The Project Diva franchise wouldn't exist right now if Japanese consumers weren't drawn to special characters known as Vocaloids. Crypton Future Media, the company behind a popular line of music software, created several fictional avatars to provide its program with an endearing human face. Since then, those singing and dancing salespeople have been embraced by the creative community they serve and have developed a life of their own in the form of fan videos, compositions, and artwork that now serve as the basis for entirely new creative projects. Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F is a chance for players outside Asia to finally see what the fuss is all about and perhaps even to join the craze.
Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F offers a variety of creative modes right from the main menu, but its primary point of interest is the rhythm game. You can begin with the recommended tutorial, or you can immediately tackle a gauntlet of music. There are nearly 40 songs to master, including several that previously were available only as downloadable content in Japan but now are accessible as "extra" content that you unlock alongside the more standard tracks. The overwhelming majority of the music is predictably upbeat, with the guitar rock you might expect if you've listened to a lot of popular J-pop offerings, but some of the selections also feature a slower tempo and more instrumental variety (including a few that are driven largely by melancholy piano melodies).
Each composition is also accompanied by vibrant character artwork, with anime characters getting rambunctious around musical instruments. Lavish productions suit the accompanying music quite nicely, and the performers move around the stage with contagious energy. Subject matter is pleasantly diverse. One song features a bunch of oversized cats, for instance, while a more somber selection offers a stage production of a classic fairy tale.
Abundant personality is one of the game's most obvious strengths, but you could push it aside and still be left with an entertaining and challenging experience that in many ways resembles other notable rhythm games. The goal is to press face buttons in time with song beats. Note silhouettes, or nodes, appear around the screen, and you have to activate them as musical directives fly in from all sides like circling bomber planes. The appearance of those notes differs depending on how you are supposed to interact with them. Sometimes pressing a single face button is enough to get the job done, but in other cases, you must also press a direction on the D-pad or flick an analog stick.
Although the general setup might not seem like it would lead to a lot of variety, there's enough to sort through that your fingers and sense of rhythm will enjoy a nice workout starting almost immediately. At first, even the easiest setting can prove quite overwhelming because you're never sure where to look next and the whirling notes quickly psyche you out if your performance starts to fall apart or you stop concentrating. Early failure is moderately distressing and then can become outright discouraging if it persists, but the payoff otherwise is a sense of real satisfaction following each hard-earned triumph.
There's a difficulty setting that's suitable for almost everyone, as well. The easiest setting lets you focus on simply pressing a few buttons in time with the beat, while more advanced settings assail you with a constant barrage of notes that would test nearly anyone's mental acuity. It's surprising how different the same song can feel as you bump things up or down the scale, which makes the generous variety of songs seem more expansive still if you take it upon yourself to truly master each one.
Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F doesn't always find the right balance where difficulty is concerned. You're going to have to pay close attention or you might miss some of the all-important nodes as they appear. Some of them are camouflaged by the distractingly endearing background animations, and the same is occasionally true of the notes that swoop onto the screen. Familiarity with each song helps combat that particular issue over time, but there are a few selections that prove needlessly frustrating when they're first attempted. Then after you finish a song and try to skip around the various screens and modes, you encounter frequent and somewhat lengthy load screens.
As you conquer songs by playing the main rhythm game, you earn virtual currency to spend on a slew of in-game items. It's possible to buy tweaks that make the game easier (for instance, you can purchase a consumable item that ignores the first 30 "bad" ratings you earn while tending to nodes) or even more difficult, but your funds can be spent on cosmetic stuff that caters to the characters' superfans. Each star performer you see in the videos has alternate costumes available for a price, or you might choose to buy the various divas presents such as flowers and teddy bears to win their affection. You visit them in their rooms, which you are allowed to generously outfit with expensive furniture that includes bookcases and beds, all without getting creepy about it.
Sega has also included a mode that enables the divas' most ambitious fans to create their own videos and photographs. There's a ridiculously complex editor (complete with its own tutorial) that lets you choose from available settings and poses over the duration of the desired song, which in the hands of a perfectionist would be a time-consuming project indeed. Then it's possible to password protect that video and share it with the world, if desired. Simpler content can also be produced, using custom backgrounds that you provide or by using those that already come on the disc. The creative possibilities are impressive.
Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F is a challenging and robust rhythm game at its core, complete with an overdose of anime flair. Then it adds a bunch of customization and content creation on the side, just for good measure. This quirky game and its musical hooks should hit the spot if you're looking for a colorful distraction from the norm.