With games like Guitar Hero continuing to top the charts, and the “music-game” mechanic firmly entrenched in the minds of most game players, it’s easy to see how something as exotic as Patapon and its follow-up, Patapon2 might get overlooked. No rockstar performances, glittery outfits, fancy controllers or other accoutrement required, just a solid sense of rhythm and the classic four buttons we all know and love.
The Patapon games (1 and 2) are a series of unusual and creative decisions on the part of the designers, bridging that ever elusive gap between “casual” games and the more complex strategies loved by “core” gamers. Best described as a strategic, rhythm based side-scroller, Patapon 2 gives the player a macro-level control over the characters, rather than having the player control the action directly. You are given command over one “true believer,” the Haripon, by means of a series of increasingly complex drumbeats. Your drumbeats are translated by the Haripon, directing the attacks and defenses according to your whim and the solidity of your rhythm. Miss a drumbeat and the patapon react terribly, literally falling over one another and complaining loudly. Once you have kept the beat for a couple of measures, however, the patapon go into “Fever” mode, the melodies played over your drumbeat get much more complex and their attacks and defenses improve dramatically. In the first version of the game (Patapon) it could take as many as ten measures to get your patapon to Fever mode, but in Patapon 2 you can do it in as few as three, a major improvement to the gameplay that allows the player to focus a bit more on the action.
You start out with a mere handful of fighters, but as the game progresses you collect more and more elements needed to create new patapon and more and more special “memories” that serve as instructions to make them. This is where Patapon2 really departs from its predecessor. Rather than relying on the random item drops to give you the elements to create wholly new patapon, the player can acquire several “basic” patapon, then evolve them up through more advanced forms to get ever stronger and more specialized warriors. This ability to evolve your patapon helps to kick this game further into the strategy spectrum as you need to evaluate each level as you play it through the first time, then tailor your army to best suit your goals.
The levels in Patapon2, just like the original, are supposed to be played over and over, with the player gleaning more information and new items each time. This replayability goes a long way towards allowing the player to perfect their technique when it comes to switching between drum-patterns on the fly, and allows the game designers to expand the gameplay without simply dumping “grind” type levels on the player. We’ve all seen games where the constraints of the system require replaying levels, but usually the game designers try to disguise this fact (often poorly). Patapon2 just rolls with the convention, firmly establishing early on that in order to collect new materials, and to feed your ever growing army, you are going to have to go back.
Once a level is successfully completed, the next one is unlocked, but in addition a new version of the same, just completed, level is also revealed, giving the player several directions to go rather than just a simple, linear progression through the map. Do you, flush with the success of just beating the level try it again right away while it’s still fresh in your mind, or do you move on to best the next shiny challenge?
Any review of the game wouldn’t be complete without some attention to the wacky side-games included. Whereas Patapon had the funky dancing tree and equally funky garden, mini-games that require drop-dead beat timing, but can award the player components they may have missed during the level combat, Patapon2 has the strange and exotic dancing school, with a performance given by a character that resembles nothing so much as a giant, light-footed cathedral bell (you need to see it to believe it) whose dance moves are controlled by your accurate hitting of the beat as the pips bass the melody bar (in what I suspect is a direct nod to the gameplay of Guitar Hero and the other “music” games that share the genre)
Based on the work of, and art-directed by, graphic artist Rolito, visually there is nothing like it on the shelves. The vector-based are is clean, simple and utterly alien, reusing primitive forms (in the artistic sense, not the cultural one) that mirror the look of the patapon themselves. The patapon are drawn in silhouette, black figures on colored backgrounds, as are all the “active” elements in the game, but don’t make the mistake of thinking the visuals are flat and monochromatic, the backgrounds are richly layered within a narrow range of chroma, elements animating to indicate environmental effects like rain, snow, wind, cloud cover, each of which can affect your army’s attacks for either good or ill. Items of particular significance are tinged with contrasting color, drawing your attention to them and making them stand out against the constant movement of the world.
The biggest drawback for this title, I think, is its absolute reliance on sound. Without headphones, or a cone of silence, it is easy to miss a beat simply because of the ambient noise that surrounds us all. Once you’ve begun a level it requires almost total concentration to complete, which may not seem significant at first glance, but when you take into account the fact that this is played on a portable system, a system designed to be played on the bus or between classes, this can require a certain amount of aplomb when it comes to starting a level over, or risking losing your mojo when you have to pause the game mid-level because the bell rang or you have to dig in your pockets for change. There is a limited visual element that allows you to see the beat even if you cannot hear it, but it is subtle and hard to see, requiring as much concentration visually as you need to play by ear.
The game is available in the US only by download from the Sony store, this is a good thing and a bad thing. While I am all for doing away with the boxes and umd’s in principle, there is a social element that goes along with trundling your happy-a** to the mall to browse the game-store shelves. The Sony store doesn’t exactly make it easy to get to either, requiring you to install new software on your PC to access the downloads, or requiring direct network access on the part of the PSP. That, however, is a rant for a different article. If you can get your hands on it, Patapon2 is assuredly worth the time and trouble.