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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

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

 Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA Future Tone review

Review by Clark A.

Vocaloid fans wept tears of joy upon hearing Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA Future Tone was set for a localisation. The series takes user-generated songs and dance numbers and makes them the backdrop of a delightfully addictive rhythm game. Though the dancing and singing virtual idol, Hatsune Miku, is one of the most recognisable animated characters to come out of Japan in decades, her global audience is not necessarily as tuned in to Sega’s Project DIVA titles. Whether that fortune shifts with Future Tone or not, you certainly can’t accuse the publisher of not trying.

Related reading: You can also catch Matt's review of the Japanese import of the game from earlier last year here.

As for why that is, it all starts with a simple fact that Sega has justly trumpeted: this game has over 220 songs. For comparison’s sake, last year’s Project DIVA X had 30 and previous home console releases weren't much higher than that. Those entries were still profoundly rewarding to replay with track lists of that size, so it’s unthinkable that any series could just exponentially multiply one of its selling points like child’s play. Imagine jumping straight from 12 characters in Super Smash Bros. for the N64 to 58 in the Wii U version. I’m not one to lean purely on statistics when discussing a game’s overall merit, but this gargantuan progression sets the tone (pardon the pun) for what is an endlessly captivating rhythm experience.

The kneejerk reaction to such a revelation is to bust out an adage such as “quality over quantity”. Indeed, my inner cynic suspected corners had to be cut to make these 220+ songs possible at an affordable price point. Yet in terms of how pleasing and consequential this content is, Future Tone manages to elevate this already tremendous IP to new heights. It does shed some pleasant trimmings available in prior entries such as Edit Mode, which allowed you to make your own video clips (which might have more to do with this title’s roots in arcades more than anything else), but in doing so, it becomes focused on what matters. Having the option for custom creations would arguably diminish the purpose of the game’s enormous, varied catalogue.

Hatsune Miku game review

The core of what Project DIVA is remains firmly intact and its expansive library demands to be appreciated now more than ever. Previous titles forced the player to gradually unlock new stages by mastering existing ones. Thus, you had to become intimately familiar with the available material, which encouraged longevity and helped players develop their skills by necessity. Future Tone instead lets players pursue their own path; every track is available right off the bat. The experience is all the more accessible as a result without shedding an ounce of dignity. Between the flashy visuals, difficulty options, and the massive collection of jams, anyone can enjoy the game to the fullest without striving for utter mastery, or being frustrated when it remains elusive. However, a chunk of songs are locked to Normal difficulty or higher so the less practised, who will start out being challenged by "Easy," will still have reasonable incentive to adapt to the intelligent control systems at play here.

Future Tone’s base mechanics are identical to past outings in that you’re tapping the DualShock’s face buttons in time with the beat, the Vocaloid’s voice, or both. Icons representing notes swerve from off screen toward other icons of the same type and must be nailed with perfect timing to rack up a high score. Project DIVA fans are all too familiar with this setup. This one ups the ante, though, by including buttons that require multiple different presses at once as well as sliding icons that must be executed via the triggers, touch pad, or analogue sticks (whichever you find most intuitive). It sounds like a trivial inclusion, but having to venture beyond the instinctive buttons is surprisingly tricky when faced with swaths of notes.

The most engaging by far, though, are special notes that can be held indefinitely or until the points max out. Should you hold a note long enough for a separate hold-compatible one to appear, the two can form a combo to rack up even more points. You won’t be penalised for releasing prematurely, but keeping the button held in the midst of an onslaught of different directions is far easier said than done when your fingers are bouncing about trying to maintain a combo and your rhythm. Players must make split second decisions and perfect their reflexes whilst bombarded, which facilitates a remarkable risk versus reward dynamic. These added control conundrums breathe life into classic songs that transcend Miku herself such as Ievan Polkka and Nyanyanyanyanyanyanya!.

Hatsune Miku on PlayStation 4 review

Having said all this, the appeal of Project DIVA and, by extension, Future Tone, is so much more than tapping buttons for hours on end. The series has this special way of whisking you into another world. All these pieces would not be remotely as potent without the accompanying music videos. There are rhythm titles like Audiosurf that offer potentially infinite tracks, but the visual feasts here are what catapult Miku beyond her contemporaries. Because the Hatsune Miku universe is dictated by the writer of any given piece, each one characterises the IP’s many familiar faces in fascinating ways.

As the MikuMikuDance software hit the streets in 2008, aspiring 3D animators have long since determined how to manipulate the program for spectacular results. Certain videos recreated here are resoundingly simple and fun, carried more by the charisma of the Vocaloids and their elegant dances than a legitimate directing sense. Because the animated sequences are just as diverse as the insane track list, they’re all very much their own experiences. Another sizable batch are cutesy, entertaining montages that use expertly choreographed spins, expressive facials, and unexpected choices of scenery to do the heavy lifting. Then you’ve got those that delve into the realm of abstract art and psychedelic imagery for electrifying results. World's End Umbrella is one that bucks the trend of using 3D Vocaloid models, relying chiefly on anime sequences for its storytelling.

My favourite mainstream music videos are the poignant ones that send a message across (see: Radiohead's Just) or otherwise elicit strong reactions, so I’m thankful that Future Tone has more evocative videos in its arsenal than ever before. Hello, Planet depicts the story of an android searching for her master in an apocalyptic world. It's conceptually simple enough, but when combined with the deceptively cheery music to juxtapose the proceedings and the song’s unsettling conclusion, it most certainly stirs up the emotions. Elsewhere, even something as simple as a lovers’ quarrel and subsequent makeup has a certain je ne sais quoi when depicted by Vocaloids and punctuated with the right backdrops for some dramatic irony.

Miku PS4 perfect game review

There is one minor drawback to the infinite potential of the background settings and it can be said of virtually all Project DIVA games. Ditties on the gaudier end of the spectrum can have distracting color schemes or visual effects that hinder a player’s first few attempts. That said, the odds of perfecting a stage on the first run are very slim anyway. Outside of some initial frustration, it’s a rather insignificant issue. In a catalogue as expansive as Future Tone’s, many are worth playing 30 times or more so you’re likely to adapt eventually.

Related reading: Also on PlayStation 4 for PlayStation VR is Miku VR Future Live. Matt's review.

I’d go a step further and argue this peccadillo is atoned for thanks to one of Project DIVA’s greatest features. This is the power to render every music video slightly unique via character costumes called Modules. Or to put it another way; you'll be playing dressup. Because virtually all these visual productions centre on the Vocaloids themselves, the effect a simple change of wardrobe can have should never be underestimated. Sombre ballads will become goofier when Kagamine Rin dons a pair of cat ears. Likewise, frolicking beach-based numbers will turn stuffy when Megurine Luka prances about in sweat-inducing spandex. In addition to livening up repeated plays of beloved ditties, the costumes become a driving force for completionists. Finishing any track rewards players with an in-game currency that can be used to purchase more modules.

Each performance has a recommended outfit, but you can mix and match hairstyles, outfits, and accessories mostly to your heart’s content. As with the track listing, Sega is well aware that fan service is a force to be reckoned with and has implemented outfits from the likes of Valkyria Chronicles, Space Channel 5, and even Persona. I prefer my Miku to roll around at the speed of sound if you catch my drift (yep, there's a Sonic costume too). All told, there are hundreds if not thousands of possible combinations to toy with. Few rhythm titles on the market offer this degree of customisation and I suspect even fewer feature the sheer utility of Future Tone. It’s more than worth booting up old tracks just for a pleasant little photo shoot.

Rhythm game review

For all the game’s strides, Future Tone’s track list of legendary proportions would ultimately be squandered if every tune sounded like the last. Contrary to some misconceptions floating around, though, the Vocaloid software is capable of so much more than just cheery J-Pop. Sega and Crypton’s selection effortlessly reflects the range these virtual singers are capable of and the sheer ingenuity of each continues to impress me. From chiptune-infused love songs to 70s garage rock to club music to ballads to Christmas music to samba, the diversity of genres and subgenres leapfrogs over the big players in the rhythm genre. In a nod to Sega’s early years, you’ve even got arcade classics such as Out Run and After Burner represented, complete with goofy lyrics.

While I don’t claim to be the world’s connoisseur of musical taste, I firmly believe in the individual excellence of these pieces beyond the novelty. Not every single one is going to be a lyrical masterpiece or melodically ambitious (particularly those involving gibberish or endless repetition), but I wound up with a good 40 tracks in my customisable favourite list for various reasons. OSTER Project’s Summer Idol makes me nostalgic about hearing I Saw Her Standing There by The Beatles for the first time. Owata-P’s Sayonara Goodbye is an energetic, poppy earworm with bittersweet lyrics and demands endless replays. The absolute showstopper, though, was Gizmo by uguis08, which could pass for the work of electronica goddesses Aira Mitsuki and Saori@destiny. I could rattle on endlessly, but rest assured that each player will discover their own number one favourite…or 10.

It’s unfortunate that the lyrics haven’t been translated for English-speaking audiences, but the reality is there are various logistical hindrances in doing so for a game of this scope. The good news is that the songs are perfectly enjoyable in their present form and there’s a lovely group of Vocaloid fans on the internet if you seek the meanings. Heck, even the yuri-tinged teasing of Miku and Luka in Rin-chan Now! is gut busting material without a translation on hand because the visuals are able to usher some of those gags through that language barrier.

PlayStation 4 rhythm game review

To reiterate, this game has no story mode or greater context that connects each of its tunes together. It also has zero need for such frivolities. Despite the straightforward gameplay, Project DIVA is an endlessly rewarding formula to master. Switching from button to button is tougher than it sounds when dozens of notes are flying at you from all directions and require inconsistent timing to hit. There’s an exhilarating sensation when tackling songs on higher difficulties and being so overwhelmed you have to tap to the rhythm rather than rely on the notes before your eyes. Don’t get me started on the longevity the difficulty options provide. Each ascending level of challenge dramatically alters the feel of playing a given piece to the point where achieving a perfect score on every possible level will be tempting. Achieving that for every track available might just keep you busy until the PlayStation 5, if not 6, launches.

Related reading: Read about Matt's experience of a Hatsune Miku concert here.

Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA Future Tone is the holy grail of an already illustrious franchise. For existing fans of the virtual idol, this isn’t just some greatest hits album. Plenty of formerly arcade-exclusive tracks are available on console for the first time. Newcomers, meanwhile, are positively spoiled for choice and couldn't ask for a better time to start the franchise.

It also happens to be the finest rhythm game I’ve ever played. Those reasons extend beyond its impeccable track list; Future Tone is an earnest arcade-style release that retains the franchise’s most charming features. This is Project DIVA in its purest form.



- Clark A
Anime Editor


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