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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Review: Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone (Sony PlayStation 4)

Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone review


Review by Matt S.

Before I get into the body of the review (because I have a lot to say about this game, so settle in with a coffee, everyone), I want to say this to summarise from the outset: Hatsune Miku makes me happy. By that I mean that I experience a pure kind of happiness every time I sit down to play one of these Miku games that has me smiling as soon as I turn it on, and where I can play for hours without really realising that I have. Before we even get to the analysis, surely it is a defining proof of a quality game that beyond all other considerations, Miku makes me happy.

Related reading: Hatsune Miku: Project Diva X is getting an English release later this year. Matt's full review of the Japanese release here.

It’s amazing to think that I only discovered her for the first time when I played Project Diva F on the Vita in early 2014, but since then – in just a little over two years - I’ve done everything I can with Miku. I play each game that launches, at launch, and in a different language if need be. I’ve started up a collection of figurines, as expensive as that particular hobby is. I’ve gone to watch her live in concert, and I’m going again this year, where I’ve got front row seats, no less.

Professionally, after discovering Miku I pivoted in my area of focus entirely. Before Miku I was all about Asian history and cultures. That’s still a topic I love, but since discovering Miku I’ve found a rich new vein of academic curiosity to tap into: the topic of digital celebrity and constructed worlds. After seeing Miku live in concert I’ve found the increasing interactions between the ‘real’ and ‘digital’ worlds to be utterly fascinating and socially and culturally significant. My study in that field has had me published on the front page of Australia’s largest newspaper – a career first for me, and proof in the fundamental importance of this topic to both modern art and culture.

Miku has effectively become a muse to me; something that has delighted and captivated me to the point where I have to know everything about it. She’s not just a game or digital character to me. She’s a ‘personification’ of a concept I’m in a deep intellectual love with, and this has had a profound impact on me, right down to how I see the world.

I remember studying, back at university, a subject on transgressive art, and to the transgressives, one of the key figures and philosophers was a performer and artist called Antonin Artaud. His own entire philosophy and approach to art was, famously, seeded when he watched Balinese dancers perform for the first time. I’m not going to suggest that I’m nearly the intellect that Autaud was, but in Miku perhaps the best work I’ll do in the future has been seeded as well. If nothing else I do now understand how viewing a performance could so influence Artaud.

Yes, I understand that to a lot of people a lot of this won’t make sense, and I’m sure my attachment to Hatsune Miku confuses or irritates some of the poor people that follow me on Twitter and don’t make use of the mute command. Indeed, since starting Project Diva Future Tone, I have had a dozen or so people unfollow me due to, I assume, an overeager use of the PlayStation 4’s ability to easily take screenshots and short videos for Twitter. It’s okay, I’m comfortable with it. I don’t expect people to necessarily understand the profound impact this girl with blue/green/aquamarine (your choice) hair has. I hope I’m able to articulate it, but ultimately it’s a deeply personal response that I’ve had, and what’s important is that it’s helping me to explore fields of study that most others wouldn’t even think about.

PlayStation 4 import review


And now, on to the actual review

Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone is, likely, a Japan-only port of the wildly popular Hatsune Miku rhythm arcade game, to the PlayStation 4. Most people should be familiar with how rhythm games work by now, even if you haven’t played one, but to give a single sentence summary: in a Miku game you are tasked with tapping icons that appear on the screen in rhythm with the music. Hit the beat exactly in time with the music to gain a “cool” for your efforts, and lots of points. The goal is to string a lot of “cools” together to create chains. Miss even slightly and you’ll find yourself with a “good” or, worse, a “miss”, which will mess with your chain and subsequent score.

Related reading: When Matt went to his first Hatsune Miku concert, boy was he happy.

It’s simple, arcade-friendly gameplay, to be sure, but it’s also a very well refined rhythm game system that has been perfected over the years to encourage players to keep coming back and trying to better their scores. The way that icons flow on to the screen, and the way that you’ll be tapping along with the music is, itself, rhythmical and musical. The game plays much like playing a musical instrument, where complete precision is essential, and being slightly out with timing also impacts on the performance. The arcade units were quite the lookers too, and that transfers over to the PlayStation 4 version, too. On a technical level I’m told that it’s locked to 60 frames per second (admittedly I’m not good at counting FPS in games), and it’s in full 1080p resolution, meaning that if you’ve got a nice, big, television, I’m jealous because I do not, but this game might just be the catalyst to convince me to upgrade.

On the download, which measures in at just shy of a whopping 30gb of memory, is slightly over 220 songs, each of them accompanied by a music video clip of Miku, or one of her friends in the Cypton stable (KAITO, Luka, MEIKO, Len & Rin), performing one of their popular songs. Yes, that is not a typo – 220 songs, which is a significant jump up in number from the previous games in the series, which has topped out at around 60 tracks, from memory.

To crunch numbers – across the four main difficulty levels (there’s an extra hard mode for the really elite, but ignoring that for a second), to just play each track once, on each difficulty level, you’re looking at roughly 40 hours of play time. There was so much content in there that, after I first downloaded the game, I was absolutely paralysed for the first half hour, wading through the track list and trying to figure out what I even wanted to play first. And, as anyone who has played a Miku game will tell you, just playing the tracks is not the point. The point of the Miku rhythm game is to master the songs, by getting through tracks with unbroken chains and thus being rewarded with a “perfect” score for that track.

Because Miku games are incredibly difficult on the higher difficulty settings, it takes a lot of practice in order to score these elusive “perfects.” As a point of comparison, on those aforementioned Future Tone predecessors, with the vastly limited track lists by comparison, I’ve spent well over 1000 hours in playing them to the point where I could perfect everything. It’s worth noting that a lot of the music is not new to us in the west – the arcade game was broken up into the two Project Divas on the PlayStation Vita/ PS3, as well as Project Mirai on the 3DS, and so a good number of the tracks in Future Tone are those existing favourites. That being said, there’s music that isn’t in those games, too, and some of those tracks have become instant favourites of mine. I also enjoyed having the opportunity to replay through those tracks with the higher quality graphics. With a number of Miku tracks, I’ve found that an initial distaste for the song completely 180s when I see it with a video clip, to help deepen its character and storytelling, which goes to show how important the visual side of the game is to the overall experience, and this game gave me the opportunity to “rediscover” some favourites.

Of course, you’re not going to like every single track that’s in this software package, and neither are you meant to. You’re able to develop a list of favourite tracks from within the game, and then just focus on getting perfect scores in these. Miku’s music, while always sticking to the boundaries of J-pop music, has a very wide range, from airy ballads right through to dance, club, and rock music. The difference here is that, even if you actively dislike half of the tracks, there’s still over 100 that you will enjoy, and unless you’re the kind of person that only listens to growling metal music, chances are you’ll therefore like enough tracks that you’ll get many, many hours of fun out of playing them.

Hatsune Miku on PlayStation 4

In prior Project Diva games, you’d need to unlock tracks by completing currently unlocked ones, starting with just a handful of them. With smaller track lists, this made sense, as it forced players to experience everything the game had to offer. I don’t think SEGA intended for people to actually experience every track in Future Tone. There’s just too many of them. So, wisely, everything’s unlocked from the outset. Some might suggest this stifles the sense of progress, but then slowly filling the tracklist with little “P” symbols, that represent “Perfects” is reward in itself.

Related reading: The best ten Miku music tracks ever (most of them are in this game!)

Then there’s the other half of the game that fans tend to enjoy digging into; the costumes. These do need to be unlocked, using points earned from play, but aside from the swimsuits, you’ll be able to unlock these costumes at a rate of one per track completed.

As mentioned, in the background of each track, a music video-like clip plays, with the vocaloids dancing around as they “perform” the music. You’ve got free control over which vocaloid performs, and what they’re wearing, and with 340 costumes to choose between, that’s a lot of control. The costumes run the gamut, from beautiful, flowing gowns, to fashionable outfits, futuristic-styled costumes, and tiny bikinis. If you want to put KAITO in a speedo in one of the saucier Miku tracks, you can do that, and it’s really quite funny (also sexy, KAITO is ripped). Or, if you want Miku to perform one of MEIKO’s disco-themed tracks in hotpants, then you can do that too. This would be a relatively uninteresting feature were Future Tone just a rhythm game, because you’re going to rarely have the time to shift concentration away from the rhythm icons to enjoy the video clip. But the kicker here is that it’s possible to kick back and watch the music video clips without having to play the game. When you do that, you can freely take screenshots and so this mode works a bit like a limited photo shoot.

Where Project Diva Future Tone lets down in content in comparison to its predecessors is in what can only be described as a “pet” mode. Other Project Diva games encourage you to develop a bond with your favourite vocaloid by buying him or her gifts with points earned from in-game play, decorating their rooms, playing little mini-games with them, or doing weird things like patting them on the head. As much as I love Miku and the rhythm games, this stuff is stuff I’ve never spent much time with. As a “pet”, Miku offers little interaction, and other than as fanservice, these modes never function as worthwhile additions to the formula. I’d rather just play the actual music game.

Where the other recent Miku title, Project Diva X, offers menu after menu of content and ways to play, Future Tone keeps things simple. Indeed, other than the costume shop and music selection menu, there’s really nothing else of note to the game. Some might find the thin play options to be an issue, but really it’s not. Not when there are over 220 tracks in that music selection menu. This is the pure arcade game, sans the need to feed a machine 100 yen coins to keep playing, and the experience is designed around not providing multiple different ways to play.

As alluded to earlier, the other reason to buy into this game is the graphics. On the PlayStation 4, Miku and her crew look absolutely incredible. They have a plastic aesthetic that means they look more like 3D printed anime figures than people, and while that might put people off who go in looking for realism, for people who like the aesthetic design, there’s a gorgeous level of detail, and the models animate beautifully, largely free of clipping and glitching.

Playstation 4 rhythm game review

For people playing around with the photo mode, it’s worth noting that in Future Tone, you don’t even need to bother with the Share button on the PlayStation 4 DualShock controller. While watching a clip, a single press of the triangle button will grab a snapshot and send it straight to the photos folder on your PS4. As an added bonus, these photos will be used during the loading screens in-game, so you can appreciate your best Miku photography. The circle button still pauses the action, too, so if you’re trying to line up the perfect shot, you can stop-start the clip one fraction of a second after another, until the pose is just right.

Related reading: What Hatsune Miku teaches us about economic theory.

I enjoy these photo modes almost as much as I enjoy the actual rhythm game action. I find the clips vibrant and visually interesting, the choreography varied and mature, and the characters to be gorgeous. I would have liked the ability to manipulate the camera in the photo mode, as most other games that put a heavy emphasis on screenshots allow (Onechanbara, Dead or Alive Xtreme 3), but SEGA and Crypton are really quite determined not to allow people to sexualise Miku or the other characters, and so, rather than give you the ability to angle the camera in lewd positions, the developer instead forces you to take photos through the default lens, where it can control what you can (and cannot) see.

There’s even been a couple of tiny edits along the way to de-sexualise things further. One track, Hm? Ah, Yes, on the original Project Diva on PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 3, had a scene where the character gets off a bed. In the original Miku game on arcade, the way this bit of choreography was presented was fine, because there was only one costume choice, and it was pants. But, on the home console version, the ability to change costumes meant you could give the character a skirt, and in that particular scene, the flash of underwear was total. In this game that camera angle has been removed.

The are still moments through some of the tracks where you’ll get a look under the skirts of the girls, but it’s brief and fleeting when it happens. There’s also swimsuits in the wardrobes for each character, and each character has at least one swimsuit that would be pushing boundaries of decency on public beaches. Some of the choreography also plays right into the flirtatious or tantalising modern approach to music video clips, so it’s not like SEGA is completely denying that some people find Miku (or Luka, MEIKO, Rin, Len or KAITO) to be sexy, or blocking their fun if they do. Rather, where SEGA has settled as is a point where people can indulge that side of vocaloids if they so wish, without making people that don’t want to feel uncomfortable in the process. I feel that it’s a good balance to hit.


So, what is so special about Hatsune Miku?

One of the most critical things to understand about fans of Hatsune Miku (including me), is that Miku is more than the piece of software that you buy, plug in to your other music software, and then use to perform lyrics. That’s what the Hatsune Miku software does, but it’s not what Hatsune Miku is.

Fans personify Miku. It’s more accurate to call her an “it,” but we think of her as a “she.” Giving Miku a gendered pronoun is more powerful than it sounds on paper; it’s the foundational building block that then leads us to project a personality and human characteristics on to her.

rhythm game review

Miku is different for one person to the next, though, and that’s what is really special about her. Because people project a personality on to her, what they project is their own take on what Miku should be. Because Crypton’s default design for her (i.e. the green/blue hair, skirt, and grey or white top) is really quite plain, you can take Miku’s personality in any direction that you like. She can be the epitome of cute and innocent, right through to being really quite sexy – it’s completely up to the individual. Because Crypton actively encourages fans to participate in Miku culture through fan art and music, what we have out there is a million different visions of the girl and her music crosses just about every genre you can possibly imagine.

Related reading: Hatsune Miku has even modelled high-end fashion. Check this out.

It goes further. Because people can take ownership of their vision for Miku, people can become really quite committed fans to her. I’ve seen this play out personally, when I went to the Miku concert last year. Thousands and thousands of people filled a large concert call, and the way they cheered, danced, and involved themselves in the performance was almost exactly the same as what you witness when people go to any other popular musician’s concert. In other words, to fans, the fundamental experience of Hatsune Miku is not any different than the experience of any other performance artist.

This idea that Miku is real is easy to deride at first, of course, because who would mistake a hologram (as you see when at a concert), for a human? You can’t touch Hatsune Miku. You can’t talk to her or interact with her (unless you want that conversation to go one way). Get close enough and you wouldn’t be able to smell or taste her, either. In a face-to-face meeting with Hatsune Miku, the human senses would immediately clue you in to the fact she’s not real.

But here’s the thing; in every way that we do interact with Hatsune Miku, she engages the same senses as any other celebrity that we’re a fan of. If I go to a Lady Gaga concert (not that I would, but as Lady Gaga has had Miku open her concerts, it’s a useful comparison), I see and hear Lady Gaga on stage. What I don’t get to do is get close enough to smell, touch, or taste her. In other words, the exact same sense are being engaged when I go to a Miku concert as a Lady Gaga concert.

Likewise, when I play a game, it doesn’t matter if it’s Miku or a scan of Willem Defoe in Beyond: Two Souls, my experience of their “humanness” is the same. If I listen to a Miku music CD, I wouldn’t know that she’s not a human performing with a voice synthesiser effect unless I actually knew what Miku was. I’ve tested that out and can confirm; people who don’t know that Miku is a vocaloid have no problem accepting that she’s human listening to her CDs.

So, according to every sensory manner in which fans engage with Hatsune Miku, she’s real. There’s even science that supports this idea. Last year I had an in-depth chat with one of the leading evolutionary psychologists out there, Donald Hoffman, and while I won’t repeat that conversation verbatim (you can read more about it in an article I wrote for Australia’s largest newspaper, The Australian, here), the summary of that conversation is that our sensory experience of the world is as a series of interfaces, not unlike what we see on a computer, and so our senses can indeed be “fooled” into accepting that non-existent digital media that we perceive in our physical spaces is real. When we view them through a lens, such as augmented reality applications that you access through a phone, that device in the middle acts as a reminder that we’re simply accessing digital content. But in the case of holograms, such as Miku, that we bring into the world in such a way that we look at them naturally and not through a device, our senses accept them as part of the overall interface of the real world.

Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone in-depth review

This has evolutionary consequence; a beetle in Australia nearly went extinct when its own senses started mistaking a popular beer bottle brand in Australia (which, because Australians like to litter, became a common sight on the side of roads), with an “ideal” mate, and it lost interest and stopped trying to breed with the real females of the species. Humans are more complex then beetles (well, some are at least), but evolutionary science would certainly argue that as the introduction of “super stimulii” becomes more possible through more complex applications of augmented reality and the like, that there will be some significant cultural and social implications nonetheless.

Related reading: When Matt wrote about Miku for Australia's largest newspaper... and it made the front page.

Digression aside, the point to all this is that Hatsune Miku, while not human, has a human-like affect on her audiences, and this is what sits at the core of her success as a concept (and product). In Tokyo Mirage Sessions, a game which has a vocaloid-like character, one of the characters at one stage notes that “The Uta-loid (the game's version of vocaloid) Tiki's made of dreams, not data! If she was just a fictional idol, she wouldn't be this popular”. Exaggerated as that quote and text is for satirical value, it’s the truth; there is more to Miku than her capacity as an anime character and music generation software, and that more is that we – her fans, creators, and Crypton and SEGA – have brought her into a reality far closer to “real life” than standard of characters and digital media.

What does all this have to do with Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone? It explains why I am so much more engaged with this game than any other rhythm title. It’s a genre I like, but I don’t spend hours playing the same tracks over and over again, trying to get perfects, like I do with Miku games. In most games I don’t play dress up dolls with the characters, just to see what game space looks like with a different performer and costume, but I do with the Miku games. No other rhythm game series has managed to get a commitment of over 1000 hours in my life. And that’s because no other game has a character so special to me as Hatsune Miku. She’s not just a video game character. She’s certainly not a bit of software. Miku represents a series of concepts that I find both interesting and important, and she represents a future for the arts that I find to be beautiful.

So, yes, I genuinely love Hatsune Miku. I don’t mean that romantically, of course (my wife would be very sad to hear I was that far gone), but it’s love. I just love everything these games and this character offers and represents, and I would be genuinely crushed if I lost use of my hands or sight, so that I couldn’t play them any longer. In that context, the fact that Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone is the ultimate example of the franchise, and offers so much more than any other game that has come before it, makes it the best game in its series almost by default. And this game surpasses its own family of releases by so far that it’s almost intimidating.

Once again, this game is really unlikely to come out in English, so be sure to grab yourself a copy from the Japanese PlayStation Network instead. Thank the great Miku in the sky that the PlayStation 4 is region free, because, assuming you even slightly enjoy rhythm games, this is as essential as they come.

- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld

Review: Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone (Sony PlayStation 4)
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