an empty classroom
waiting, envelope in hand
It's a mobile game based on a popular anime about a group of girls at an all-girls high school. They form an idol group in order to boost their beloved school's floundering enrollment, in the hopes of preventing its closure. It's also a free-to-play game, and so there is a feedback loop consisting of the interaction between two components:
- Rythm action
- Card collecting
And, because it is free-to-play, there are various resources that determine how (and when) you are able to engage with these components:
- Live Points (LP) - Spend to play songs. The harder the song, the more LP it costs. You gain 1 every six minutes. The cap depends on your rank, so it is possible to "waste" this resource if it remains at the maximum.
- Friend Points (FP) - Spend to scout new members (cards). Play the game to acquire.
- Love Gems (LG) - Premium currency. Spend to scout new members of higher rarity, and to replenish LP. Spend real money or complete goals to acquire.
The rhythm action component is pretty straightforward. Your team of nine idols, each represented by icons, is arranged in a semicircle around a beat origin at the top of the screen. Beat icons fly out from the origin, and you tap them as they reach your team members along with the music. Every song has four difficulty levels and vary widely, which allows a smooth ramp towards a high skill ceiling. The songs themselves are contemporary J-Pop fare that is occasionally accented by more traditional genres. While it's not music I would normally listen to outside of the context of this game, they are mostly catchy and there are a few memorable tracks.
You assemble up to five teams from a pool of cards that come in one of three colors (Smile, Pure, or Cool). Each card has varying stats in each attribute, and your team's dominant attribute needs to match that of the song being played in order to earn a high score, which adds a min-max dynamic to the collection component. You draw more cards by completing songs or by "Scouting" new members with in-game currency. It's quite exciting to see one or two pink envelopes fly out of the shoebox among a host of plain white ones, and it's more exciting still for that pink envelope to be a Rare card you haven't seen before. On the other hand, spending LG only to pull a standard rare (as opposed to the super- or ultra- varieties) is rather heartbreaking.
Cards can be leveled to improve their stats by "practicing." This is done by essentially sacrificing unwanted cards in your deck to the cards you want to level. Given that you can hold multiple copies of any card, it makes more sense to conceptualize a card as a block of time for a particular student--although I prefer to imagine a more macabre scenario in which the girls consume one another to gain power. An additional strategic layer gets overlaid with cards of Rare or higher having skills that proc during songs--for example, a score boost after hitting 15 Perfect beats, or a temporary easing of the timing window for taps. Although I don't have enough rare cards yet, it appears that higher difficulty songs will require teams built around certain abilities. This collection and progression system isn't technically essential to the rhythm game unless you want to achieve the highest possible scores or earn the best rewards during events. (This is where you either roll your eyes or do a double-take.)
There is a fork in the road at this point, depending on your level of engagement with the collection component. The game features frequent events, during which rewards can be earned by accumulating enough event points to unlock your desired tier. The highest tier rewards include Super Rare (SR) or Ultra Rare (UR) cards that are difficult to draw, even by spending LG. One can see that players who have put in more time or spent more LG to build stronger teams would be at an advantage. And while a diligent player can earn enough points over the course of the event to earn a single copy of the featured SR, it requires a strict regime of regularly-spaced play sessions so as to maximize the use of LP. The SR may be technically acquired without spending LG, but by this point it's fair to ask who is playing whom in this scenario.
There are a few ways to earn LG without spending real money, and one way to test the reward schedule of their free-to-play implementation is to try my hand at either accumulating enough LG for an "Honor Scout" (in which you draw only rares or higher) or earning an event SR card--as a strictly non-paying player. As I write this, I am five days into the 8th Round Score Match event, which features an SR Umi Sonoda (Pure attribute). I don't particularly care for this character one way or the other, but she's wearing a traditional archery outfit, so that's neat. The thing is, my Cool team is the weakest at the moment, so I could really use a Cool SR or UR instead. The event lasts ten days, and the required event points to unlock one Umi card is 25,000. I'm on track to earn that by the end of the event, but I have been scheduling play sessions every four hours on the hour. I could also squeeze in another session in the middle of the night to aim for a higher tier, but let's be real here.
So is the game "pay-to-win?" I don't really know yet. What I do know is that the rhythm action is fun enough and poses enough of a challenge so that I'm constantly looking forward to my next session--at least for now. The card collection component is not too far-removed from the stat-crunching loot grind in RPGs, and moreover there is new artwork on the cards to admire--either by drawing new ones, or by "idolizing" the ones I already have (a process that combines two identical cards into a new one with a higher level cap).
The artwork is generally well-drawn and mostly innocent--while their outfits are sometimes decidedly provocative, they would not be out of place at a pop concert. And, being 2D characters, their wardrobes do not malfunction. Still, these characters are in high school, so with the inclusion of seasonal UR cards where they wear swimsuits, things get a little eyebrow-raisey. In general, the cards depict the girls wearing normal everyday clothes unless the card has been idolized--in which case they'll wear an elaborate costume that often shows more skin--e.g. a midriff, short shorts, or a themed outfit related to their hobby. The line where cuteness ends and sexualization begins is a dubiously fuzzy one that probably says more about idol culture than it does about this particular game.
There is a story, although its primary purpose is to structure the order in which songs unlock. It is presented in short cut scenes with voice-acted dialogue. It's kind of cute, if a little sterile. I suppose the various character archetypes they present is the whole point--part of the price of admission for Japan's idol phenomenon is accepting that every aspect of a performer's stage persona is manufactured. It's no accident that their group is named μ's (muse), and that there are nine of them. Their looks and demeanor run a carefully-calculated gamut, such that there is a high probability of at least one character who appeals to the player. This layer of abstraction serves as a hotbed for the idolatry to take hold.
In that context, I can enjoy this game for what it is--except maybe for the girl named Rin, who talks like a cat. How do a red bob cut, boundless energy, and otherwise charming affectations add up to less than the sum of their parts? Moe is a fickle science, and forcing too many ontological goods into two-dimensional merchandising vessels sometimes results in overflow. That's okay, though, because Nozomi is best girl.