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Patapon
Platform: PSP
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Pyramid, Interlink
Genre: Traditional RPG
Format: UMD
Released: US 02/26/08
Japan 12/20/07
Official Site: English Site



Scorecard
Graphics: 90%
Sound: 90%
Gameplay: 80%
Control: 85%
Story: 75%
Overall: 80%
Reviews Grading Scale
 
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John Tucker
Patapon
04/21/08
John Tucker

Let's start out this review with the most important item: Patapon is a turn-based rhythm RPG. Yep, you read that right: a turn-based rhythm RPG. When a game like Patapon comes along, the standard thing to say is that it's rare to see games break the boundaries of their genres and try something new. I'm not going to say that. These days, we seem to see more innovation than ever before. Some innovative gmaes are driven by the abilities of technology, and others come out of developers taking chances, and both should be encouraged. One look at Patapon, and you'll know which kind of innovation it comes from. It doesn't push the PSP's hardware in the slightest, but I've played games for a long time, and I've never played anything quite like it.

Story

Patapon's story is that of a tribe of warriors trying to overcome a rival tribe, who are standing between them and Earthend. Your tribe believes that it is their destiny to see IT at Earthend... even though they don't actually know what IT is. You take the part of their god, and they rely on you to tell them what to do in the battles that they must take place in on their way to see IT. It's not super-deep, but the game isn't really that driven by its story. Regardless of the story's importance, there are some nice touches if you pay attention to your high priestess' dialog–she voices some real doubts about whether seeing IT is really worth destroying another tribe, and even whether your tribe is really the good guys or the bad guys. The question was resolved to my satisfaction, but I won't spoil it for you. I didn't love the ending, but it was in keeping with the tone with rest of the game, so I can't be too hard on it.

Gameplay

As in any rhythm game, Patapon's fairly well-disguised turns are driven by the music. You get four beats to tell your tribe what to do next, and then wait four beats while they do it. In early levels, your list of available commands is fairly short ("walk forward" and "attack"), but you gain more as you progress, allowing you to do things like defend and dodge enemy attacks. Stay on the beat for between five and ten turns (depending on exactly how accurate you were), and your tribe will go into Fever mode, which makes them around three times more effective. Some levels pit you against your rival tribe, some are boss fights, and some are simple (and fairly safe) hunting missions. You can repeat hunting missions and boss fights as many times as you want (even after you beat the story battles), although the bosses get harder each time you fight them.

Unlike many RPGs, your tribe does not level up through experience. Instead, you get money, materials and items from your missions that allow you to either create better warriors from scratch or better equip those that you already have. Doing so will mean the difference between success and failure, so it is very likely that you'll find yourself repeating some of the hunts and boss fights many times to find what you need to improve your tribe.

Materials and money are used to create new units, and both the cost and strength of your units depends on the quality of the materials you use. The best units cost several times the amount as their base-level comrades, but are also many times more damaging to your enemies. Materials can also be used in various minigames to obtain other materials (the first game you get costs meat and gives you varying amounts of wood in varying qualities).

Aside from choosing the right actions each term and improving your tribe, the factors that determine your success include your selection of what type of warriors to bring to each fight. In early levels, you'll have just axe and shield-bearing melee fighters and spearmen, but before the game is over, you can add archers, horsemen, massive barbarians, and what I can only describe as tuba players (the tuba players are ranged units that shoot notes from their tubas to injure enemies). In each battle, you can bring up to three types of units, and each unit type has a fixed number of warriors in its squad–six archers, three horsemen, etc. The units aren't particularly well-balanced–until I got my tuba players, I found myself playing almost exclusively with the melee fighters, spearmen, and archers. The tuba players replaced the melee fighters, and although I tried different combinations from time to time just for a laugh, I never had a reason to switch from my all-ranged group.

Around the same time that I got my tuba players, I had amassed enough money, good materials, and knowledge of which materials were required for which unit types that the game's difficulty dropped dramatically. I was able to create some of the best units in each of my favorite classes, and battles lost almost all challenge. All I had to do was stay on the beat (toe-tapping really makes a difference here), watch for the patterns in boss fights, and I was a winner every time. The repetitious nature of battles became especially apparent to me here, although I find it difficult to criticize Patapon for that–repetitious battles are simply the nature of the beast. It's not much different from, say, the "wheel of fortune" combat from Shadow Hearts, in terms of novelty.

Missions are fairly short–never more than ten minutes long–and although the difficulty levels vary, they are never complicated. You'll rarely find yourself in a position of wondering what you're supposed to do next, although when you do, a quick trip to the Internet will probably serve you much better than guessing. This kept the game fun, and the fact that earlier levels were difficult sometimes made the later, easy fights more fun than they might have been (the "how do you like me now?!" factor). Unfortunately, there is one thing that really detracts from the fun from time to time: you can't pause the game. This problem really slowed my progress, since I knew I couldn't play unless I could plug in my headset and tap my foot without interruption for the next several minutes.

Graphics

As mentioned above, Patapon is not a game that pushes the PSP in the slightest graphically. However, it has a ton of style–I would not be surprised to see it win a bunch of graphics awards at the end of the year based on its artistic merits. Your tribe (and the rival tribe) consists of various little line-drawing eyeball people, and the bosses you come up against are very entertaining to watch. My favorite is probably the one who looks like an Aztec robot, although the dragons are pretty cool as well. The color palette is kept deliberately to a very limited set, the effect of which is a semi-monochrome effect similar to what was done in the movie Sin City. It's a good choice, and matches well the simplistic style of the rest of the graphics.

There are some peripheral graphical touches that are nice, but may not be as immediately obvious. For example, a thin white line pulses around the edge of the screen in time with the beat. It's not thick enough to distract, just enough to help you keep the beat. One look at your fighters will tell you not just what equipment they're carrying, but also which type and level of unit they are. You'll also notice that when they come within range of an enemy, they change to angry eyes, which is very helpful in stopping you from wasting turns getting closer than you have to.

Finally, I have to mention the mission-select screen. It's a combination world map and game timeline. From the beginning of the game, you can scroll all the way to the right and see just how close you're getting to IT. I really liked knowing how much game was still ahead of me, and it shows the current weather on each level, which serves a very practical purpose–a rainy day on the hunting grounds means that the animals won't smell you until you're close, and will be easier to kill. Lightning means your team's probably going to get zapped a few times, which both injures them and can set them on fire briefly.

Sound

As you'd expect from a rhythm game, Patapon's sound is a key factor in its success or failure, and I'm happy to say that the sound is great. There is really only one tune that I can think of where the beat is at all obscured by the music, and I only remember hearing it twice over the course of the entire game. The songs are a sort of light, funky electronica, are fairly catchy, and although they'll probably get stuck in your head for a while, they won't stay there forever. When you complete a mission, you are given a sort of celtic victory song that really stands out from the rest of the music (but in a good way). You'll probably hear that song ring out in your mind when you do something cool even when you aren't playing Patapon ("Sweet! I nailed that garbage can from long range!").

Sound is a key element in the minigames as well, and the smithing minigame provides one of the best examples of where Patapon's sound effects shine–hitting the anvil at the right time sounds just like you'd expect it to, and hitting it at the wrong time is clearly distinct, with a hollow "tink" that is also somehow just what you'd expect to hear. A measure (ha ha) of the game's musical success is the fact that even a quick search online will net you videos and mp3s of the music, despite the fact that this game is a niche title and has probably not sold a very large number of copies.

Control

The controls in Patapon are extremely simple–you could probably play one-handed 100% of the time. Each of the face buttons (circle, square, triangle, and x) represents a different drum, and each command you want to issue your units has a distinct beat that you pound out on your "drums." For example, pata pata pata pon (square, square, square, circle) tells your team to advance, and pon pon pata pon (circle, circle, square, circle) attacks. If you ever forget how to beat out a particular command, you can hold the Select button during battle to have all available commands displayed at the bottom of the screen.

I am happy to report that I never noticed any lag between my button presses and the response–that kind of thing can be instant death to a rhythm game. Also nice is the fact that with a single exception, the controls are all clearly documented, so you won't spend a lot of time wondering what button you're supposed to press or when. That one exception is the button you use to get rid of a unit you don't want any more (because you want to create a better one to replace them). To do so, you have to press the Select button on the screen where you equip your units. Not only is this a somewhat unintuitive place to find the retirement function, but the button is labeled "Quit," which tends to make players think it's just the button to back out of the menu.

Overall

As niche titles go, Patapon seems to be a pretty good bet–I get the feeling that there are a lot of RPG fans who (like me) are also rhythm game fans. If you are into both RPGs and rhythm games, you'll definitely enjoy Patapon longer than just enough to get your money's worth out of it. Unfortunately, the inability to pause and the short length of its story mode (around 30 to 40 battles) mean that I can't recommend it unequivocally to every gamer. Still, it's one of the few games that only cost $20 at release, and that makes its flaws quite a bit easier to forgive. If you think the idea of a turn-based rhythm RPG sounds interesting, I'd encourage you to pick up this entertaining game. It is worth noting that playing through the game's demo (available free online) is simply the first few levels of the game, so it will give you a good feel for what Patapon is like. It will also net you a very nice spear for use in the real game when you buy it, and you can even continue playing right from where you left of at the end of demo, rather than having to play those levels over again.



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