I am pretty confused as to what I think about Love Live! School Idol Festival: there are three fairly distinct aspects to the game, I’m not sure what I think about those aspects individually, and the three of them pull me in different directions. It kept me playing for quite a while, and I did enjoy my time with the game; but I thought I was done with it a week and a half ago, and then a couple of days later I picked it up again (no harm in getting login bonuses), and, well, I’m chipping away at the current event and counting my Love Gems again, wondering if I’ll stick with it to get another 50 to scout more rare members.
The reason why I thought that I would enjoy the game (other than the fact that some friends of mine had been playing it for quite a while) is that it’s a rhythm game, I like rhythm games, and (though I don’t have much experience listening to it) I like J-pop as well. I wasn’t entirely impressed with the rhythm mechanic when I first started playing the game, though. My main comparison is the Rock Band series, and tapping at the screen felt a little less interesting than pressing buttons on plastic guitars. After playing more, though, I’m not nearly as sure of that evaluation: it took me a little while to learn how to visually parse the songs on hard (and I still don’t regularly get full combos on hard), it took me longer than that to be able to play songs on expert at all, and, while the location of where you’re tapping is fairly arbitrary, the choice of timing and the patterns aren’t. So there’s definitely something there as a rhythm game; I won’t say I like it more than Rock Band, and it’s certainly less interesting than the pro modes in Rock Band 3, but it’s also not a coincidence that I’ve only picked up Rock Band 4 maybe five times since buying it while I’ve played Love Live regularly over the last few months: it’s nice being able to pick up my iPad, play for a few minutes, and then move on to something else.
The flip side of that is that you have to move on to something else after a few minutes: unless you level up, you’ll run out of energy after three songs. You can pay money to keep on playing, of course, but the cost is pretty high; if you want to keep on playing continually, it’ll cost between $5/hour and $10/hour, probably closer to the lower end than the higher end? (Or even less than that, I guess, if you never use the Love Gems you earn in game to buy rare members.) Now that I type that out, I’m not actually sure $5/hour is unreasonable: I’ll happily spend $10 on a two-hour movie, or $50 on a solid 10-hour narrative game. Still, it’s expensive for an ongoing video game.
At any rate, the energy mechanic felt odd when I started playing it. But, once I’d been playing for a while, I didn’t mind, because the truth is that I usually didn’t want to play for more than a few songs at a time. Maybe that’s me adapting to the constraints of the game and accepting it for what it is; I’m really not sure. But it’s nice to have games available with different rhythms of play, to suit my time / mood / energy level. Love Live fits into briefer slots of my life than Rock Band does, and that’s totally fine.
I do wonder, though, what the pros and cons of allowing more rhythm gameplay would be both from a gameplay point of view and a business point of view. It’s certainly pretty weird that there’s an option called “Practice” that doesn’t actually let you practice the songs, it’s instead a way to make numbers go up that are unrelated to the rhythm gameplay. My tentative feeling is that they should give you a practice mode, either free or payable with the game’s soft currency, that would give you access to the rhythm gameplay but wouldn’t give you the in-game rewards that you get from the regular song sessions. That might lead to burning out of the game quickly, though, and people do seem to be able to manage to get full combos on difficult songs even with the current setup, so the current structure is clearly workable even for rhythm game fans. But it does seem like the game mostly designed to encourage you to return it multiple times a day, keeping it always in your mind, rather than as a way to lock in rhythm game fans.
The other odd aspect of the game compared to other rhythm games that I’m used to is the number of songs: it felt like, for a while, I only had the same five or so songs available to me. I generally liked the songs, but I didn’t like them that much. The funny thing, though, is that, as the game has continued, my feelings have flipped: I have a lot of songs available for me, I get a new one every two levels, and now it feels like I barely have time to get to know songs!
There are a few things going on there. One is that they tuned the leveling parameters a month or two into my playing the game, to let you level up faster; that not only means that I really do get new songs more frequently now but that I also got five or so dumped on me at once as the game force-leveled me up. A second is that I’ve started playing songs more often on Expert instead of Hard (partly because it gives you more experience and partly because sometimes I want more challenge); but the regular songs aren’t available on Expert, you have to play temporary “B-side” songs, with the result that I spend much less time on the regular songs. And the third factor is that, much of the time (half the time, maybe even two-thirds of the time?) there’s an event going on, and if you’re spending your energy on playing that, then you can’t spend your energy on playing regular songs. (There was an event going on when I started playing, but I was completely unaware of that fact until the event ended.)
The flip side of the events, though, is that it’s fun to have random songs thrown at you, and events are a way for songs to become familiar to you that you’ll later unlock through regular progression. So I’m glad a random mechanism like that is there; it’s maybe a bit of a shame that it’s only available through events, though. And I like having Expert songs available for a limited time as B-sides: that gives you a defined window in which you can try to focus on those songs and get better. But I don’t see any reason to not have Expert tiers in the regular songs: why push people away from the regular songs like that? (Especially since it’s not just a gameplay effect, Expert songs really does let you level up more efficiently, since they give you more experience for a given energy expenditure.) Of course, the game isn’t forcing me to do any of this: if I don’t really care about leveling up quickly or getting the event rewards, then I can and should spend more time playing songs that I want to play, instead of what the game is nudging me to play.
I guess there’s another way in which the game is different from most rhythm games that I’ve played (Elite Beat Agents being the only other example that comes to mind): the songs are written for this game (or at any rate for this transmedia property), so I’d never heard any of them before and won’t hear them in any other context. And it’s the same singers, though there’s a pretty broad range of musical styles.
Fortunately, in general, I enjoy listening to them. (And they let me practice my Japanese!) I am dubious about the singers, though: there’s one whose voice I quite like, a couple others whose voices are fine, and six or so whose voices range from meh to actively annoying. I realize that the singers are supposed to represent high school students, but even so I’m not convinced; I suspect that there are cultural conventions going on here that I’m not used to. (I heard some of the same vocal patterns when I ran into Stereo Japan on Ototoy.)
There’s also a narrative in the game, which I was looking forward to: I like manga and anime, and I figured it would give me a chance to practice my Japanese. And, indeed, it did give me a chance to practice my Japanese: most of the narrative bits are voiced. But wow, the story here is bad bad bad. You’re following a group of nine idols; most of them are completely forgettable, and the one who has the strongest personality is most distinctive because of her remarkable narcissism. There’s not even any serious conflict, or struggles to overcome: it’s just a group of students who exist only to act as idols.
There are also students whom you encounter outside of the core nine. Some of them show potential flashes of personality, and while it’s only in a one-dimensional way (this girl likes to swim! Just so you don’t miss that, we’ll name her Iruka, which translates as “dolphin”!), that one dimension is one more dimension than most of the main characters. But those side characters never show up in the main story, they don’t interact with each other either (other than the sisters Haruka and Kanata, another naming “joke”, with “haruka kanata” meaning “far off in the distance”, though if I’m remembering correctly, that meaning doesn’t have anything to do with the sisters’ behavior?), and the game doesn’t even let you follow individual side characters, because it throws together all the different side characters’ side stories into a single unordered list instead of letting you see multiple stories for one character in a row.
You apparently exist in the in-game world; but that’s even creepier, because you never show up in the main story, while, unpredictably, in the side stories, even side stories for the main characters, you’ll see them simpering over you for no reason whatsoever. I mean, I suppose it’s consistent for characters with no personality to apparently be in love with a character with no presence, but still: not what I look for in a narrative.
This dreadful narrative does feed into a collection mechanic, though; and, as unimpressed as I was with the narrative, I’m a dutiful enough game player to take part in that mechanic. It’s pretty weird too, though: through playing the rhythm game, you unlock cards for characters, and then you can use those cards as fodder for a “practice” mechanic that makes other cards levels go up. (Which, doesn’t actually have any significant effect on the game play, viewed purely as a rhythm game; but hey, numbers going up is good.)
The other thing those cards do is feed into an idolization mechanic: if you have two of the same card, then you can get an idolized version of that card, and then if you use the idolized version of the card enough while playing, you can unlock a portion of the side story associated to the character on the card. But it’s creepier than that: the idolized versions of characters are basically always more homogenized than the non-idolized versions of characters, so in particular the one dimension of personality that the side characters have gets squashed by idolization. And the idolized uniforms are generally more sexualized; and either the characters really really like blush or many of them are embarrassed by that.
That is, admittedly, a somewhat negative spin: a positive spin is that clubs have uniforms and theatrical clubs have show-specific costumes, so of course, as people dive into clubs, they’re not going to be wearing clothes that reflect their outside interests. And it probably really is supposed to be blush rather than embarrassment. But for me personally, it was pretty odd playing a game where one of the mechanics that I’m encouraged to follow (that I have to follow to get the narrative, such as it is) makes me feel like I’m squashing people in the name of conformity every time I engage in it.
These cards come in different levels: Normal, Rare, Super-Rare, Ultra-Rare. Through normal gameplay, you almost always only get Normal cards (Rare ones show up, but only something like 1% of the time). The Normal cards are all the side characters; the core 9 characters instead show up in the three Rare grades. The main way to collect the Rare cards is by using “Love Gems”, which are the game’s hard currency (there’s also a soft currency called coins, and I cannot think of another game where the soft currency is as irrelevant is the coins are in this game); if you collect 50 Love Gems, then you’ll be able to buy 10 Rare cards plus 1 Super-Rare, with a slight chance (around 10%) of getting an Ultra-Rare card instead and/or multiple Super-Rares. There are a couple other ways of getting Super-Rare cards: things called scouting tickets can get you them, and there are special events that have specific SR cards as prizes; I don’t believe there’s any reliable way to get UR cards. And, of course, all of these cards can be idolized as well (which is how you unlock the side stories for the main characters): if you play long enough, idolizing the Rare cards happens pretty often, but idolizing SR cards is quite unlikely and I’ve only ever acquired one UR card.
(And, in a bit of irony, that one UR card is Nico; for reasons related to the game’s friend mechanic, that means that I see her all the time on the screens of the game, and hear her egotistical catch-phrases over and over and over again. Sigh. I would probably pay money to get a non-Nico UR card if that were possible and affordable, but doing so is neither.)
The game is actually quite generous with those Love Gems; I haven’t spent any money on the game, but I’ve probably done the “buy special cards” mechanic maybe 10 times so far? I’m curious what motivates people to spend money in the game: the obvious target would be acquiring UR versions of your favorite idol, but you’d have to spend hundreds of dollars to have a decent chance at a UR, with no guarantee that it will be for the idol you want (the best you can do there is narrow it down to one in three), which seems excessive? I can imagine spending money to refill your energy during events, so you can get the SRs there, but love gems are plentiful enough that you probably wouldn’t even have to do that.
Strange game. I like it as a rhythm game; and I do feel the tug of the collecting aspect. But I just do not get the appeal of the characters at all…