You don’t have to be into vocaloid music to enjoy "Hatsune Miku: Project Diva X" — but it helps.
It also helps to be into rhythm games, but that’s not purely necessary. If you pick up a controller and play this one, you might very well walk away with an appreciation of both genres at the end of the day.
Of course, you may also be asking yourself right now: What’s a vocaloid? Or what’s a rhythm game?
The latter is really easy to explain. Rhythm games are music-based exercises in timing, where a player is tasked with hitting the right button at the right moment, usually in rhythm with a song. Prominent examples you may have heard of include "Guitar Hero," "Rock Band" and "Dance Dance Revolution," though those use specialized controllers.
"Hatsune Miku" for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita, on the other hand, just uses the standard control schemes for those devices. So when flying circles, squares, triangles and the like intersect with a matching stationary symbol, you hit the appropriate button. Proper timing earns you more points — voltage, in this game’s terminology — and keeps the song on track. Mess up, or don’t play along, and the song may keep going but the singer won’t.
It probably sounds easy, and on this game’s easy setting, it is — even for novice players. Except for one song, the only inputs a player needs to use are the circle button and the swipe pad or analog stick, and the pace remains manageable.
But ramp up the difficulty even a little and it quickly becomes more challenging, i.e. more buttons and more button pounding. Also, this isn’t a game where you get to focus solely on one small area of the screen. Your marching orders pop up all over, and the flying icons swoop and swirl in distracting patterns as they progress to their destination.
Meanwhile, the game character acts out a distracting music video in the background and — if you’re at all like me — you’ll find yourself torn between watching the performance and doing well in the game. Adding further to the distraction, challenge and fun, at a certain point in every song, you’re tasked with matching your inputs well enough to unlock a new costume for Hatsune Miku or the other game characters; complete the challenge and you’re immediately treated to a Sailor Moon-esque magical costume change.
Unlocking all of the costume options, called "modules," is a big part of the fun and the replayability. And there’s an extra point to the costumes and costume accessories you can acquire: They can modify how easily you build up "voltage" points, which factor into betting the song, unlocking new songs and earning bragging rights.
So what sort of songs are we talking here?
If you aren’t familiar with the term vocaloid already, then it’s very likely you haven’t heard a single song included in this game before.
To put it simply, a vocaloid is a singing voice synthesizer. In other words, a digital singer. Using the right software, you input your lyrics and melody and the computer will sing what you input.
Hatsune Miku is one of these synthesizer programs, with her name translating to "the first sound of the future" according to the company that created her, Crypton Future Media. More than 100,000 songs have been composed using her voice, so it’s no surprise she’s long since been given a physical depiction: A teen ingenue with blue-green hair with flowing pigtails.
She’s not the only vocaloid out there, and not the only one in the game. Kagamine Rin and Kagamine Len are depicted as twins, sister and brother, with an odd human meets "Minecraft" aesthetic; Megurine Luka is a stylish pop princess; MEIKO looks like Ada Wong from the "Resident Evil" games; and KAITO looks like a "Castlevania" protagonist.
The songs in the game — 31 in total, though that includes some medleys — were all written by the Miku community, not SEGA or some other game developer. They’re in Japanese with a little English thrown in. Though you can set English subtitles to display as you play, you’ll generally be too distracted to follow along, so it’s a good thing you can sit back and watch all the songs you’ve beaten in free-play mode.
That’s provided more than a few surprises for me. Probably my favorite song in the game is "Patchwork Staccato" by Toa. It’s got a catchy beat and cute, innocently wistful tone — and Miku dances an adorable, joyful ballet while performing it. But when you understand the lyrics, it becomes clear that it’s a song by someone whose heart is breaking, because they’re in a relationship they feel isn’t working anymore — and Miku’s performance feels oddly incongruous yet also perfectly fitting at the same time.
Or there’s "The Lost One’s Weeping" by Neru, a defiant, rocking tune sung by Kagamine Rin. It’s energetic, fist-pumping and vibrant, yet depressingly about the crushing pressures of school and growing up and wondering what’s the whole point of things.
The game follows the typical mechanic requiring player success to unlock all the songs available as well as other features. The tunes are hidden in five "cloud prisms": classic, cool, cute, quirky and elegant. You’ll have to tackle classic first, then can choose where to go from there. Each cloud prism holds five songs and a medley.
With enough progress, you’ll also unlock a music video editor, so you can recut the game videos to your liking; "gifts," so you can build friendships with the digital characters; "events," where you can put together you’re own multi-song challenges; and more.
Frankly, it’s a game packed with fun and replayability.
Joel Leizer is The News-Gazette’s Playing Critic. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hatsune Miku: Project Diva X
■ Platforms: PS4, Vita
■ Price: $49.99 PS4; $39.99 Vita
■ ESRB rating: T for teen