Boss drum. Activate the rhythm.
Following on from last week’s Beautiful Katamari review, I find myself looking back wistfully at Sony’s ‘golden age’ once again. I love the 360, it’s up there with the Dreamcast in my opinion, but fuck meâ€¦ how many shooters, driving games and piss-awful XBLA puzzlers can I take? If you’re thinking of starting up a gaming reviews site be warned you have to play tonnes of that stuff and as for the PS3, thanks but I’d rather drink from a cat.
On the plus side, Sony still have a little of the old magic in evidence on the PSP. Sure, 95% of the games aren’t up to much and the emulation scene is vastly more interesting than the actual releases but once in a while Sony demonstrate that old ability to drop something utterly unique and charming on us and Patapon is certainly that.
It’s hard to be objective when something this fresh lands on my lap. I mean I’ve been playing a Gears of War rip-off for two weeks so a game as different as Patapon really does feel like a rare treat but that’s not always enough is it. Better start of at the beginning. Patapon. What’s it all about?
Well initially it’s a rhythm action game. You control the gameplay by tapping in simple rhythms using the PSP’s facia buttons. These are fairly straightforward (square, square, square, circle on each beat of a 4/4 rhythm for example) because the rhythm action element is only half of the story.
The other, more substantial, half is a mixture of real time strategy and RPG as you control the Patapon, a tribe of cute little fellas who are at war with the, just as cute, Zigatons. However, despite looking like extras from Loco Roco, the Zigatons are evil pricks who have vanquished the Patapon from their homeland. However, the Patapon have rallied and are looking to you The Almighty (their god) to inspire them to victory.
This is where the rhythm action comes in. To advance your army you tap square, square, square, circle and to attack it’s circle, circle, square, circle. Later on other combinations come into play which allow you to defend or summon miracles. It’s a nice idea in practice but if I’m being critical (and I am) this doesn’t make for a particularly inspiring rhythm action mechanic and it massively hinders the playability as you wait for the 4/4 beat to get back to zero so that you can fire off another command.
I’m reminded of an old Spectrum game called Barry McGuigan’s Boxing. It was a straightforward 2D boxing game where you picked your fighting style (dancer, toe to toe, slugger) and then controlled the attack and defence whilst the game controlled your footwork. It was frustrating then and it still is now. It’s not difficult keeping such easy combos going but the lack of direct control means that certain levels, particularly boss battles, tend to drag out well past their welcome.
If you manage to successfully input ten commands in a row you’ll go into ‘fever’ mode and your army will become powered-up. This is particularly nice when you’ve got ranged attack units as they’ll literally rain arrows onto the battlefield. Fever mode also boosts your defence. Essential for boss battles.
By completing levels and tasks you’ll pick up new items and equipment in order to form a perfect platoon of Patapons including archers, spearmen and straight up melee characters. This is where the RPG and strategy elements come into play. Your platoon will consist of different types of unit (melee or ranged) and these are created using ingredient items and ka-ching (the game’s monetary unit). Do you shell out for a couple of cheap melee units or hold on for a decent archer? There’s the choice. A choice negated somewhat by the ability to grind earlier levels for extra cash unfortunately.
What a strange little game this is filled with anthropomorphic dot people and tribal break beats all dancing across a stylised cave painting backdrop. Despite not really explaining itself properly in the early stages and over complicating things with too many menus and unnecessary tribe micro management it’s easily the first sleeper of this year for me.
It won’t set the world on fire or get an ultra hyped sequel or even have much coverage in the forums but much like Earth Defence Force or even Two Worlds deserves to played once if only to see what the fuss is all about. If you can keep your chant going and maintain a fever it can be highly satisfying to see your tribe at work but if you lose your place be prepared for frustration.
The biggest compliment I can pay it is that during the most inopportune moments I’ll find myself muttering pata-pata-pata-pon whilst doing shopping or even during my working day. When I should be playing God of War or more Army of Two it’s Patapon that I keep going back to despite my almost total lack of rhythm and inept ‘Simon’ skills.
Secondary Score: 7/10
The problem here is that whilst the game has a fair amount of depth in terms of how to configure your army, the strategy really just boils down to a few very simple choices and ultimately makes the game seem ultimately shallow. I want to love it and, like most RPG/Strategy games, it is pretty addictive but some of the levels are so utterly tedious that eventually I found myself dreading the next one rather than looking forward to the next part of the story. The desert crossing level in particular is a horrible grind.
Away from the gameplay things are fairly peachy. Graphically the game has a similar styling to Loco Roco with clean silhouetted sprites running around simple backdrops. There’s even some nice parallax scrolling just to keep us retroheads interested. The animation is just a smooth and intricate as in Loco Roco and some of the big bosses are suitably intimidating, in a cute cheery way.
Of course, most rhythm action games live and die by their sound and Patapon is a mixed bag in this respect. It certainly sounds lovely most of the time with typically quirky music and squeaky voice effects. However , keeping a beat can be tricky in amongst all of the sound effects. Especially when your army is raining dozens of arrows and spears onto the battlefield. Also, the game is far less playable through the PSP’s awful speakers. Stick to the headphones for this one.
This is a strange title. I’ve put it down through sheer boredom plenty of times over the last few days but keep being drawn back to it and not just because of this review. I love the style of the game and I’m a sucker for odd little games like this but equally it does rely a little too much on charm but just isn’t very interesting to play. Still, it’s a cheap curio and a welcome reminder of a time when gaming took a few more risks. Even if this time the risk hasn’t fully paid off.