While she may not be a mainstream name quite yet, Hatsune Miku and friends have been taking the world by storm. What started as a persona for a voice synthesizer application 'Vocaloid', the turquoise haired anime girl soon grew a large fan base around the world - and has shown no signs of slowing down. For years, fans had been creating their own songs using the Vocaloid voices and inspired character artwork, so it didn't take long before game developers SEGA started putting these pieces together to create a rhythm action game series 'Project DIVA' for Sony's PSP and PS3. Years later due to increase in demand (and imports) from western audiences, SEGA released Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F (or little f if playing on PS Vita) on PS3 and PS Vita - and now, due to the success of the first game outside Japan, the most recent game in the series Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F/f 2nd has been released on these shores.
At its most basic, Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F 2nd is a rhythm game in which you press buttons in time with music, following the on screen prompts. While it can be a little bit intimidating to look at in trailers, with PlayStation symbols flying all over the place, and flashy video backgrounds, it's not actually as complex as it looks. Unlike the majority of rhythm action titles, the symbols aren't static, and don't just move across in a steady line - instead, they come at you from all angles as you make your way through the song. Although it can be a bit of a change of pace if you're used to things like Just Dance of Rock Band, once you get in sync with the music, you'll soon find yourself in "the zone", where your fingers are pressing all the right buttons without you really having to think about what you're doing.
To help ease you in, there are four different difficulty options here: Easy, Normal, Hard, and Extreme. As you might expect, Easy mode only requires the use of a couple buttons, and gives you less prompts on screen at a time to worry about; Hard ramps the pace up, and throws every type of button prompt at you; while Extreme mode requires you to grow an extra arm. Thing is, we're only just kidding - extreme really isn't for the faint of heart. Thankfully, you can't go straight into playing songs on Hard and Extreme, as you'll have to play through and clear all songs on Normal mode first to unlock the harder difficulties - and, if there's a song that proves too much, there are various help items that can aid you through. On the other end of the spectrum, if you're feeling particularly masochistic, there are challenge items you can use, which actually ramp up the game's difficulty. For maniacs only, we think.
Still, there's an impressive amount of tracks available here, with a surprising array of styles on offer - especially when you remember the singer isn't actually a real person! From the slow and emotional 'Sakura Rain' to the more upbeat rock sound of 'Spoofing Genga', there's enough to please a variety of tastes. That said, while there's certainly plenty on offer, the overall selection of tracks doesn't seem quite as strong or memorable as the previous Project DIVA F offerings - but then, that could just be personal preference talking...
The game's rating system for each track seems a bit weird at times, too. Along with the difficulty you're playing on, each song is given a further difficulty rating out of 5 stars. However the difficulty doesn't appear to be consistent. Slow and somewhat 'easier' songs end up appearing after quite intense and fast songs, yet are rated harder. The PS3 version of the game also has the all too familiar rhythm action related input lag. A problem with HD TVs more than the game itself, this causes there to be a slight gap between the picture and the sound, which means your button presses end up not quite in sync. There is a calibration setting in the options to try and rectify this problem, but it's very hard to get it all precisely lag free.
As you complete songs, you'll earn DIVA points, which can be exchanged for modules (costumes) for the characters, gifts, skins, and items for the DIVA rooms. Returning from the previous game, the DIVA room feature gives Miku and friends (Rin, Len, Kaito, Meiko, and Luka) each their own room, which you can decorate as you see fit. You can also buy them gifts such as food and teddy bears to raise your friendship level with them. Strangely, to raise your friendship level with the characters, you can also...touch and stroke their face. The heart gauge on the top of the screen will grow as you gently caress their face - but if you get a bit too excited and stroke too vigorously, the heart will burst, and they'll be unhappy with you. Not creepy at all then - and probably not the best way to get people to like you in the real world either. Gifts are good though, start with that. The higher your friendship with the characters, the more items you'll be able to choose from to buy. In all, it's a nice distraction, even if it is a little bit pointless.
For budding game developers/rhythm action maestros out there, if you think you could have done a better job of making a button mashing sequence to play along to, the edit mode has you covered. You can choose from a variety of songs and backgrounds, and mix and match your own sequence to create your very own personal remix to play. It's all very in depth, so if you're the creative type, you can get a lot of hours out of the game here - but if you want to just sit back and watch Miku do her thing, there's a live performance mode on offer too, where you can simply sit back and watch the anime maiden perform, changing your point of view as you see fit. As always, the lyrics are on screen too, so you can have a little bit of a sing along too - just like being at a real Miku concert! Finally, if directing isn't your thing, there's also a photo mode which allows you to choose from a variety of different backgrounds and poses for your favourite characters - and, you guessed it, take photos of them.
SEGA have done a fantastic job with compatibility on Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F 2nd. You can choose to import data from the previous game that will unlock all the costumes you've already unlocked, saving you a huge amount of time, as those costumes don't come cheap. But in addition to that, SEGA respectfully acknowledges all the fans who have gone above and beyond to import the game already from Japan, and allows data to be imported to the English version. After all, without the amount of interest from people going the extra mile, and importing the game themselves, this bizarre anime-styled rhythm action game would have probably never have seen the light of day on these shores. Finally, if you're hardcore enough to buy both PS3 and PS Vita versions of the game it has cross save compatibility.
Hatsune Miku may have headlined her own stadium shows as a projected act, supported acts like Lady Gaga (never heard of her), and even made her American television debut on the 'Late Show with David Letterman', but Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F 2nd making it to these shores is arguably her biggest achievement yet. Her presence outside of Japan is growing, and there's a sizable fanbase, globally, that simply can't get enough of her. Improving on the last game as much as it can, the tweaks to the DIVA room and edit modes are nice, the soundtrack's impressively varied - if not as memorable as it was before - and the only real iffy bit is the difficulty level. If you've never played a Project DIVA game before, I'd recommend starting with Project DIVA F, as the learning curve is a lot shallower. For everyone else, this is more Miku - and that's not a bad thing.