Monday, July 21, 2014

Utakumi 575 (Vita) - Review

Videogame demos have rarely been a detriment for me. Most often the carefully chosen segment of a demo is enough to sell me on a game despite concerns for the overall package, and even when the demo is a bit lackluster I won't lose interest in the game's elements that drew me to try it out in the first place, braving the front-lines of a day-one purchase regardless.

But Utakumi 575 is a game that I'd really wished I'd listened to myself after playing the demo, and it's something I can summarize this review with also. For anyone interested in Utakumi I highly suggest downloading the free JPN demo off of PSN before purchasing, because however you feel after playing the demo is exactly how you'll feel for the full game also.

For me, I was pretty disappointed with the demo, and had that suspicion that the full-game would be too similar to that same disappointment. Unfortunately, that came out to be the very case.

Utakumi is a unique rhythm game from SEGA that minimizes beat-based gameplay for an interesting mechanic of lyric-building. Whereas most rhythm games limit themselves to button-presses in reflection to the song's melody, Utakumi refrains from the usual and instead intermittently allows throughout a song the player to choose which lyrics the two characters sing. The mechanic operates the same as the beat-based gameplay though, being managed by a few taps at the right time, and so manages to retain what is the established style of rhythm games while also utilizing that sameness in a new and refreshing way.

And it's probably good fun at times, and building lyrics off-key I'm sure has been constructed to offer some cute and embarrassing wordplay. But it's certainly beyond me; Utakumi is exclusively available in the Japanese language and I, unfortunately, don't know Japanese.

So this is an unfair review, seeing as Utakumi is based off of language-based entertainment and this reviewer hasn't the capability to evaluate that. But still, what I'd like to point out is that it isn't just not being able to utilize the lyric-building function that amounts to an apathetic response toward Utakumi, as there are more problems within the core of the game than just its philological distance.
To repeat, while Utakumi does utilize the lyrics-builder it still obliges the basic structure of rhythm games. Beats scroll down the sides of the screens and you must tap them at the appropriate time, in this case physically tapping them by either the front or back of the Vita. As can be seen in the screenshots, Utakumi has a rigid style where the beats scroll from top to bottom on the left and right sides of the screen. The beats themselves are unfortunately limited to the extremely conventional, and even less so; there are those beats you have to hold down for a time, or the beats you rapidly tap at, and that's pretty much it in terms of variety.  

Arguably the front and back touch of the Vita could be seen as unique, but how many out there actually like the back-touch? Let's not forget that Sega's own Project Diva titles, perhaps the most successful rhythm series of all time, hasn't bothered with the back-touch for either of its two Vita releases, and with good reason; it's uncomfortable, and not fun, to use. And that's certainly the case here with Utakumi also, especially when playing songs on the Hard difficulty setting.

Paired with the confined game-design is also the overall presentation, which is from an entirely static front-angle save the last portions of a song where it swings about a bit. The introductory video of the game shows how the two characters film themselves by setting up a tripod and doing their performance in front of it, which is pretty authentic for a game that's about two girls trying to become Youtube stars (pretty much). Cutely realistic or not, for a videogame that tripod design is downright dull. Every song is 90% from that single, unmoving angle, and with the gameplay being designated to the sides of the Vita your eyes are only rapidly glossing over the dancing of the two characters as you play. Because of the non-moving camera it truly becomes a hindrance to have the girl's performing, almost like they're a bothersome scratch on your screen, and one that wiggles about too.
The music selection is also of a certain strangeness. I can't really think of any other way to describe it than as 'Girly,' and I don't mean that in some misogynistic negative but certainly not as a neutral positive neither. The music is, while pleasant, not very enjoyable. Several of the game's songs have that over-dramatic slow and somber tone to them that does nothing to invigorate fun, and even the couple of songs that pick up the pace and have quirky, pulsing beats are also limited, never reaching the point where you want to kick out your legs rather than just methodically tap your toes. If you can think of all those dozens of songs on Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera albums that never hit the radio and were met only with the Skip button in the car, then that's about the best way to understand the selection in Utakumi. It isn't that the music is poor quality, but only that it's flat and vacant, neither pumping you up nor surprising you with study of its sounds.

And that's really about it with Utakumi. Everything "works," but it's all so boring. The gameplay is too predictable, the presentation is dull, the music is flat, and nothing really matters. You can unlock songs that you won't care about, and you can unlock outfits that you won't be able to marvel over except in PV mode (watching the game and not playing it). Truly, the core gameplay of Utakumi is just antithetical to all of the ways that the rhythm genre has grown over the years, attempting to advance it in the one way of lyrics construction but then neglecting the dozens of other advancements that have long become staples. 

I think what's so hard to digest about Utakumi is that SEGA has such a rich history as both developer and publisher of Rhythm games, and then to come up with so flawed a title as Utakumi just doesn't make sense. From Project Diva to Space Channel 5, Rhythm Thief through Samba de Amigo, SEGA have not only always been a crown amongst the genre, but also its leading pioneer. I suppose with Utakumi, we've all just got to accept that even the king will still stub his toe from time to time.

Language Barrier
Obviously, Utakumi has a rather stiff language barrier in terms of its overall content, but in regards to gameplay it's alike other rhythm games; 1-2-3 to play after some quick trial-and-error with the menus.
Utakumi though is not recommended, not only for the above review but, specifically in regards to the Language Barrier, Utakumi is largely dependent on an understanding of Japanese to deliver its intended content. Obviously the lyrics-builder is out, which negates half of the gameplay (you can still pass songs even with incorrectly built lyrics though), but there's also the story. Utakumi is unique as a rhythm title in that there's a story alongside the game; every 3 or so songs you advance into the next Month, and this is followed by a dialogue between the two girls or even a cutscene. Much of Utakumi is banking on there being pinned some authentic charm and character to the two girls, but without knowing Japanese you're left feeling not only disappointed with the game, but frustrated that it's outside of your scope.

So Yes, you can play it without knowing any Japanese. But steel yourself for a let-down when you do.

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