Rhythm action games, as a genre, have been through some tough times. Just over a decade ago a market still existed for original, mid-budget affairs, with wholly unique soundtracks to boot. Yet today these games are almost nowhere to be seen, and the mainstays of the past – Guitaroo Man, Pop’n Music, Dance Dance Revolution, Ouendan, Rhythm Tengoku – either died a slow death or retreated back to the arcade.
But mercifully games based on licensed music and characters have found their way to the home, and it’s allowed Sega to sustainably produce and iterate on a new modern rhythm action series for almost a decade. The end result - Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone - is the culmination of all the Vocaloid rhythm games Sega’s esteemed AM2 team has worked on over the years.
The Project Diva series feels like a love letter to all things Hatsune Miku, the synthesised idol from Crypton Future Media. A song list comprised of music from fan favourite vocaloid composers? Check. Plenty of unassumingly delightful nods to vocaloid culture? It’s all there. Gorgeously modelled music videos that bring the music to life? Yup.
Since the lyrics are all composed in Japanese, that last point is rather important – the scenarios of the story-focused music videos do a lot to bring out the meaning of the lyrics while playing to the compositions’ strengths. It’s not hard to feel the mood while playing a song like From Y to Y
, for instance.
Being an arcade conversion, Sega has included over 200 songs, spanning every genre you can imagine, and not only every previous game in the Project Diva series, but the cuter, more bouncy Project Mirai series on 3DS. Those willing to give Vocaloid music a fair shake are unlikely to be disappointed with the selection on offer, and based on my own personal experiences, it’s likely you’ll still find something to love in the songs that you don’t find catchy, thanks to the storyboards in the music video, or some rather brilliant choreography on display.
Tracklist natter aside, Future Tone’s roots at the arcade means Sega have brought over some of those arcade sensibilities with it. Basically: It not only looks and sounds the part, but it plays the part. Here’s the gist of it: button prompts fly in from the sides of the screen. You clear them by pressing the appropriate button when the prompts land in their designated zones, which are placed ahead of time to the vocaloid music.
What’s always made the series stand out is the depth to these mechanics. Not only do the flying button prompts and fixed zone markers keep things unpredictable yet fair, those that learn to “dual wield” the controller – interchanging the face buttons for the D-Pad and vice versa – will discover hidden depths to playing each song.
Dual wielding means that you can clear a button prompt for pressing Cross by tapping down on the D-Pad instead. Left on the D-Pad thus becomes the same as Square, Triangle can be substituted for Up, and so on. Which mercifully allows you to tackle more complex note charts that the developers cook up on the harder difficulties.
For instance, pressing Square, Triangle, Square in time and in quick succession to a three-syllable word would be difficult using just the face buttons, but with practice it soon clicks in your brain that you could dual wield, and either bash out Square, Up, then Square with your two thumbs, or Left, Triangle, left to the music.
This has been a staple to the series since the second entry on PSP, but Future Tone raises the bar in a way that provides a lot more depth to mastering and interacting with each song in the game. There are three main additions: Button prompts that beg to be held down instead of tapped, multi-button presses, and Left/Right markers that require either a trigger tap or a slide. At the arcades, an inviting multi-coloured touch-bar handled the slides, but on PS4 you can either hold down the left trigger, or more characteristically, tilt the controller or slide your thumb over the touchpad.
Having to now hold down some buttons, or press several at once, adds more nuance to the game’s scoring systems. For instance, holding down a button continually adds to your score, but it’s no easy feat to do this *and* continue playing the song as normal using the other, unoccupied buttons. Likewise score tracking is a lot more detailed, letting you know the exact boundaries for getting a Great, or an Excellent. It’s a no-nonsense approach to rhythm action that also feels great to play – feedback is crisp and the sound effects are inviting, as they should be.
It’s also a return to form after the two PS Vita games introduced some odd new mechanics which had the effect of creating the illusion of more complexity; the first introduced “scratch notes” that forced players onto an imprecise analogue input in response to a precise note – tilting the sticks or swiping at the screen. The second game replaced some prompts with on-rails markers, preventing the player from being able to read the music ahead of time.
Future Tone provides a firm but fair challenge that feels familiar and fresh to longtime fans, while keeping the hardest elements out of harder difficulties so not to alienate newer players. Some of the note charts on Extreme difficulty tended to reward memorisation rather than skill, however, but overall there’s little to fault here. It’s one of the best mid-budget home rhythm games in years – even if you’re not accustomed to synthesised Vocaloid music this is the perfect introduction.