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Monday, December 9, 2019

Review: Hatsune Miku VR (Sony PlayStation 4)


Review by Matt S. 

To think that the last time I played a new Hatsune Miku rhythm game was way back in 2016, with Project Diva X... for a Miku tragic like myself three years has been a painfully long wait between drinks, and while the greatest supernormal stimulant of all did give us a heck of a show with SEGA's VR Future Live, that was a concert app rather than a proper game. It was great, but in itself it wasn't enough to satisfy my desire for more Miku rhythm game action.


For a time it even looked grim. SEGA had pulled its iPhone Miku title off the digital store, and radio silence from the publisher (aside from a rare bit of DLC for the existing Miku Future Tone) was not a good look for a publisher that had previously been very prolific indeed with the world's foremost digital siren. Thankfully, just as we move into a new decade, we're about to be spoiled all over again. Not only is SEGA coming back strong with the Nintendo Switch finally getting a new Miku title early next year (and I can confirm, that game is shaping up to be excellent), but Degica Games also nabbed the license, and has now seen fit to bring Hatsune Miku VR from the PC platform to PlayStation VR (i.e. a platform I actually own). This time around it's a proper rhythm game in VR, and after playing it, I could not be happier.

Hatsune Miku VR doesn't have all that many pieces of music, to be upfront about that, but it makes up for quantity with quality, as they're all great bits of music, and the rhythm game that's wrapped around it is really quite special. The best way to think of that is something of a mix between the Persona rhythm game formula, and Beat Sabre. Notes get blasted at you from speakers that are arrayed in the background, and each of those notes produced in this way can pass through one of six spots at on the circle, with those spots forming a ring around you. Your goal is to have one of two wands (or leeks, if you so choose to use Miku's iconic vegetable) in position at the specific spot on the circle when the note passes through it.


Now, technically, timing is not required in Miku VR. You just need to have the stick in the right spot as the note moves through it, and you can just hold it there for as long as it takes for the note to arrive. What forces you to play with timing is the speed in which the notes come at you. Miku VR likes to make you frantic. In fact, it often looks like Miku herself, who is on stage dancing as you play, is actually summoning the things to attack you, and particularly on the Hard difficulty setting, you're going to be moving like a madman trying to keep up with them all. The end effect is that while most rhythm games aim to recreate the experience of playing an instrument (i.e. hitting the right "key" at the right time), Miku VR is more akin to dancing, in that you need to co-ordinate your movements to the music. You won't need to stand up and move around as you would in actual dancing, but the sensation of movement to music is there, and a nice variation on the very instrument-like SEGA Miku efforts. In terms of accessibility,  Miku VR will allow most people to enjoy the feeling of moving in sync with the music, as there are two ways of playing - either using a DualShock controller with one stick for each thumbstick, or the PlayStation Move controllers. I prefer the DualShock as I found it less tiring, but both ways work equally well and you'll be able to clear every track... even if some require more training than others.

Unfortunately Miku VR is very limited in some ways that are, frankly, really quite important to the Miku experience. One is the costumes and character options. Throw on Project Diva Future Tone or Project Diva X and there are a hundred odd costumes for Miku alone, and then there are the other five Crypton vocaloids to play dress up with as well. Now, typically I just beeline straight to the swimsuits when I play these things, but having the variety and choice as an option is nice. In that context it's really very disappointing that Miku VR only features two costumes (Miku's standard gear and one of the Snow Miku outfits), and I can't choose dance along with my other favourites (Rin and Kaito) instead. From a gameplay perspective, there are only two difficulty settings in Miku VR, and while they're challenging enough, it's no comparison to the breadth of experiences that the SEGA titles offer, where "Easy" is genuinely for everyone, right through to "Extreme" requiring the mastery of a concert pianist to clear, let alone perfect.

It was on this basis that initially I was a little disappointed by the relative limitations of Miku VR. What saved it were two realisations that I quickly made as I got stuck into it. Firstly, it's not easy working in virtual reality, and on top of that Degica had to build its engine, choreography, and gameplay from scratch. SEGA's had the Project Diva Arcade engine to borrow from for a decade now. It really would be grossly unfair to expect the same amount of content in Miku VR. If the game didn't offer enough value in its own right that would be one thing, but given that I have already sunk 15 hours into Miku VR, I can safely say that I have got my money's worth. It's very replayable, and truly mastering the tracks on any difficulty level is a process that promises plenty of play time.


Secondly - and more importantly, it has been valuable to experience a different creative vision of Miku, from a equally creative team. SEGA has had such a lock on the character for such a long time now that its take Miku was almost starting to become a "standard" Miku. But that was never meant to be what Hatsune Miku was about. Crypton itself explicitly wanted Miku and her buddies to be a globally collaborative experience, where everyone can pitch in their own vision of the characters, in the creation of the music, the choreography, the costumes and the character's personalities. It's a Japanese company that basically allowed fans to take its IP and do whatever they like with it, with the full blessing of the company, with the only restriction being the commercialisation of the characters. For a country in which the culture is typically protective of what it creates, that was always unusual. However, it worked. That's why there are so many fan books, why the annual Snow Miku design is so completely different to the annual Racing Miku, and why Crypton is now such a wealthy company - thousands of songs, millions of fans, and more merchandise than any other anime (or real world) property. You all think Marvel is big? Consider this - with Marvel, if you do something even slightly different with one of the characters, a legion of fans flip out. With Miku, the gatekeeping is kept right to a minimum, and the fact you can fill an entire museum with such a vibrant range of figures, tapestries, art works and, yes, dakimakura, just goes to show how commercially successful that strategy has been.


Having a "canon" Miku in video games would have dampened that sense of community-driven creativity, and in that context it was really important that a company like Degica could come along, create a different version of Miku (but to equally high standards), and spin it into a quality game. Whether Miku VR eventually grows to the scale of SEGA's take will depend on how commercially successful it has been as a venture, but creatively, it's exactly what Miku needed. Degica's Miku is different. For a start, she's much sexier. I suspect that it is in part due to the limitations of VR in terms of resolution, but this Miku is a little more curved and her feminine assets are more pronounced. In fact we've already seen from SEGA's Future Live that the petitie, waif-like SEGA Miku doesn't cut a particularly imposing figure in VR. What saved that experience and compensated for the resolution issues was the ability to get up on stage and stand right in front of her. You can't do that in Miku VR, so the development team needed to find another way to compensate for the resolution of VR. Elsewhere I'm sure the character design was purely a matter of aesthetic preference. Degica's artists decided to go thicc with Miku's thighs, for example, and I'm quite certain that wasn't a decision driven by technical limitations. Not that I'm complaining, mind you. I'd be lying if I said I didn't find this Miku very aesthetic. But she is a more overt kind of sexy.

It's not just the looks that's been amped up, either. Miku's dance routines have traditionally been rather... quaint and cute. Which is fine, of course. Whether it was one of the Project Diva titles or one of the live concerts, those dance routines have a charm that as everyone knows I've found irresistible for the better part of a decade now. It is clear however that in most cases those bits of choreography were choreographed by amateurs. Miku VR's routines are a little more simple, but a also a little closer to the world of real world dance, and again, as an alternative creative vision it's appealing. When you're playing the game you won't have time to enjoy that choreography (or you'll be like me, get distracted by it, and end up ruining your score). However, the good news is that you can watch the routine by itself in a different mode, and while the controls for the "concert" experience don't allow you to get within kissing distance of Miku (unlike Future Tone), you can pick from a range of different angles and enjoy the quality of the animation, and that's still fun to play around with because the routines really are gorgeous.


While I don't get to dress Miku up in her swimsuits or wedding dresses as I might have liked, the two costumes that are there are wonderful, and designed and animated perfectly. The one and only issue I have with Miku VR's presentation is her iconic hair. Now, I understand that when a character has hair that extends below her waist, actually animating it is a nightmare, and to Degica's credit, the animation is, in isolation, great. The "whipping" effect when Miku spins is particularly impressive. However, the big issue is clipping. Miku's arms, in particular, keep cutting right through the hair as though its not there. Again, I totally appreciate how hard it would be to have Miku's hair and appendages interact properly in the context of these dance routines, but for an otherwise incredible character model, this is really noticeable.

One final note: While there might only be nine music tracks in the base game (and an optional two DLC packs, with five songs each, for a total of 19 tracks at about the price of a full-priced game), the Miku VR track list does feel thin. However, as I mentioned earlier, it's a matter of quality over quantity, and Degica have been quite clever in pulling together a lot of newer music than what Future Tone fans would be familiar with. Even the Ievan Polkka track is a remix (and its a painfully catchy one all over again that). The only other instantly familiar song to the Miku casual fan will likely be Senbonzakura, but in giving players newer rhythm game experiences, Degica wisely sidesteps the idea that Miku VR is a retread of SEGA's work, and gives the more hardcore Miku fans a sense that, finally, a developer is interested in doing more than living off the "classics," many of which are getting close to a decade long in the tooth now.

I really hope Miku VR is a success for Degica. I want to see more of it. I understand that to some people the track list will seem thin, or the content expensive, especially in comparison to SEGA's offerings, but this is everything I could have wanted. Miku is sexy, the rhythm gameplay is both different and engaging, and the music selection is great. This is a VR experience I can lose myself within for hours at a time, and will no doubt keep coming back to for many, many years to come. Keep it up, Degica!



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



Review: Hatsune Miku VR (Sony PlayStation 4)
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