Review: Love Live! School Idol Festival (iOS)

IMG_1787Love Live! School Idol Festival (iPad, iPhone, Android)
Developed by K-Lab Games and Published by Bushiroad
Release Date: May 12th, 2014 (US/Europe), April 16th, 2013 (Japan)

For the last 16 days I have been addicted to a free-2-play mobile rhythm game based on one of my favourite Japanese multimedia franchises. Love Live! School Idol Festival is the game in question and even as I’m typing this first paragraph I can feel my fingers itching to get back to tapping the beats of all the songs I adore in said title. If you wanted to know what kind of game can get me totally enslaved, this is the review for you.

What is School Idol Festival though? Or perhaps more important for newcomers, what is Love Live!? Love Live! is a franchise launched by Sunrise (the company behind Mobile Suit Gundam) in 2011. Basically it’s a J-Pop idol group consisting of nine fictional high school girls; Honoka, Umi, Kotori, Nico, Eli, Nozomi, Maki, Rin and Hanayo. The girls are known as µ’s (pronounced muse) when they perform, a name decided by fans through voting after the first single was released, and in present day there are two anime series, a manga, an upcoming Vita title, hundreds of songs, several concerts and the mobile game we’re talking about to day. Basically, it’s kind of a big deal for fans of J-Pop and idol culture.

IMG_1672The game itself consists of three different elements. A rhythm game, a collectable card game and a light RPG System for each member of your idol troupe. Each of these three elements have a surprising amount of depth to it and I’ll be getting into the different aspects of these in the review. But first I want to talk about what might put people off of the game. The Free-2-Play factors regarding playing, micro-transactions and all that stuff that we’ve come to fear in the last few years.

School Idol Festival doesn’t hold back any content behind any pay wall. Everything in the game is free and you unlock it by finishing goals in the story. New songs (a total of 10 in the vanilla English release with more coming as free updates later) will be delivered to the player whenever they play certain chapters of the story, which itself is unlocked by upgrading your player rank through gaining experience from finishing songs. It’s a simple but fun way to keep the player want to replay the same songs to increase their rank and it works really well at first.

That’s until you start reaching the higher ranks and experience grinding becomes more necessary and tougher. As with any game, this is expected, but being a Free-2-Play game, there are elements that pop up to ease this that can ruin the entire game. Thankfully, it doesn’t. Each song you play will drain Life Points, of which you regenerate one each six minutes whether you’re playing the game or not. You also completely restore your Life Points whenever you manage to increase your player rank. So as long as you got Life Points, you can play the rhythm section of the game.

IMG_1756But let’s say you don’t want to wait or you can’t increase your rank? Well then there’s a third option, which is spending Love Gems, one of the three currencies in the game. Love Gems are used for two things, restoring Life Points and collecting cards (more on that later). Spending one Love Gem will completely restore your Life Points and you can continue playing just as if you had increased your Rank. You can gain Love Gems from finishing story chapters, side-stories, certain goals on songs as well as logging in on a daily basis.

But you can also buy Love Gems. This is the only thing you can use real money for in School Idol Festival and it can be cheap if all you’re doing is restoring Life Points, but gets expensive quick if you start getting addicted to card collecting. One Love Gem costs $0.99 but if you buy packs of more the price decreases and you can get 84 Love Gems for $49.99. I will mention that while finishing the entire story mode currently available in the English release, I did not spend any money to make progress. it’s not necessary with the amount of Love Gems you can get for free.

IMG_1931With that cleared out of the way, let’s talk about the rhythm game section of School Idol Festival. There are nine members in your idol formation on screen, each represented by a icon of their face. Throughout the song rings will move from the center of the screen towards each girl’s icon and when it matches up with the icon and the rhythm of the song, you’ll tap on said icon or hold if it’s a long note. It’s basically a nine-button Stepmania-clone, but with a maximum of 2 note-circles per tap.

It’s stupidly simple, but refined in such a way that it becomes a lot of fun. As a big fan of rhythm games that doesn’t try to be a real instrument, this won me over instantly. Of course, just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s all too easy. While there are no Expert level songs in the English version at this point in time, the Hard version of some songs will take quite a bit of skill if you wish to achieve a full combo. I have not managed to do this on each song myself yet, but I’m getting there.

When you finish a song, you’re given a rating based on three different aspects. Your skill, which determines your Combo Rating, the amount of times you have finished said song on the same difficulty, determining your Clear Rating and finally the accumulated score that you gained with your set formation of members, that adds up as your Score Rating. Ratings ranges from nothing, C, B, A and finally S as the very best rating. Each rating above nothing will get you either Gold, Friend Points or Love Gems on the first time.

IMG_1918As mentioned, Score Rating is based on your members. Which brings us to the latter two sections of the game. Card collecting and the light RPG stats. There are four types of cards in the game. Normal, Rare, Super Rare and Ultra Rare. Normal and Rare cards can be gained through finishing songs (though I’ve only gotten one Rare card through this in my hundreds of attempts) or through scouting. Scouting is done for free once each day or by spending Friend Points. You get Friend Points by playing songs and choosing a friend on your friend list to help boost your score, or when another person use you as their boost.

Super Rare and Ultra Rare cards you can only gain by spending Love Gems through Honor Student Scouting. While you can get a free ticket for an Honor Student, that’s quite rare and not something you should bet on if you want to collect cards. Especially since Ultra Rare cards are at a 1% ratio. You can also get Rare cards from this, so you’re not guaranteed a Super Rare or Ultra Rare card. After all, it wouldn’t be that are if that was the case. This is where you’ll most likely be spending money if you are like me and love collecting things. It’s addictive and becomes almost essential to the game if you want to unlock all ratings.

IMG_1851But what exactly do cards do? Well, each card represents a member in your team and you want at least three teams ready for the songs because each song comes with one theme, Smile, Cool or Pure, represented by different colours. Each idol member also carries these themes, with different stats for each of the three. So you want to have members that can best help you get a better score on each song, which comes down to the boos from the theme as well as their levels.

Each member have a maximum level and a maximum bond. You increase bond by playing with the member in your team and you increase level by practising. When you practise, you basically take a card you don’t want and fuse it with the member card you want to level up and they get experience from said given card. This is a good way to use duplicates, but not the best way. Because there’s one more important element to all of this, idolization. You can idolize each member once by performing special practise which requires two identical duplicates of the same card. At that point, the card is upgraded with new stats and max level/bond along with new art.

IMG_1919When you start grasping all of this, it becomes a weird case of a tacitcal idol management sim RPG fused with a very legit rhythm game. And that’s basically my ideal game in a lot of ways. This game is like pure cocaine to me lately and I will admit that I have used recharging Life Points as an excuse to actually do things not related to the game at numerous times the last week. I love this game as it perfectly puts up an example of how I feel Free-2-Play should be treated. It doesn’t undermine the player and it doesn’t ask for more even once.

I love Love Live! School Idol Festival, and I can’t wait for Bushiroad to add in more stuff from the Japanese version, which I’ve also been playing. This can only get better, and I’m sure it will. I’ve not seen a free and/or licensed game offer this much fun and content in a long while.

Final Score: 9/10

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