plenty to do in Project DIVA F even after you've cleared all the songs.
A merely adequate rhythm game swaddled in yuck, Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F can't hang with the best the genre has to offer.