If there is one genre that has really flourished on the PSP, it would be rhythm games. Titles like Lumines, beats, Parappa the Rapper, and Gitaroo Man have made Sony's handheld a must-have for any fans of the rhythm genre. And while all those games were fantastic titles, Pyramid's most recent PSP title, Patapon, manages to blows them all away with some of the most unique rhythm-based gameplay you'll ever experience.
Combining gameplay from a wide swath of genres, developers Pyramid managed to create a game that is part rhythm-based, part RPG, and part RTS. It's not always easy for developers to successfully combine genres to create a greater whole, but Pyramid absolutely nailed it with Patapon. The resulting gameplay makes Patapon one of the most unique titles to come along in years, on any system -- not just the PSP.
You play the roll of a long missing deity to a tribe of big-eyed warriors, called Patapons, who have been banished from their land and have lost the will to fight. In order to help the Patapons regain their former glory and achieve their final hope of seeing the mysterious 'it' at the end of the world, they need you and your mighty war drums to whip them into shape and get them motivated for some serious combat.
To get the Patapons moving, you need to issue commands by pounding your war drums in the appropriate combination. Each drum is mapped to one of the PSP's face buttons and require that you tap them in 4/4 timing to successfully issue your command. For example, to tell your little warriors to attack, you'd tap O+O+Square+O, and to tell them to advance, you'd tape Square+Square+Square+O. As the game proceeds, you learn additional commands such as retreat and defend, but luckily the game is smart enough not to throw them all at you at once. By the time you learn a new command, you'll already be fully adept at all the previous ones.
The core of the gameplay in Patapon revolves around three types of stages; hunting, battles, and boss fights. During a hunting level, your goal is to defeat as many animals as you can in order to get valuable ka-ching (the in-game currency) as well as meat and resources needed to make new troops for your army. During a battle level, your goal will either be to fend off an enemy attack or invade enemy territory and drive them out. It's during these levels that you're the most likely to find weapons and armor to upgrade your troops. The final stage type is the boss battle. Every four or five levels, you'll be confronted by a massive high-level boss who towers over your troops and laughs off their puny attacks. It's the boss battles where you have to be the most strategic about what types of troops you use, what weapons you equip and what tactics you'll follow, since the wrong choice can end up with all of your poor Patapons quickly and painfully eaten or crushed. The boss battles are quite a bit of fun and can be replayed again and again for an ever increasing level of challenge.
There are six types of Patapons in the game; archers, infantry, javelins, cavalry, huge brutes, and .... musicians with deadly tubas. Each type has its own specific strengths and weaknesses, making each group deadly in some instances and next to worthless in other. Luckily, it's pretty easy to figure out which troop type to use, thanks to the ridiculously detailed stats screen which shows everything from damage rate, critical hit chance, resistance to various types of damages, and strengths against certain types of foes. You can also tweak these stats by finding and equipping new weapons and armor, something which becomes critical as you proceed deeper into the game. There is a huge variety of funky weapons and armor in the game and 'rare item hunter' gamers will have a field day trying to track down all the rare and unique items buried within the game.
If there's one major frustration with Patapon's gameplay, it's the lack of explanation of what to do. It is not uncommon to hit a level where you cannot proceed unless you have a specific miracle or item, and the game tends to do a horrible job at explaining where to go. I spent an hour trying to defeat a massively fortified castle, only to find out that I needed to go back a couple previous levels and kill a random gold bird which would give me a miracle I needed to destroy the fort. There was no indication from the game itself that I needed to do that though, so I had to find out myself by trial-and-error. Overall, this only slightly lessens the enjoyment of the game but it stays a hindrance to the very end, none the less.
When the first Patapon screenshots came out, people assumed that the 2D art-style meant that the Loco Roco designers were behind the game. In actuality, only two people from the Loco Roco team were involved with Patapon, and the unique 2D art style was the result of bringing French artist Rolito on-board. Rolito is famous for his quirky 2D characters and his work has translated beautifully onto the PSP screen, with the vector based graphics showing off a surprising amount of personality and emotion. Not to mention the fact that the Patapons are just so darn cute.
It's not just the characters that bring so much life and personality to the game either. The world in which the Patapons live is absolutely packed with unique and fantastic looking venues that are strongly reminiscent of the Genndy Tartakovsky classic, Samurai Jack. From flaming deserts to dilapidated ruins haunted by huge dinosaurs, the world is lively and otherworldly looking.
What I've found interesting about reading so many of the other Patapon reviews, is that almost nobody has mentioned the story aspect of the game. The story in Patapon, like so much of the game itself, is surprisingly unique. While much of the game is quite silly (especially the mini-games), the way the game handles the actual conflict between the Patapons and their enemies is extremely interesting. Though you are out to regain the old glory of your tribe, the enemies are trying to stop you because they honestly believe you are savages, trying to bring around the end of the world. They will plead with you to stop, curse you for destroying the world, and will display acts of courage, selflessness and worry for their companions. In their eyes, YOU are the aggressor, and YOU are the one trying to destroy the world and they will do everything they can to stop you.
The story in Patapon won't win any major awards, but watching the enemy soldiers refuse to retreat so that they can help defend their friends is surprisingly powerful. I haven't wondered about the morality of my actions in a game since Shadow of the Colossus, but Patapon makes you actually think about the reasons behind your actions and the reality of your unending swath of destruction. The maturity and intelligence in which the developers handed the story is worthy of applause and is yet another reason Patapon is so amazing.
In the end Patapon is a surprisingly long (15-18 hours), surprisingly deep game that is half the price of most PSP games. At times it can be frustrating, but a surprisingly potent story, mixed with some of the most unique and addictive gameplay to hit the handheld yet makes Patapon an easy recommendation to any PSP owner.
PSP Fanboy score: 9.0