Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Review: Patapon

SCE Japan


Categorising Patapon is a pretty difficult task – the game has shades of almost every genre that’s been proven popular on the PSP. At its heart, though, it’s a God game with shades of real-time strategy, as well as a keen rhythm / action hybrid, with RPG aspects lightly blended in. Oh, and there are a few rhythm minigames thrown into the mix as well, although they back up the RPG elements more than anything else, as your success in these games is rewarded with increasingly rare items.

At first glance, you’d think that the game was either an indirect sequel or some kind of spiritual successor to LocoRoco. Both came out of Sony Computer Entertainment Japan’s development offices – looking increasingly like an endless cave of wonders these days – but there’s only one staffer from LocoRoco who contributed to Patapon, and that’s hyperactive sound designer Kenmei Adachi. Patapon is more of a collaboration than we’ve come to expect from Sony, as it features the game design of Hiroyuki Kotani (Game Yarouze) combined ably with the aesthetic of French designer Rolito, whose 2D vector-based characters and assets just pop out of the PSP’s small screen. Add to that the energetic soundscapes Adachi is known for, and Patapon’s a remarkably successful game; for all the individual talents that have gone into it, it still comes across as an entirely coherent vision, if not one that provides a lot of information to the player.

Starting the game, you’re greeted by the small Patapon tribe as a god, which is generally a good sign of things to come. Clearly the Patapon have seen better times, and it’s up to you to lead them through attack, defense and hunting levels to increase their numbers, wealth and experience, and rediscover the spirits of their lost warriors – all of which can be used to your advantage in later battles. All up, there are just over 30 levels, which is a lot more than you’d expect in a newly released (and bargain-priced) game. There’s also plenty of replay value in the boss battles, which can be repeated many times with the strength of the boss increasing each time you defeat it.

Despite its often frenetic pace, Patapon is a pretty simple game underneath the fanciness of the rhythm genre and the shiny graphics. There are only four commands – moving your army forwards or backwards, and ordering them to attack or defend. Things get complicated, though, because the only way to action these commands is to take part in a call-and-response rhythm with your army that sees you hitting the four face buttons in time with the Pulse of the Earth (the background beats; a looping percussion track).

Build up enough of these rhythms, and your army will enter Fever mode, which sees them fight harder and move faster. In fact, they fight so much more effectively that you’ll often find yourself holding back from a fight until you reach Fever mode, and only then weighing in. This strategy is much more effective, particularly when fighting bosses or many enemies, but it adds a grinding aspect to the game that will take away some of the enjoyment – not to mention the RSI that develops after a few hours fighting vectorised dinosaurs and giant crabs.

Choosing which units to bring to battle brings another element of strategy to the game – hunting levels, in particular, are more suited to using archers and spear-wielding troops (Yumipon and Yaripon, respectively) than general sword-and-shield fighters (Tatepon). With the rediscovery of the Megapon – troops carrying trumpets – and Dekapon (massive melee fighters) later on in the game, there’s a remarkable depth of unit choice, which can be tailored even more by equipping fancy weapons to the specific troops.

It’s hard to stop comparing Patapon to LocoRoco – both have a distinctively crisp visual style, and both are perfectly optimised for handheld play on the PSP. LocoRoco, though, was marginally better at explaining what the player had to do to reach a successful end-state – simply get all the LocoRoco to the end of the level. Patapon suffers at times from holding back too much information from the player – sure, the general plot is laid out easily enough, but it’s still easy to reach stumbling blocks where the next step just isn’t laid out clearly enough to follow. One such place, for example, sees you pit your army against a fortress that simply cannot be beaten without an item you can only obtain by killing a random golden bird in a previous level. Sure, the existence of the bird is hinted at, and you’re told you need the item to bring down the fortress, but the two are never linked.

The only way the PSP console lets the side down is its speakers, as the Patapon’s chants and constant background music can sound pretty tinny, particularly in later levels. That said, the game is much easier to play with headphones, as you can keep the beat (and reach that elusive Fever mode) much more easily. Also, if anyone else is going to be in the room (or next door) while you’re playing, you may want to invest in headphones even if you’re not bothered by the speakers. Hearing constantly repeating kitschy-cute beats and screaming monsters for any longer than a few minutes won’t appeal to any of your friends or housemates.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Patapon will be making its way to the PS3, in some form or other, by the end of the year – like LocoRoco spawning its own interactive screensaver / minigame on the next-gen console in Cocoreccho, the IP is just too good for Sony to pass up.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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