• Hatsune Miku: Project Diva 2nd Review - Sony PSP

    The story of Hatsune Miku is a strange one. Originally designed as a character to accompany a piece of text-to-vocals “Vocaloid” software in Japan, nobody took much notice. Then, a video of a super-deformed Miku twirling a spring onion and singing a song created using the software appeared on a Japanese video-sharing website. Millions of views later she just sort of... caught on. Indeed, caught on so much that the super-deformed “Hachune Miku” became a character herself, even making an appearance here. But Hatsune Miku's popularity means that she’s the star here, with that popularity going beyond action figures, beyond manga, beyond space exploration (no, seriously) and into her second rhythm-action PSP game.

    To leave the gameplay aside for the moment, the most instantly striking thing about Project Diva is simply how incredible the presentation is. The loading screens are wildly varying pieces of Vocaloid fan-art. The menus are futuristic and have one particularly nice touch – an achievement progress indicator at the top illustrates how much of a given section is currently unlocked – 100% turns it gold. Of course, it’s when the songs play that the presentation really shines.

    The music itself is wonderful. With 46 songs on offer, it appears, on first listen, that many are ordinary since there are some songs that are so good that they make the others seem plain. No matter what song you stop playing at though, that’s the tune that’ll be hummed for the rest of the day as every song is memorable, and gets better with repeated playing. They're growers. Then there's the visuals – oh, the visuals. After choosing your character and his or her outfit, the song begins to play. Each song is presented as if it were a music video, and each is unique, and simply gorgeous. They’re meaningful, they’re funny, they’re emotional, and they’re centred around your chosen character's perfect, perfect animation. Every song is a beautiful little package, almost.

    The package is so good that you’ll want to watch it without the worry of distracting gameplay prompts getting in the way diverting your attention – luckily there’s an option for that. Every song can be watched using the PV Viewer in your character’s room.

    So, the gameplay, and a description that surely every reader of NTSC-UK will feel at home with: Gitaroo Man meets Osu! Tatake! Ouendan. The gameplay is every bit as fun as the offspring of those games would be. A button prompt will appear somewhere on the screen and another will float towards it from any direction – when the two meet the relevant button needs to be pressed. Arrows behave the same way but require the face button to be pressed alongside the relevant direction on the D-Pad. Coloured notes need to be held, with an Ouendan-style snake trailing from the note until the button needs to be released. With prompts appearing anywhere on the screen it can appear confusing, but it’s rarely difficult to keep track of. At speed, or with an intense video playing in the background, it can be difficult to see and react to the on-screen prompts in time, but there are a few tricks the game employs to make it easier.

    Firstly, the distance between the notes indicates the timing required to play them. Five notes very close together will need to be played at speed and if there’s a centimetre or so between them, slower; etc. It’s a very simple trick but instantly the player associates certain distances with certain timings and it means they needs only to worry about which button to press with the timing just coming naturally. Hitting a note with perfect timing earns a “cool” rating, and there are four other ratings down to “worst,” for a total miss. The second trick is a less necessary one. Each prompt has an arrow which rotates and points upwards when the note needs to be played. It’s not something you’ll have time to rely on at speed, but it’s useful to know when a long trail is ending.

    It’s a lot of fun, but there’s a problem: for too long it’s far too easy. At first only easy and normal are unlocked. Easy is a one-button mode and Normal uses two. To unlock a song on Hard, which uses all four buttons, Normal must be cleared, but even Hard mode is simple, bar the final song. To get a song's real challenge, Extreme must be unlocked, done by beating the song on Hard. Extreme will offer the only real chance of failing songs for most players and is where it’s at, it just takes around eight hours of easy gameplay to get there.

    Song ranks are based on the amount of “cool” and “fine” notes you hit. Miss a few for excellent, a few more for great, and more than that for standard. More than that and missxtake will mean the song needs to be done again, but less suckily this time please. Getting “cool” and “fine” for every note will achieve a perfect rank, something that can be a challenge even on easy and perfecting every song could be where the game’s real difficulty lies, if you’re committed enough to go for it. Perfects are tracked in a records screen which details the percentage of perfects obtained in each difficulty level, amongst other things.

    An edit mode is included which allows for MP3s on the player’s PSP to be converted into playable levels and videos. Unfortunately this mode is so in-depth that the Japanese is impenetrable to any non-Japanese speaker, so some kind of translation guide will be a must to get anything out of it at all. Elsewhere, the language isn’t a problem. Every option seems to lead to ten more options but trial and error means everything is easy to find once you’ve worked it out the first time and essentially, the bulk of the game is easy to get to.

    Given enough time to offer a challenge, Project Diva 2nd is an incredibly fun game, with brilliant music and a wealth of things to do. It's the presentation that wins the day, though, it oozes style and beauty from every pore and to see her in motion, it’s completely understandable how Miku is as loved as she is.