Review by SneakTheSnake

"Follow my rhythm into war..."

The sun rises over the plains, basking them in light. You hear tumultuous sounds in the distance - crashes, explosions. Your land is being invaded, and this must be stopped. You hear war drums beating slowly, slowly harnessing a rhythm. Your tribe is preparing for war. You've been summoned to lead a troop of determined fighters into the fray. It is up to you, the glorious leader, to guide and control the determined Patapons to victory. Patapon, in part, attempts to bridge together two previously-unrelated genres (namely, the rhythm and RTS genres) to create a new kind of gaming experience. It's ambitious, and it's intriguing for a while, but Patapon falters.

I've enjoyed the rhythm and music genres for a while now. DDR bridged me into Parappa the Rapper, and that brought me into Rock Band, Amplitude, Frequency, and Gitaroo Man. They have a unique way of harnessing the player and engaging one into crafting something uniquely their own. Games that harness music and rhythm into the gameplay experience are amazing to me. That's part of what brought me to Patapon, a PSP title currently in its third iteration. My ties to RTS titles is less strong.

Patapon features extensive item management and soldier crafting elements, and that customization doesn't bother me - in fact, I think that's a good thing, despite those systems' inherent flaws. It's how the battles play out that's what brought this game down for me. Most RTS's give players complete control over their armies and squads, allowing the player to choose each soldier's movement and method of attack. Patapon, because of its set-up, does not allow for this simple freedom, which puts players at a severe disadvantage.

The game is good at bringing the player in – it's very engaging. You have been summoned as the Patapons' war god; you, with the power of the four mystic drums (read: face buttons), you must pound out beats to lead the Patapons to victory. You were the one they spoke of in their ancient prophecy. You oversee them in battle and celebrate their victories with them. They'll craft gifts in your honor, praising your name.

A lot of the game is spent in battle. Your only control over your soldiers is by the face buttons, each of which representing a different drum. Hitting the buttons in specific sequences gives the Patapons commands. Each command is assigned to a four-beat rhythm; one beat for advancing, one for attacking, one for falling back, one for putting up shields and so on. This is the primary means of control in Patapon.

Good drumming gets your tribe fired up, and ten consecutive four-beat rhythms gets them in Fever Mode. In Fever Mode, the attacks do much more damage, and your soldiers are much more aggressive. Miss a single beat while in Fever Mode, or building up to Fever Mode, and it's lost. You'll have to start the combo from the beginning.

Your Patapon soldiers are armed with spears, axes, swords, and even animals to take on the Zigaton invasion. Defeated enemies sometimes drop items and currency (called Ka-ching), both of which can be used to improve your Patapons' attack abilities. They sometimes drop meat also, or raw materials; these can be mixed together to create larger, more menacing Patapons, ones which higher attack power from the start and more HP. Players can also earn raw materials through rhythm mini-games at their base camp.

There's a lot of guesswork and grinding involved. Crafting new soldiers can cost a lot of money, and old soldiers must be permanently removed if you intend on getting new ones. Finding the materials to create these new soldiers can take a while to find; only certain enemies drop them on certain levels and certain times. It's a bit of a crapshoot, too, even when creating new soldiers: players won't know whether their new creatures actually work to their own battle strategy until spending the money and resources to find out. Kibapons, for example, are cavalrymen, and they cost a lot of money to create. However, I didn't find them to be much help for me at all; I'd have to waste money and resources to craft something I have little use for. Your soldiers don't level up either; they have their base states that don't change, and any increased attack power or defense comes from the weapons and armor they wear. These weapons and armor come once in a blue moon as item drops.

It's all very inconsistent; I wish I had the same level of control over my units as even the most rudimentary RTS games. I would have wanted my characters to level up as a sort of justification of all this grinding. I would like to know exactly what I'm getting when I try crafting new soldiers instead of just throwing my resources into a mixing pot (literally) and waiting for the result. It leaves me wanting more.

The game progression is rather linear, which I don't really mind. Mission objectives even vary from level to level; in one, players must take out the army while not harming a caravan holding a captive Patapon. The boss battles can be rather rewarding as well; taking on giant crabs and dinosaurs or bringing an entire enemy fortress down to ruins can be satisfying at times. However, the largest inherent flaw of Patapon is in its very structure in-battle.

All of the Patapon battles are underscored by a gently-tapping rhythm. All button commands for the Patapons, therefore, must be put in to this rhythm. For less musically-inclined players, Patapon is a no-go, as it rewards players with rhythm and punishes the less talented pretty harshly. Enemy forces tend to react faster than the Patapons because they are not confined to the 4/4 rhythm. They mind hesitate for a few seconds before they attack so that players can prepare themselves, but fighting larger armies of spear-throwers, axemen and acid-spewing crabs play almost entirely to the game's favor.

An onslaught of enemies can decimate an army of Patapons if players aren't quick enough to react. Holding off in one place until the enemy backs off a bit works some of the time, but they can charge or hop forward to right where you are, ready to attack. Players can't break off a rhythm and change their mind about their command without ruining their combo, and it's at that point where players are thrown off the rhythm and left stranded. No combo means that the attacks do little and that the Patapons are left confused on the battlefield. The enemy can easily win the upper hand in any battle if players aren't able to defend themselves quickly enough, and it's all because they have to wait until one “measure” is over before inputting the next.

This hurts quite a bit considering that Patapons tend to stand still until you put in the next command. The battle system isn't broken; it not only takes a bit to get used to, but it sometimes requires a whole lot of grinding to expect any positive results. Sometimes it doesn't matter how well you're able to strategize; it depends on the weapons and armor you have, and these are almost completely arbitrary.

Kudos to the developers for making a game like this, particularly one in which button-mashing is not even an option. It's an ambitious design, but the inherent difficulty because of its very nature leaves much to be desired. If your Patapons could level up, or if the armies weren't limited to twelve or so soldiers or less, then players would have a slightly better chance at succeeding at Patapon. If the burlier, rarer and more expensive soldiers could wear helmets (they can't because of their large size), then players could probably succeed. If the special elemental attacks didn't break up combos, then the little Patapon soldiers would have a fighting chance. The game becomes a victim of its own design.

Patapon does well to mask its inherent flaws, however, thanks in no small part to an especially wonderful graphical and aural style. Patapon is a great-looking game. The game does nothing with gradients or shadows, but the bold choice of using simple color contrast goes a long way to crafting a standout game. From the character design to the way the story and missions are presented (on a large tapestry, no less!) to the beautiful colors enriching the game's every aspect, the game positively shines. It's a testament to the power of the PSP, as even the most heated battles run at a smooth framerate with no slowdown. Arrows will be flying, Patapon soldiers will be charging and guard towers will be burned to the ground, but there is never a sacrifice to the game's functionality. It's one of the most interesting-looking PSP titles I've played.

Most of the music is the rhythmic chanting of your Patapons. There are very few original songs in the game, but they are as charming and inviting as the Patapon's pleas for help and screams of triumph. The Patapons speak with a high-pitched voice, speaking their own imaginary language, imploring you, their war god, to lead them in battle. The roars of the enemies and the loud crackles and explosions of buildings tearing down detract from the sound experience sometimes and even caused me to get off my rhythm. If they were able to synchronize with the rest of the game's music, ala Child of Eden or de Blob, it would have helped. However, I have no major qualms with the sound design overall.

Patapon is a game I really wanted to like. It's an interesting title for the PSP, certainly one of the most unique. I would recommend bolder players to give it a try, those who are interested in how music can affect gameplay. The game elicited feelings of great connection and satisfaction, playing to a rhythm and watching the action that was brought on by my music. However, it took some sequels to get it right (and some would say that, even then, they didn't perfect the formula. I haven't played them, so I can't comment on that). Players who decide to stick to the game, despite its maligned battle design and excessive item grinding, might still be pleasantly surprised.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 08/23/11

Game Release: Patapon (US, 02/26/08)

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