Like I was going to pass up an opportunity to grab a new vocaloid game while I was in Japan. Especially since it's a game that we're being told can never be localised into English. IA/VT Colorful might feature a vocaloid whose popularity by comparison to Hatsune Miku is like comparing your local pub singer to Lady Gaga, but her game is good.
Related reading: This review compares IA/VT Colorful to the Hatsune Miku Project Diva F games. You can read my review of the second here.
If Hatsune Miku is the pop mega-idol of vocaloids, or the Lady Gaga of digital voices, 1st Place's IA is that niche independent label stuff that's played on your midnight TV music show. Her music is not as instantly sellable or catchy, but there's a deeper quality to her voice, which means her music is richer, once you let it get its hooks into you. Originally IA was, in fact, an attempt to bring an "operatic" voice to vocaloids, which should give you a sense of both the kind of music that her voice suits, and the kind of producers that actually use her for their own tracks. And while IA/VT doesn't contain any tracks that are out-and-out operatic, there are some really experimental ones, like Crystal Prism, which sounds like some random post-rock band discovered vocaloid software and ran with it.
As a consequence of this very different tone of IA's, her music is nowhere near as interesting for a rhythm game as Miku's. I don't actively dislike any tracks in the intimidatingly-large library of IA/VT Colorful. Quite the opposite, in fact - I could listen to this game's track list on my CD player all day long. But for a rhythm game you want light, catchy stuff that you'll be tapping along to while you play. The problem is that aside from Party Party (which I've dropped in below because it is a ridiculously charming song), nothing in the IA/VT Colorful library quite stuck in my head for days, like half the Miku playlists managed to do.
IA/VT's tracklist also suffers from a lack of diversity in voices. The Miku games benefit from the participation of other Crypton characters such as Kaito, Luka, Rin and Len, and they help keep the variety in tone and music strong from one track to the next. Because there is only one vocaloid contributing voice to the entire IA soundtrack, songs tends to meld together to a far greater degree, which further compounded my point above that individual tracks really struggled to stand out as distinctive.
Now. With that said. After unlocking three quarters of the music tracks (a laborious process that in itself took me around five hours of solid play, with another couple of hours to end up with everything unlocked), I instantly went out and tracked down a copy of the soundtrack, because taken as a whole the standard of the IA/VT is freaking incredible. I suspect the ultra-niche nature of IA means that the people drawn to use her software are the most hardcore of vocaloid music producers, which means that as a collective they're also the most talented, and the magic they weave with her is a vision for the creativity and artistry that vocaloids enable. When people ask me to explain to them what a vocaloid is now, I'm going to give them a copy of this soundtrack now.
The game itself is very, very similar to how the Miku games play. Little dots representing PlayStation Vita face buttons appear on the screen, and move across it in time with the beat towards a central dot, and players need to tap the corresponding button as the two dots connect. Unlike Miku's Project Diva series, however, IA/VT for the most part provides players with a guideline on-screen, tracking the movement of the dots. This helps keep track of where each dot is moving on the screen at once, which is especially valuable when the difficulty level elevates to get to the point where there is a lot of stuff happening on screen at once.
There are a couple of other minor variations between the two games, but I can assure you that if you've played one of the Miku games, then you'll be able to import this one and be scoring perfect runs quickly, even if you can't read a word of the tutorial (which is obviously in Japanese). The difficulty level in general is pitched lower than it is in the Miku games, with far more forgiving requirements for perfect runs. With a Miku game to get a perfect you have to get a "cool" or "good" score on every note. Mistime things more than that ("safe" "bad" or "miss") and the perfect run is ruined. With IA it's only on a complete miss that you'll not be able to score a perfect, and even a "safe" will keep the unbroken chain clean. There's still a challenge on hard mode, but people (justifiably) frustrated with the extreme challenge of Miku's games will feel a little more co-ordinated and successful playing this one.
Unlike with the Miku games, however, people who import this one might be left feeling a little cold with the presentation. The great success that Miku has enjoyed over the years has been because of her character, and the fact that she's so popular that there are so many fans involved in creating content for her. From the music tracks themselves, to the dance routines (which were choreographed on free software like Miku Miku Dance) and the costumes (as designed by fans), the Project Diva games are a collaborative project with the fans for the fans, and it is painfully clear that IA simply hasn't got the same following. There's a lot of music, sure, but only a tiny fraction of those songs feature IA is a prominent enough role through the backing video to even allow players to change her costume (and there's not many costumes either, while we're at it). Most of IA's videos are acid-trip colourful, but they are incredibly abstract and ultimately lack the pop idol personality that worked so well in the Project Diva games.
On the plus side, because the background videos were generally uninteresting I had no trouble concentrating on the actual gameplay, rather than being distracted by the cute girls dancing around in the background. That helped me get perfects more quickly, too. I couldn' help but find it interesting that IA/VT Colorful was produced by Kenichiro Takaki, the mind behind the Senran Kagura series. To go from something that fanservicey to something that is almost completely abscent of any kind of fan service is not what I had expected going in. Especially when the light fan service is what helped sell the Project Diva games, and it seems odd that it is the removal of those elements that Takaki decided would be the biggest point of differentiation between the games.
I have deliberately spent a lot of time in this review comparing IA/VT Colorful to the Project Diva games, because it really does struggle to break out of that series' giant shadow. Sadly, this means that this review reads more critically of the game than I actually feel towards it. Perhaps this is the best way to put it: if the Project Diva games didn't exist, this would effortlessly be one of my favourite rhythm games. The music isn't always suited to rhythm games, but every track within it is of an exceedingly high standard. The gameplay is simple, but so incredibly effective, and the limited glimpses we see of IA simply made me wish she was more popular, so Takaki and his team had more content to draw on to pad out the presentation of the game.
And ultimately what all that means is this: if you're a fan of Project Diva, and/or vocaloids, you owe it to yourself to import this game. It's incredibly import friendly for non-Japanese speakers, and while IA might not be replacing Miku any time soon, as the lady-in-waiting, she is the perfect complement.
- Matt S.
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