Hatsune Miku is back for her third appearance on Sony's much maligned Vita handheld and for her first on PS4 with Project Diva X. Anyone who has played any of the previous iterations will find much of the same in this release, with some changes for the better and some for the worse.
The mechanics of the game remain the same as always. The game is a rhythm title that involves the pressing of the Vita's/PS4's face buttons in time with the music. The appropriate button prompts can appear anywhere on the screen and the timing prompts (which must be pressed when the two fully overlap) can float in from off-screen at unusual angles in order to increase difficulty. Further curve balls are thrown at the player including prompts that require the button to be held and released precisely and double button presses (for example, O and the right d-pad button). Touch-screen/touch-pad scratches once again are present but thankfully you are offered the chance to use the analogue sticks as an alternative input method. The horrific chain touch-screen patterns that were in Diva F 2nd (in which they traced shapes such as hearts and stars, etc) have thankfully been ditched as their frustrating habit of slowing down or speeding up the prompt notes quickly grated and frequently led to broke chains. Rush notes have taken their place where a button can be pressed repeatedly over a short period of time to give score boosts - and score plays a much bigger part in this version than it previously did.
All the songs in-game are performed by a number of computer programmed singers called vocaloids. There are a total of six characters each with their own unique vocal effects. They sing to a variety of genres including rock and roll, ballads, J-Pop and electronic dance. In this version they are categorised into five clouds based on their genre. These clouds include quirky, cool, cute, classic and elegant. The inclusion of a story mode means that, unlike older releases where songs could be played at your leisure, once a certain cloud is selected, all the songs within must be cleared before a different cloud/genre can be attempted. You get no preview of the songs in a cloud before unlocking it so if you choose one and find it unappealing you just have to suck it up and clear the songs regardless.
Once each cloud is completed, a medley song is unlocked. This medley will be made up of snippets of songs from previous Miku games and I must admit to finding them a little lacking and, at times, frustrating. The song snippets have been remixed and blended together and I found that this leads to some very discordant moments where keeping track of the rhythm can be difficult. As well as this, the mixing of very different songs often necessitates a change in the button prompt speed meaning you have to realign your body rhythm with a new backing tune at very short notice. This is one quirk I find cheap in music games. In my opinion, a song's beat should remain continuous throughout and not fluctuate as it completely throws the player off their rhythm.
The mechanics of the game, just like the other games in this series, are extremely tight. Buttons presses are registered instantly and I have encountered no evidence of lag affecting performance on either console. Sound quality is good from the Vita speakers and much better when a decent set of headphones are used (the game recommends you use earphones for the best possible experience). Graphically the game looks very good although sometimes the backgrounds can make the button prompts difficult to spot.
The Miku games are arguably the most polished rhythm titles out there. However, in Diva X some changes have been made which I personally think take some of the shine off the game's reputation.
The inclusion of a story mode in a title such as this was, in my opinion, wholly unnecessary. None of the exchanges between yourself and the characters are very notable and often the conversations thrust upon you are baffling and sickly sweet. The story revolves around the refilling of the genre clouds I mentioned earlier but the inclusion of them is never fully explained, they are just there to drive on the games's unnecessary narrative. To be frank, the story is utterly inane and can be skipped with the start button without missing anything of note. As a result of the story mode, songs must be replayed many times over to fill the clouds to receive crystals which unlock new challenges called event requests. These include either playing songs dressed in a certain type of costume or partaking in festivals which allow you to pick and choose the songs you wish to play. I personally preferred the old way of playing songs via the free play option (which is still present, by the way, but requires a story mode playthrough to unlock playable songs) but other players may prefer the more structured method of progression here as it slowly but surely builds you up to taking on more challenging songs at higher difficulties (of which there are four: easy, normal, hard and extreme).
One of the sacrifices made to incorporate the story mode are the impressively choreographed background videos which often they fit perfectly with the song they were attached to and told a meaningful story. Now they are gone, replaced by generic dance routines performed in front of stages that can be switched at will by the player. Although not a great deal of focus was paid to these videos while actually playing the rhythm game, it was always nice to have the option to watch them at your pleasure if you so chose. I personally feel cutting these videos has only worked to lessens the impact of the game's songs.
In Diva X the ability to buy costumes, accessories and items from a shop is removed. Instead these items must be earned randomly by replaying stages over and over in the hope that they will appear. Costumes are no longer aesthetic and now have a purpose, however, in that they affect stages in certain ways by making songs easier to accomplish with score or voltage bonuses (voltage is an in-game bar affected by your score that you must fully fill to complete each stage) or by making it easier to unlock rare accessories of items. Still, when the title has trophies that rely on you unlocking every costume, accessory or gift in the game, it can become extremely frustrating to complete a song only to be rewarded with a set of items that you have already received. Random achievements have long been a bugbear of mine with Hatusune Miku titles (for example, the animated room scenes when giving gifts and load screens that needed to be collected in older releases) and unfortunately it has only got worse with this year's release. I don't believe titles should rely on the computer's Random Number Generator, they should be earned because of the player's skill and I wish more developers would take not of this.
Another issue arises from all of this grinding to collect items and that is the game's relatively small track list. Including medleys there are only a total of 30 songs in the game, many of which are totally forgettable when compared with previous versions of the game. Although every now and then a challenge will be unlocked for each song (such as playing at a higher speed or with smaller prompt notes and targets) it stands to reason that you will be sick and tired of replaying the same tunes repeatedly before you are done with the game. I'm sure that more songs will be released as DLC but, as only the US got an English physical release and I hate digital copies, I won't be able to download them using my imported copy from America. I honestly feel that the time spent programming the story mode would have been more effectively used adding patterns for 5-10 more songs instead so people buying using this method got more bang for their buck.
Overall, despite what seems like a sizeable list of issues above, I did enjoy my time with the game. However, I can't help but feel that there have been more backward steps taken than forward ones with Project Diva X. For every improvement made such as the continued integration of analogue controls for the touch-screen/touch-pad scratches and the ditching of the awful chained scratch notes, more changes have been made to the game's detriment including the over heavy reliance on the RNG, the tiny song list and the removal of the brilliantly produced background videos of old. Hatsune Miku Project Diva X is still worth picking up if you are, like me, a rhythm game aficionado but don't be surprised to notice some changes for the worse.
+ Continued analogue stick integration for touch-screen/touch-pad scratches
+ The game still has the same solid mechanics as previous versions
+ Costumes and accessories now award the player benefits which make completing songs and challenges easier
- The story mode is quite frankly awful and can be skipped without missing anything of note
- Tiny track list means songs quickly grow stale
- Such heavy reliance on the RNG makes trophy collecting a laborious chore
- Gone are the fantastic background videos present in the older titles