Hatsune Miku’s international popularity has exploded over the last couple of years. There’s been global tours and music festival spots, and companies like Toyota and Domin’s have used her digital image in hilariously awkward marketing campaigns. She embodies the bright and quirky traits that a lot of people associate with Japanese pop culture, and the collaborative nature of Hatsune Miku and the Vocaloid brand ensures that anyone, anywhere, can give her voice their own ideas with her likeness.
Those ideas come in the form of digitally-crafted autotune music, with computer voices modulating to fit the desired lyrics and tones. With so much Hatsune Miku music out there, it made sense for Vocaloid rhythm games to become a thing at some point, with the first game for PSP appearing back in 2009 and the first localised release outside of Japan in 2013. Project Diva X marks the first PS4 entry for the series, though, and with it, a few changes and additions that aim to make the experience fresh.
As in many rhythm action games, you utilize the face buttons on your controller to tap, hold, or mash along to the beat of a song. There are also icons aligned to your PS4 or Vita touchpad that you have to swipe. I was never a fan of the swiping bits, as they felt like a betrayal of the precision button-action that I love rhythm games for, but thankfully, Project Diva X lets you flick your left or right sticks on PS4 to activate these instead, which provides a much more precise and tactile experience.
I grew up on the note-lanes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, where you had one set path that notes evenly came down across, but the Project Diva series laughs in the face of such rigid design. Note spaces can appear anywhere on the screen, and it’s up to you to follow their order of appearance and press the buttons as a coloured note reaches the right point. It’s harder to keep track of the beat and timing because of this, but the nature of the note system provides a fun way to get your eyes to dart across the screen and take in the beautiful visuals playing on in the background.
Once you pick a song, you can also pick a Vocaloid character to play as, as well as custom costumes and accessories for them to wear. You then get to see your customized characters in unique background videos tailored specifically to each song in the game. Previous Project Diva titles would have insanely detailed videos for their songs, showing incredibly cinematic scenes of the characters interacting in various environments, having epic battles, and delivering surprisingly captivating stories in an insane music video style, but Project Diva X takes an entirely different approach, and it’s a choice that’s sure to be divisive.
This game almost entirely does away with these elaborate music videos. Instead, each song has a unique stage backdrop, and unique dancing choreography to go with it. So instead of multiple scenes and dynamically directed moments, you’re given videos that are framed much more like live concert performances. I always loved the sometimes wacky, sometimes touching music videos from previous games. While the dance choreography in this game is well-done and engaging, the fact that story-driven music videos are completely gone left me feeling a little sour.
Another new thing in Project Diva X comes as more of an addition than a change. For the first time, there’s Live Quest Mode, a story mode with progression and cutscenes. I remember this being billed as a proper, gripping story about the disappearance of the spirit of music, but the story in the actual game is basically light fluff with poor writing. There’s barely any semblance of a story or narrative. Characters simply show up and explain the mechanics of the mode to you in simplistic, robotic writing with barely a hint of personality, which I guess kind of makes sense considering they’re virtual Microsoft Sam anime singers. Still, the writing has no flair or substance, and it coddles the player like it were an episode of Dora The Explorer.
Thankfully, it still serves as a great way to give the player natural progression and plenty of replayability. You’re tasked with diving into five different themed Prisms, each containing five songs, in order to clear the songs and raise enough voltage to revitalize the prism and unlock a final medley performance. In previous games, I would play the handful of songs I knew well, and then usually call it a day, but the Event Quests had me trying out songs and genres I wouldn’t normally be interested in. What’s more, when I finally got to the Prism that contained some of my favorite songs, the Cool Prism, I probably felt even more satisfied and happy because I had worked my way up to those tracks.
That’s also a testament to the great song selection in this game. I’m not heavily knowledgeable on Vocaloid and the popular tracks in the community, but the variety of music in this title felt very precisely put together to me. There was a wide variety, and none of the tracks I played made me want to avoid playing them a 2nd time.
One other quick caveat I had with the mode was the Event medley feature, where you get to put together your own 3 song medley. You unlock it about halfway through, and at that point you’ve played a handful of Medley performances where the songs naturally blend together like a badass Superbowl Half Time Show. I came into the custom medley mode expecting my medley to play out like that. Instead, what happened was that one song finished, there was an awkward 5 or 10 seconds of silence where my character stood frozen, the next character teleported in, and then the next song played. It was a bit of a letdown, as the feature basically ended up being a glorified Playlist mode.
The Event mode is also how you unlock new costumes and accessories for your characters. By clearing the special Chance Time sections of songs, you get to see your character transform into a random outfit, or module, and these transformations often end up giving you a brand new module. At the end of songs, you also unlock new accessories. All of these modules and accessories have different status affects, like increasing the drop rate of rare modules or giving you a better score for bad not hits. On top of that, each song is tied to one of five aura types, and equipping items that match that aura can increase your score. It’s a simple way to get push you to get new costumes and accessories, and I’m absolutely going to be grinding out rare costumes for a while.
Though the game is out on PS Vita as well, the leap to PS4 has also done the game wonders. I’ve played the last few Project Diva games on the Vita, and the difference in quality is astounding. The game runs at a crisp 60fps, and the visuals of the characters and their environments look sharper than most other Japanese PS4 titles I’ve seen. The Vita games had a cute feature where you’d see a variety of Vocaloid fanart during load times, but the load times on PS4 are so quick that there isn’t even any loading screen art! I’m a little torn, as I honestly loved seeing the art, but faster loading times are always a blessing.
Project Diva X is by far the best game in the series so far. It improves the visuals, customisation, music selection and even the performances. It’s hard to recommend previous games over this one, but it’s not perfect, and the weak story mode that’s been added is hard to ignore. If you do manage to overlook it, you’re in for an addictive and endlessly replayable rhythm game that hits a high note for the Project Diva series.
Version tested: PlayStation 4