REVIEW: Project Diva 2nd
I am a 35-year-old North American male, so what the hell am I doing playing a Japanese import PSP game whose target audience is people half my age and whose main attraction is mashing buttons to music sung by (mostly) underage (mostly) girls? For me, I think the hook is obvious. Not only am I fan of Rock Band, I’m also a fan of Japanese quirkiness and also happen to be a fan of the Vocaloids. So what do you do when one of your favorite console games completely bungles its hand-held port and someone else comes along with another spin on mashing buttons to music, including some other stuff you happen to like, on a system whose games are region-free?
If you need to know what a Vocaloid is, Wikipedia is a friend that can get you started. If you want to know what veered me into Vocaloid territory, I would have to tell you to thank Valve and Ellen McLain for GLaDOS. By making a humans sound like a computer, you’re bound to pique the interest of people using computer software that tries to sound human, and you get Miku singing a translated version of Still Alive, which at first listen could be mistaken as an official translation of the song. After that, I stumbled upon Caramelldansen, and as with any meme like this people are going to incorporate their favorite characters into it, including Vocaloids. The nail in the coffin, though, was Love Is War, an actual full-fledged song, reminiscent of Linkin Park, using Vocaloid as it was intended. Being fully subbed in Kanji, Romaji and English helped greatly.
(Lest you think English users are being totally ignored: English is harder to pronunciate, thus harder for a computer to pull off, thus the popularity problem. It’s become much better in recent years.
Enough digressions! Let’s talk game play.
First off, if you can’t read Japanese, you’ll need to hit up the Project Diva Wiki at Wikispaces to learn how to get around. Once you do that, the game play concept is simple enough that it requires no translation: You hit specified buttons at specified times, and get scored according to how well you do it. One tip that I can pass along is that the timing is Rock Band Foot Pedal picky. Combine this with a minimum of 85% hit rate required to pass a song and you’re bound to fail a few even on the easier levels, where the button presses remain sane. Luckily, if you play all the songs on Easy you’ll quickly pick up on the timing window that the game expects you to adhere to since you’re only going to be using one button, the ○ button. Normal mode introduces the ⨉ button. By the time you clear all songs on Easy and Normal, you should be prepared for the tricks the game is about to pull on you when all four buttons are thrown your way in Hard mode.
If you don’t speak Japanese you’re going to be thrown off a bit when you find that the button presses are timed to the singing and not to the background music (unless there’s a long unspoken part in the song). While it doesn’t sound that bad while you’re reading this in your head, it does become a bit of stumbling block. When someone is speaking a language you understand, you can guesstimate what someone is going to say next. If you hear a particular passage enough times, you’ll also start memorizing bits and pieces of it, much like the songs you listen to on the radio. When the language is foreign, you don’t have this help. As you progress through the difficulties you’ll also realize that what you thought was one syllable was actually two. Or vice versa. Fortunately, a grasp of the Japanese language is not required at all — simple memorization (or even just familiarity) can make up for it.
While you’re making your way through all the songs on all four difficulty levels, you’ll rack up Diva Points which can be used to unlock outfits, room decorations, and even themed rooms. Needless to say, there’s a lot to unlock. Unfortunately, as far as the costumes are concerned, Miku has the lion’s share BY FAR. Seriously, she has sixty, while others (Neru, Haku, and young Meiko) only have two. The others have no more than eight.
Where the game starts to stumble is in the mini-game of keeping all the divas (two of them being guys?) happy. Use them in a song, and their mood goes up. The better you do, and they higher the difficulty you do it on, the more their mood goes up. Fail a song with MissXtake or Cheap, and EVERYONE’S mood goes down. Something that comes with the territory of music rhythm games is that you will eventually fail. And you will eventually come across a song at a particular difficulty level that will push the abilities you have thus far, making you fail quite a few times before you finally pass the song. Well, someone forgot to tell Sega that music rhythm game fans embrace and have fun with this, so they’re actually punishing people for having fun and doing it in a way that can be bypassed by pausing and then selecting Retry (or a power cycle). I thought that crap died during the 16-bit era?
Complicating things on the failing front is the fact that there’s no practice mode. Most of the time there’s a pattern to match (kinda hard to avoid with only four buttons), but those patterns are usually unrecognizable at full speed. A practice mode similar to Rock Band’s would help immensely. Instead, you’ll have to look the song up on YouTube, download the video, and use your favorite video player to play the song in slow-mo. That’s a half-assed solution as there’s no replacement to practicing the song yourself. And to pile onto the mediocrity — most JP shmups face the same problem the Project Diva does (ridiculous timing with some non-obvious solution) and have embraced the watching-other-people-do-it aspect with replays that can be uploaded and downloaded in-game. Granted, this wouldn’t work without an on-screen guide as to which buttons the person was smashing, but that isn’t the point of my bringing it up. The point is that there’s a better solution to the one players are left with, that it doesn’t fit either, so why not include a practice mode?
If your pride keeps you from end-running the happiness penalty thing, you can purchase certain room decorations to cheer up your Vocaloids. That’s a nice out, but this starts taking the game into creepy territory. Again, I’m a 35-year-old male. I have less than zero interest in keeping 16- and 14-year-olds happy. The older Vocaloids only garner my indifference to their moods. These shenanigans do not garner the stereo-typical “Oh, don’t be upset! I’m sorry so sorry I made you upset. Here, I got you a present!” The tune reads more like, “Take this you little [bleep] and stop giving me shit.” (Especially Kaito.) The whole process of buying something for a virtual person because I made them upset is a bit too involved. If I wanted that I’d play an RPG or a dating sim.
Last but not least, the most egregious sin of this game concerns the loading screens. There’s too many and they take way too long, unless you utilize the Install Data option (and go into the options and turn the feature on — REALLY?). This has been fixed in the sequel Project Diva 2nd Extend, but at this time you’ll pay a $15-$20 premium over Project Diva 2nd♯, which already breaks through the normal $40 barrier of new PSP releases (albeit slightly — ¥3300 ≈ US$42, and going prices for NA retailers selling the import fluctuate between $45 and $50).
However, none of these drawbacks ever stop you from picking up the game and going at it again. It’s as addictive as the games that paved the way before it.