Twenty years ago, William Gibson wrote Idoru. While it isn't the best cyberpunk novel out there (I prefer Dick, myself), it showed the sort of disturbingly prescient future imagery Gibson is known for. It was about a computer-generated Japanese idol singer and a series of strange repercussions that come from having such a powerful pop culture icon who's completely virtual. Today, we have Hatsune Miku.
Hatsune Miku is a vocaloid, a virtual persona of a voice synthesis profile developed by Yamaha. She's also a pop star whose hologram has sung before sold-out crowds and has even performed on The Late Show with David Letterman. Miku is a phenomenon, even if she's primarily a phenomenon in Japan. She and her five vocaloid siblings are the stars of Sega's Hatsune Miku: Project Diva X for the PlayStation 4 ($49.99; $39.99 for the PlayStation Vita version). And now that you understand the absurdly cyberpunk origins of the phenomenon, we can talk about how Sega put out a really strong rhythm game based on the character.
There's a thin story conceit to Project Diva X, but it's just an excuse to walk you through most of the game's tracks at the Easy or Normal difficulty levels, and accumulate a handful of cosmetic options before the game really opens up. You're a video game player (which, technically, makes Project Diva X a really effective role-playing game) who Miku asks for help with restoring the voltage in the vocaloid clouds. The clouds are poorly explained, and indicate that vocaloids function primarily on Care Bears logic. Also, she can only sing well if you help her, by pressing the correct buttons, flicking the analog sticks, and rubbing the DualShock 4 touchpad in time with the music.
You can play as more than just Miku. Besides the titular character, you can control one of five other vocaloids: Kagamine Len, Kagamine Rin, Megurine Luka, KAITO, and MEIKO. There's no gameplay difference between the vocaloids, and choosing different characters doesn't actually change the music, but the different characters offer a variety of customization options with their individual modules, explained below.
Hit the Notes
Project Diva X is a controller-based rhythm game, which means you don't need plastic instruments as you would with Guitar Hero Live or Rock Band 4. You just need to use the buttons, sticks, and touchpad on the DualShock 4 controller in time with the prompts. Inputs are displayed on the screen as floating icons with rapidly spinning clocks inside them, with additional, paired icons flying toward them from the sides of the screen. When a clock reaches the 12-o'clock position and a flying icon overlaps a floating one, press the corresponding button. This double visual feedback is quite useful, as it ensures that you know what you need to do no matter where you look at the screen. If you keep your eyes focused on the floating icons, you can rely entirely on the clocks; if your eyes more easily follow large, colorful movements, you can track the flying buttons instead.
Basic button presses correspond to both the DualShock 4's face buttons and direction pad; a circle icon can be triggered by the circle or pressing right on the pad, a square icon can be triggered by the square button or pressing left on the pad, and so on. Occasionally, more brightly colored arrows appear instead of face button icons, which means you need to press both the face button and corresponding direction at the same time. These can also be held, indicated when the flying icons are trailed by long tracks that run into the floating icons. Finally, star icons mean you need to flick either analog stick or swipe on the touchpad. On top of all of that, any of these icons can flash the word Rapid over them, indicating that you have to mash the button/strum the stick rapidly instead of hitting it once. This may sound complicated, but all of the gameplay elements get quite nicely.
Instead of simply showing a string of inputs for the duration of each song, Project Diva X's tracks are given specific challenge sections called Technical Zones and Chance Time. Technical Zones are series of inputs, ranging from 10 to several dozen, that you have to enter without missing a single one to get a point bonus. Chance Time is a specific section of a song where your inputs contribute to a separate meter that fills up. If you can fill the meter before the end of the section and flick the analog stick when the final star icon appears, you get a significant bonus in the form of a cosmetic module for your character. They're both helpful bits of punctuation that give songs a bit of variety without disrupting their flow.
Points and Collectibles
Each song has a required voltage (point) number you need to meet to beat it. That's the only fail state in the game; a song won't cut out in the middle because you're doing poorly, you just won't get the score needed to beat it. You can add bonus multipliers to your voltage by equipping your vocaloid with a module (costume) and up to four accessories that go with the song's theme. Most songs are one of five categories: Classic, Cool, Cute, Elegant, or Quirky. When you wear a module and accessories that go with the song type, the amount of points you get in the song is significantly boosted. Each module also has a helpful bonus attached, such as giving more points after a streak of perfect notes or increasing the chance of getting a rare module in the next song.
The modules and accessories are fun for the customization options they provide far more than the point bonuses you can get from them (and the bonuses really aren't necessary when you first play through the game at Easy or Normal difficulty levels). There are over 300 modules in the game, each unique to one of the six vocaloids, plus hundreds more accessories that can work with any vocaloid and module. You can dress your vocaloids as trendy club-goers, athletes, supervillains, Victorian nobles, and even expy Super Sentai (Power Rangers). Adding things like bunny ears, glowing name tags, sunglasses, and backpacks, and you can have a lot of fun just playing dress-up with your vocaloids. And, of course, these custom outfits appear in the background of each song as your vocaloid dances and sings with the music.
In addition to customizing your vocaloids, you can improve your friendships with them by giving them different gifts you earn from performing songs well. Leveling up your friendship gives additional bonuses for songs you play with them. These gifts also appear in the vocaloids' virtual quarters, which function as the game's menu screen (and can also be customized with different themes).
The Final Show
Project Diva X's biggest weakness is its track list. The game has just over 30 songs, which seems paltry for any rhythm game. The songs have plenty of variety, but there simply aren't enough of them. This is understandable considering Project Diva X is a port of a PlayStation Vita game, and that system doesn't have nearly as much storage as the PlayStation 4. On the other hand, Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone came out on the PlayStation 4 in Japan in July, and that game has a whopping 234 songs. Of course, there are no plans yet for Future Tone to be released in North America, so it isn't currently an option.
Despite Hatsune Miku: Project Diva X'a relatively few tracks, it's an incredibly fun, polished rhythm game with enough challenge and variety to keep you coming back to it. It will be made completely pointless if Future Tone is ever released in North America, but until then Project Diva X is one of the most enjoyable, non-big-plastic-instrument rhythm games you can play on the PlayStation 4.