Totally Unnamed Gaming Column - The Idol or The Master?

by Mutsuki, Sep 19th 2009

Please, take a seat as we take a tour through a special edition of the column. Please fasten your seatbelts as we take an in depth look at the latest title of a very large franchise in Japan, The IDOLM@STER: Dearly Stars. I promise, it'll be fun.

Our regular tours will resume shortly after this very special service - this review is one of the first detailed reviews of the game in English. Please enjoy the ride, and I hope to see you again for our regular schedule.

Nintendo DS/DSi: Dearly Stars (Namco-Bandai Games)

It's a Trap!

Probable Rating M (Adult Themes)
Release Date 17/09/2009
# of Players 1 or 2-16 (Adhoc or Nintendo WFC)
Availability Import: Common
Language Japanese
Fluency/Literacy Level Intermediate: Hiragana/Katakana, Some Kanji required.
Special Notes Japanese DSi required for in-game Camera functionality

The IDOLM@STER series is by far one of the most lucrative series within the Japanese anime and gaming community, with two Xbox 360 games (Which arguably made the Xbox a force in Japan on their own) three PSP titles, an arcade machine, mobiles and guest appearances on a few titles on the Wii, DS and the 360. Unfortunately, apart from a little guest appearance or cameo here and there, the series never saw the light of day outside Japan.

This trend continues, offering a new slew of wannabe idols in Dearly Stars who sign up with 876 productions – Ai Hidaka, a thirteen year old over the top happy go lucky girl who wants to be an idol like her mother, Eri Mizutani, a fifteen year old hikikomori who is stepping out from the confines of her room to perform, and Ryo Akizuki, a fifteen year old boy who wants to follow Ritsuko (from the previous games) after seeing her successes, and gets roped into the idol business with an audacious plan.

You start off by picking one of the three and then follow them as they take lessons, work on promoting their image as an idol as well as interact with those around them, and try to get those limited lucrative spots at auditions.

You'll also progress through their stories as they rise up in fame, and interact with the older cast of both The IDOLM@STER/Live for You (360) and The IDOLM@STER SP series (PSP). Some may be your rivals, others may teach lessons and dance moves, and some yet may take up other roles.

Although as of right now, I need to state that if you have any problems with crossdressing, even in light humour, don't bother – Beliefs aren't going to be changed over this game, and if the topic makes you uncomfortable…

So the first question is – Should we bother with the title if we don't know Japanese?

Surprisingly, the answer's yes. Even though to get full understanding, and to play optimally, you would need to be able to read Kanji, the game has a lot of tolerance for those who guess, with all the characters being quite expressive and rather easy to read. After getting a feel for the characters, it isn't too hard to get the gist of what they're talking about with a little context.

The music is always nice to listen to, particularly if you manage to find a translation or figure it out yourself. They can be quite catchy, and a lot of them are from previous games, with new people singing.

The minigames are fairly simple: There are the lesson minigames, which require either replacing missing characters from a line from a song, a dance minigame which requires timing to hit feet icons to practice dancing, or a select the correct face minigame.

They're a clinch to play once you figure it out, although the vocal lessons may be a bit difficult if you can't identify Hiragana on the fly. If you do well enough, you may be rewarded with dance sequence additions so you can change up how your character performs on stage.

"eh-, a, a, aaa, kyaaaaa!"

During promotion scenes, you will either be offered two or three options of choices to reply, or a touch screen section where you can select what to touch, or make a gesture with the character. These may be difficult if you don't know what you're being asked though. How you reply will affect your mood, and the benefits of the communication. For those who insist on perfection, it is possible to save at the beginning of each day, so if you want to get a promotion event that goes right, you can constantly reload and retry until you get a result you're happy with.

Here's the thing though… You don't need to as the game doesn't cap the amount of time you can spend training, unlike previous idolm@ster titles. If you struggle with a particular lesson type, and want to boost a type of stat, you can do it as many times as you need to. It's very difficult to get an outright game over – As you will need to have failed the audition, although you can pick to do the audition when you think you're ready.

The auditioning itself is simplistic, as you receive memories from your communications, and need to use them so you can do your best to convince the judge that you're the best person for the audition.

As the weeks go by, you will get given extra costumes and accessories to dress up which will affect your stats in the three catergories, and the favoured types of idol will change week to week, as fan opinion changes. It may not actually be to your advantage to rush through the game, since you'll only get one present every time you make it to a Sunday, which will affect your selection for story, stage and online play. As well, you can always watch what your colleagues are doing on stage, and your character will comment one way or the other.

Speaking of costumes, you dress up for your stage gear, meaning as you gain costumes and accessories, you'll be able to take a pick at more types of costumes, different colours of the same types, and accessories ranging from cat ears, to heart pins to bracelets.

Songs can also be customized, as you can put in different dance moves to substitute the current ones, ranging from just new ones to trademark moves from other songs, or even other characters.

If you read our little fact sheet up top, you might have noticed that the game has a multiplayer aspect. This particular gameplay aspect is a rhythm game, where you can construct your own tapping sequences and the crowd will cheer on the character you choose on stage, ranging from handclaps to exclamations.

It's a lot of fun, and I had the opportunity to try the multiplayer aspect with a friend locally – One of us made up a sequence, complete with any custom dance moves gained in story mode set with the camera angles of choice, then we both had to do our best with the timing, with scoring based on how many notes you managed to hit. You can also share Stage PVs, just to show off the PV you think is better than the original.

You can also do this on your own, creating your own sequences for a song, all the way down to how you want it to be done for the song, just so you can share it with friends with the game.

For those who don't have the game, you can even taunt them by offering two downloadable demos of the game – One showing interaction between the characters, or the other as they get up on stage.

Last, but not least, there's the DSi only functions, although unless you have friends in Japan, it'll be quite difficult for you to take advantage of it – Namco Bandai distribute what's known as QR codes, which are essentially 2D barcodes that you take a picture of and get information like a url that will send you somewhere. The game's specific codes will unlock content that's not available in the game, such as new accessories.

The only catch is that you'll either need to get your hands on the ViDaDo magazine (The official Idolm@ster Media magazine) or have a specific mobile subscription which will send the photos of the codes to your mobile.

All in all, this particular plunge is surprisingly a lot of fun. Considering Namco's tendency to keep idolm@ster titles in Japan, if you want in on the fun that's The IDOLM@STER series, there's no reason to wait around. Granted, you probably don't want to tear through the game as I did here, attaining an ending for Ai, and getting through rank C for the other two in the space of about three days though.

To get the game in its standard configuration, just find a reputable online store of your choice that happens to stock Japanese Games – Places like Play-Asia or Himeyashop (And a million others besides) may be able to help you with that.

If you think you can get your hands on the magazine, or you have a plan to getting the QR codes, you will definitely need a Japanese DSi – American, UK or PAL DSi consoles will not allow the QR function to work, even though the camera itself is present. Fortunately, it's not a necessity - it may not be worth dropping all that money on a new DSi just to get the QR codes working. You might be interested in the Japanese DSi store though… but that's a different story.

Thanks for coming with us for this special tour. The regular column will be departing shortly - promising a much more scenic tour through other Nintendo titles that you may be interested in.

Click here for the regularly scheduled column


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