The Idolm@ster 2 (JPN import) User Review
First of all I have to tank my wife for starting this ball rolling as she introduced me to the anime and game. She got her copy of the game long before I got mine.
This game is completely in Japanese, but it's worth the effort. Before I start the review though, let me say that I thought about whether or not to review this game because it's a game that is only available in Japan and you have to buy it through an import retailer like Play Asia. The extensive DLC is likewise locked to Japan, though if you can create a PSN account on the Japanese PSN, you can buy PSN cards for that account and purchase DLC with it.
I think that despite the difficulties inherent in acquiring and playing a Japanese game, this game is good enough to merit a review. I hope you will agree.
First of all, this game is based on Idolm@ster (Idolmaster) which began life as a rhythm based video game in the game arcades of Japan in 2005. The idea was to guide a young singer into being a pop idol. The game play is rhythm based. There is also a story element to the game where you are guiding your new idol through her career. The genre of game is called 'raising simulation', and it's *very* Japanese. Namco were, apparently, paid to put the game out on 360 in Japan in 2007. The Idolm@ster (1) was exclusive to 360 in Japan and drove 360 system sales and XBL subscriptions (and points purchases) to their all time highs in Japan. Idolm@ster has also seen releases on PSP and DS, again only in Japan.
Idolm@ster 2 - the game I am reviewing - was released to 360 in 2011 with an announcement that coincided with the 5th anniversary concert by the Idolm@ster girls. Yes, the characters are played by real Voice actresses that sing and dance in a show that brings the music and dance routines from the games to the real stage. There's also been an anime adaptation from the game. Idolm@ster 2 is very close in terms of the characters and basic story to that anime, though the game obviously focuses on the music and dance, while the anime focuses more on character development and story.
After the 360 launch, Namco announced that the game would be coming to PS3 in October 2011. When the game was launched on PS3, it proved to be quite popular and helped shift PS3 systems as well. There are anecdotal stories of a large number of Japanese gamers that bought their 360 to play Idolm@ster, ditching their 360 in favor of PS3 once the game arrived on PS3. Certainly the game has been successful earning a 'Best' release (equivalent to Greatest Hits here) after just 9 months. So, it's a popular game, now to find out why.
765 Productions is a small recording label that has a stable of rookie pop idols. They are low budget and don't have a huge production crew or office staff, even their '765' signage is really just pieces of paper stuck to their office window in the shape of '765'. There's not a lot of work for the young singers and the player takes the role of a rookie producer entrusted with the future of these pop idols. The game is based around the 'idol' industry, and it's your job as producer to guide each of the idols to fame.
The game is presented using Anime artwork that is nearly identical to that of the actual anime, the characters are cell shaded, but move with the fluidity of a well produced animation - better than the anime actually. There are 9 idols for you to produce, plus 3 'extra' idols that you unlock after a successful play-through with one of your idols. The group of 3 extra idols are a separate production 'unit' at 765, who are produced by a former idol turned producer.
The format of the game is based on a year (55 weeks) with each week being played out. When you first start you select which idol you are going to guide. Each has a score in 3 categories, dance, visual and voice. Once you make your choice, you guide that new idol through some basic lessons to get you used to the initial game play, and then you choose 2 other idols to make up the completed 'unit' and act as backing for the idol you are producing.
From that point forward each week has the same format, morning greeting, choose which work to do, decide whether to change the outfit and accessories, handle the lessons, promotion, performance or shopping you elected to do, return to the office for a recap and good night. each week has this same sequence of events. There are also some story events for each idol and certain performance events that always happen in specific weeks. Remember that the game is entirely in Japanese, so you will need to persevere with the first play through. The morning greeting is when you greet the 3 girls (idols) and choose one to be the focus for the day (this has no real impact to story outcome). Whoever you choose will say something and you have to decide how to respond. The right choice will increase the groups affinity to each other and the producer, the wrong one will decrease their mood and affinity.
The choice of event is based on a map of Japan, there are 6 regions and the events all happen in the various prefectures. You can choose between Auditions (local or National), Live performances, promotions (paid and unpaid), Festivals, Lessons (dance, voice, visual), Shopping and Home. Each event has specific effects, Auditions, Lives, and Festivals all directly affect how your record sales are going. Promotion events help gather new fans, generate income and also add 'memories' to your idol, Lessons help you improve your three skill(dance, visual and voice) scores, Shopping allows you to buy outfits and accessories that boost your skills. It also helps relax your idols. Finally the Home event is you giving the idols a week off, which can be important.
You manage the group's affinity, and their mood. If they become tired, they will perform poorly and take time off without asking. If you do well and keep their mood high, they perform well. If their affinity drops they will perform poorly.
Once you choose your event(s) for the week, you're asked to confirm the outfit the idols are using, you can change their outfit and accessories using the items you buy when shopping. You can boost the scores an idol is lacking, or boost their best score to concentrate on that skill in performances. It's up to you.
Then the weekly 'work';
Promotions are small snippets of story, there is a lot of talking/text to read, and you will have 2 or three choices to make in terms of what you say to the idol working the promotion. Again the right choice means success the wrong means failure. Success brings new fans and adds a memory.
Lessons are mini-games where you focus on raising a particular stat. They are easy to understand, but as the pace increases they can become difficult to succeed at.
Shopping is what it is...the items you buy can be equipped, some boost scores more than others, some look better than others.
Auditions come in two varieties, National and local. National gains fans across the 6 regions as well as raising the awareness level for your group. Local auditions gain more fans in the specific region, and none elsewhere, as well as raising the awareness in that region. Auditions also generate some income.
Live performances, gain fans, and income, you can boost your fan-base in a specific area with these.
Festivals are competitions where you play head to head with AI controlled performers, if you beat them, you win and gain many fans and good income. Some of the festivals unlock access to extras, such as two tracks sung by Hatsune Miku, that you can view in the game's 'stage for you' mode.
The ultimate goal of the game is to promote your idols successfully and win one or more awards at the Idol Academy or IA awards ceremony in week 55. to get there you must reach certain goals for fans and beat specific festivals.
After the weekly work, you return to the office and your current recording's performance in the top 100 is shown. Are you in the top 20? Are you in the top 10, or even #1? Then it's time to tell the idols good night. There are optional mini games that can be accessed during the evening time before you send the idols home for the night. They can be used to generate more memories with the idols.
This is a rhythm game, so you are pressing buttons in time with the beat. There is no online play or head to head option.
The game play in Auditions and Lives is very similar, you must reach a certain target and to do this you perform the current song you're recording. You record 5 songs during the year, and you can choose your current recording, or a previous one to use at an audition or live event.
Your idols will perform the song and you have 3 circular targets on the screen, each represents a skill, Dance, Visual and Voice. Your skills (modified by accessories and outfit) govern how high a score you get. The circles will 'fill' in time with the song, and as the circle hits it's fullest, you press the corresponding controller button (square, triangle or circle) for the skill you wish to use. Each of the skills has a multiplier that goes down each time you use that skill. Each skill boosts the multiplier of the next skill in line, so if you have a high Dance skill, you can use the visual and voice skills to boost that dance skill to score more highly.
Each time you hit the button in time with the music is called an appeal. Each appeal causes a 'voltage gauge' to fill a little bit. When that game fills you can use a 'burst' where you score 5 times as many points on each 'appeal' you get right during the burst. The memories you have gained with your idols are represented by hearts, and you can use them (called Memory appeals) to rapidly fill a portion of the voltage gauge, making it easier to use a burst.
If you score well enough to beat the target, it's a success and if not, you fail and have the option to retry or continue. If you continue, that failure will have negative effects on your idols and their recordings. Retrying is penalty free.
Festivals have the same gameplay, except there is a rival scoring at the same time. When they use their Memory appeals you may lose some of your voltage gauge. You can fight back with your own memory appeals, and steal some of your rival's voltage gauge. When you are able to 'burst' it's called a Rival Burst. If you execute a rival burst, you score the larger bonus points like in auditions and live. If your opponent gets the rival boost off first you're unable to score during their bonus scoring, and your voltage gauge will decrease. The use of memories allows different strategy to be used, as does the differing levels of skill.
The character voices are the same as the anime, They are a mix of regular voices and voices that are obviously intended to be more 'character' voices. Some will grate on your nerves a little.
The music is good, and obviously it's j-pop. The core gameplay is based on the idol performances of these J-pop songs, so if you hate J-pop, you might want to skip the game.
The vocals of the songs are an interesting blend. Some of the singers sing in a 'normal' voice, and are excellent artists. The voice of Chihaya Kisaragi (Asami Imai) is particularly nice, I'd go as far as saying she has a beautiful voice. Several of the others are nearly, but not quite, as good as her. More than half of the characters sing 'in-character' which is difficult to imagine until you hear it. I actually watched one of the actual performers in a live clip from an Idolm@ster concert (real live action concert) and it's very strange hearing the voice come from the actress in the first place, but even stranger when she sings with the voice. I can't imagine that is particularly easy. The most phenomenal aspect of this is that the in-character voices will actually harmonize very well with the others. As much as I think Asami Imai is a very talented artist (and she's quite successful in the real music business), I think the voice actresses that sing in-character are every bit as talented because they can sing well - and harmoize, even in-character.
The controls are easy and very straight forward.
The visuals in this game are very deceptive. On the surface it looks like simplistic cell shaded anime style graphics and characters. Except that the performance stages are rendered in good detail, and there are lighting and special effects (such as smoke and lens flare) all happening during the performances. I can't emphasize enough how fluidly the characters move, nor the degree of detail that is included in their dances. Even individual finger movements are part of the dance. All the motion looks both realistic and artistic. I would have to conclude that a lot of motion capture was done to get the dances right. As you play you notice that each performer has their own moves and when all are performing the same moves in unison, there are slight variations in timing and range of motion, just as there is in reality.
The costumes are very well handled too. The fabric effects are excellent, both in terms of texture, interaction with lighting, how the costume actually fits and the movement of the fabric when in motion. Things move as you would expect them to on a dancer, the fabric just works. Of course the character's hair flows just as well, and inevitably there are breast physics.
The character designs matches the anime more or less exactly, and are fairly typical anime styles. They're all well done and cute. The game features no nudity, no 'adult' situations, and other than the swimsuit outfits very little fan-service beyond the breast physics. In fact when choosing which of the extra idols to play later in the game, you have to click on the one you want. If you happen to 'touch' her breast, you will find yourself on the receiving end of a tirade. One of the characters is particularly funny, she calls you a pervert and asks one of the others to call the cops about you - the producer.
If you succeed your idols win 1 or more awards and you - the producer - fly off with your new experience, to the USA to learn more about being a producer. If you fail , your idols win nothing, and are utterly dejected. You have made your idols sad, and they will cry, and they will sing a sad song to you while crying. Do not fail, you do not want to see your favorite idol cry.
OK, so the game is completely in Japanese, so you're going to need help (links included below). There are online guides for the game, and if you have a 360 (hacked) you can download an English patch) for the game. The guides help you through all the mandatory communication events and allow you to succeed at the game without having to be able to read or understand Japanese. I was very skeptical about this, but in the end after your first play through it all becomes clear.
I think it does actually help to have seen the Anime before playing if you don't speak or read Japanese. It gives you a better feel for the characters in the game. I watched the Idolm@ster anime before playing the game. Actually we got the game because we liked the anime so much. Chihaya's story in the anime is quite moving, and the fact that she's the real diva (best talent and most powerful singer) of the group makes it all the more moving when she sings. You really do not want to make Chihaya cry.
The game is cheerful, fun, the music is light and catchy, the songs are well done, there is no sex or violence to worry about, no fights, no guns, no weapons at all, no swearing, no weird crap going on. As a game it's nearly the exact opposite of the most popular games in the west. I find it refreshing.
The good - characters, voices, performances, music, lots of fun.
The bad - load times could be problematic for some players, as the game loads new scenes regularly and you see 'loading' a lot. Very occasionally there will be a 1-2 second silence at the beginning of an event.
The ugly - It's in Japanese, so you have to work at it at first. The DLC prices are extortionate, Namco must feel like they can print money with this game. crying idols are no fun. If you watch the anime before playing, you'll find Chihaya's tears particularly difficult - though, now I think about it, that could be a 'good' thing. After all the game is eliciting an emotional response from the player, and that's a great thing for a game to do. On the other hand, Chihaya crying is just not something you want to see happen at all, and certainly not more than once.
The game is region free, but must be imported. You can play it on your normal PSN account, but the DLC is exclusive to the Japanese PS Store. You'll need a Japanese PSN account to obtain it, as well as a PSN card in Yen. Places like Play Asia can sell you the game and the PSN cards. Obviously though, the game is going to be more expensive because it's an import, and that DLC is very expensive. If you play it a lot, the DLC is probably worth it.
If you are looking for a very different and refreshing game that completely get's away from the 'norm' of action games, platformers, sports simulations, racing games, etc...you should consider this. If you like anime, j-pop, cute Japanese dancing girls that can sing, you will enjoy the game.
Links for players that don't speak/read Japanese;
The Idolm@ster Strategy Site (English) - http://imas2.wota.info/
The Idolm@ster Gameplay Wiki - http://imas.wikia.com/wiki/The_Idolm@ster_Gameplay_Wiki
This user review does not reflect the views of the PSX Extreme Staff.