Every now and then, gamers are treated to a title that's so engaging, so enjoyable and so indescribable that it's hard to put your finger on it. Sony has capitalized on this situation time and time again with their rhythm games, literally creating the genre. For example, they introduced the rapping beats of Parappa the Rapper in 1997. This was soon followed by Vib Ribbon two years later which re-invented music tracks as game levels. Frequency and its follow-up proved that keeping time with tunes was engaging and fun. Now comes the most recent rhythm title from Sony – a little UMD disc known as Patapon, which is not only one of the best rhythm games ever released, it's also one of the best titles for the PSP.
The Patapons have a very unassuming appearance. Their small, cycloptic frames belie their fierce warrior spirit which made them strong enough to force evil from their land. Unfortunately, the glory has long been lost, as the Patapons have been driven from their homeland by the evil Zigoton army. Even worse, their inspiration, a deity that they revered and called "Almighty," disappeared with their magical drums that motivated them, causing the Patapons to fall into disarray. Only one of the tribe known as Hatapon believed that Almighty would return to lead them to glory, and when the god does return, Hatapon picks up the banner of the tribe and leads his tribesmen against the Zigotons.
Typically, in most games, you'd rally your forces as Hatapon, becoming an inspiration to your people and eventually leading them to freedom. That's not the case with this title, because you never show up on the screen. You are Almighty, leading your chosen people back to their homeland without a corporeal body, instead, you use the power of your magical drums and rhythmic beats to direct your followers. However, while you're a god, you're not omnipotent, particularly because you've been away from this world for a while. Your drums have been scattered across the world, and your mystical songs have been lost to legend. Over the course of more than 20 missions, you'll re-discover your powers and your drums that will correspond to the face buttons of the PSP and use them to help motivate the Patapons to retake their lands.
To use your powers, you'll need to keep time with what's known as the Pulse of the Earth, a rhythmic four count that beats along the edges of the screen. By pressing one of the four face buttons in a specific sequence, players can direct the Patapons under your control to perform different actions, such as attacking, retreating, defending themselves and other moves. However, you can't constantly beat your drums over and over again to motivate your soldiers. You need to give your Patapons the option to sing their responses to your beat to confirm that they've heard your commands properly. If you can constantly hit the rhythm from the Pulse of the Earth, alternating between drumming beats and resting, you'll put your Patapons in Fever Mode, which makes each fighter run faster, fire projectiles farther and attack with more strength than before. Mistimed beats, however, will drop your Patapons from this state, forcing you to build your momentum back up to this high-pitched state.
As you progress through the game, you'll realize just how important Fever Mode is to the various Patapons that you acquire over the course of the game, primarily when you recognize the various skills each possesses. Players will acquire six different kinds of Patapon that they can place into their army, each with their own special abilities and traits. The Tatepon is the first kind that you acquire: strong warriors with hand-to-hand battle skills that are typically your front line of attack. By contrast, the Yaripon and Yumipon are projectile units – the variations being that while the Yaripon hurl spears, the Yumipon fire arrows from bows. Eventually, your forces will expand to include troops such as the Kibapon, who are horse-mounted fighters that charge their targets. You can also field shock troops such as the Dekapon, who are large melee fighters, and the Megapon, who fire sound waves at enemies.
However, while you'll acquire these different units, you'll only be able to field up to three different squads at once on a mission. While this technically limits the strengths of your forces, it makes you decide which troops compliment each other with their skills and abilities. This additional level of depth and tactical strategy expands upon the basic nature of keeping the beat for your troops, as you'll need to figure out whether or not a certain kind of soldier will help you hunt food for your people, defend better against incoming attacks, or cause more damage in a frenzied state. Considering that the enemy will frequently vary the forces sent against you, players need to pay attention if they want to have more of an advantage.
Fortunately, you can supplement this strength with the equipment of various items that you acquire during the course of your exploration. As you hunt creatures, defeat Zigotons and proceed through different missions, you'll inevitably acquire different items dropped by your defeated foes in one of two different forms, which will be taken back to the Patapon village of Patapolis. The first is Ka-Ching, which is the limited monetary system used to support the purchasing of units for your troops or resurrecting fallen soldiers from the Tree of Life. The other, and more important of the two, are various dropped items and weapons that you'll find from vanquished enemies. These items can be used to augment the strength of your soldiers, improving their attacks, strengthening their defense, or preventing status effects from opponents. They can also be used to supplement the creation of soldiers, imbuing them with specific properties, such as defense against elemental attacks or improved strength against physical strikes.
As previously alluded to, this RPG-lite system of status upgrades, improved levels and classes of troops is valuable considering the forces that you find yourself going up against. The Zigoton army packs a large variety of monsters, ranging from the basic shock troop to fierce crabs, stone golems and battle tanks. It would be one thing if these creatures were of a relative size to that of your Patapons, but the fact that a number of these beasts are at least twice the size of your beasts gives you a better sense of the overwhelming odds that you're overcoming as the Almighty against these wicked enemies. Your poor soldiers are essentially relying upon their beliefs in dance, song and their skills to defeat these creatures, and only your motivation can help them aim true, deliver finishing blows, and celebrate in the name of their people. It's virtually the penultimate underdog story.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of issues that do wind up hampering just how this winds up coming across. The largest and perhaps most complicated problem that players will face within the game is the fact that the title does not have a pause feature present at any point during a mission. This means that you're basically committed, from the start of a mission to the ending checkpoint, to continually driving your Patapons across the screen based on the relentless Pulse of the Earth. If you need to take a timeout for any reason, such as a phone call or someone trying to have a conversation with you, you have to pray that you're in the midst of a mission where you're not constantly being besieged with enemy attacks. This is possible if you've sent your troops out to hunt for food and items, but if you're assaulting a Zigoton base or attacking a boss, you're pretty much in for the long haul, however long that might take. This can be particularly disappointing when you realize that you've invested five or more minutes in assaulting a stage, only to have your concentration, and therefore, your rhythm, slip because of some distraction in your life instead of pausing the game and coming back to where you left off. (Technically, you could put your PSP to sleep, but you're not gaining anything by doing that. In fact, you'll probably throw yourself off beat more.)
Another problem comes in the item system itself. While it's vital to the strength and success of your troops, it becomes rather skewed in how it's handled. Sure, you can acquire multiple alloys, items and dishes to comprise your Patapons, but the largest problem is that you can't purchase weapons or items that you require. For example, if you need stronger armor for your Tatepons or better spears, you have to go out and scavenge them from defeated opponents instead of purchasing them from vendors in Patapolis. Even the effect of trading items doesn't solve this problem, since you'll frequently trade one item for another instead of weapons or gear that can be taken into battle. This will force you to continually fight battles against previously defeated bosses or venture into hunting grounds in an attempt to level up your squads to stronger levels.
The third issue, which is relatively minor by comparison, is the fact that backtracking to previous areas isn't particularly well explained. You'll sometimes discover that you might need to return to a previously entered space to acquire some item, song or weapon that can help you, but this isn't explicitly pointed out. While there are tips between missions that allude to returns to previous levels in case you can't beat a stage, the levels themselves don't point out whether or not there are possible items or weapons that you can gain by retracing your steps. It can be somewhat frustrating to realize that you've been running your head into a wall only to find out that what you need was a stage or two away that you've already bested.
However, even with these detractions, Patapon manages to overshadow the problems with a heavy dose of character, depth and flexibility. Apart from the hunting and battling against various Zigoton enemies, you'll find yourself collecting the spirits of fallen Patapons, which, when brought back to Patapolis, can be used to help unlock additional mini-games. While these mini-games will provide you with some items, the creativity behind these diversions can't be ignored. Whether it's the timing necessary to blow a tune for a dancing tree, rhythmically hitting the stony toes of a baby mountain, or chopping vegetables into a dancing pot, the mini-games are perhaps some of the most creative ever found within a PSP game (or any console game, for that matter).
This creativity carries out over more than just the mini-games; it extends through the entire title and makes Patapon one of the most addictive titles that you'll ever play. Part of this has to do with the incredibly catchy music. Considering that it's a rhythm game, you'd expect there to be something unique about the songs that you're expected to play. However, the simplicity of the music, coupled with the enthusiasm and cheerful zeal of the Patapons can't be denied, and even if you put the game down for a few minutes, you'll find yourself eagerly looking forward to picking it back up again. It's incredibly addictive, and aside from tapping your foot to the beat, you'll find that it's very, very hard to get the songs out of your head. There have been nights that I've gone to sleep and woken up with the rhythmic chanting, "Pon-Pon-Pata-Pon" ringing in my head.
What helps get this music into your head and continually hit the replay button is the depth of the chants themselves – with childlike timbres for each song, the music in the game will easily bring a smile to your face. But as you move through different stages, you'll notice that the chants will take on different tones and inflections, which reaches a fever pitch when you get to Fever Mode (no pun intended). This is where the real magic of the game draws you in. But the rest of the sound quality of the game is just as strong, from the celebratory cries and cheers from a successful mission to the worried cries when they fall in battle. You'll be pretty hard pressed not to feel bad the first time that you hear one of your Patapons cry out what sounds like, "Mommy" as they're removed from your squad. Little touches like this highlights the aural excellence this game features.
What also strengthens the appeal of Patapon is its visual style, which almost feels as though you're playing a cartoon instead of a game. Part of it rests in its basic presentation of the Patapon characters, which manage to convey a variety of emotions with their lone eye. From the celebratory jumps, bounces and spins they perform when things are going their way to the angry look that crosses their "face" before they attack, the animations of your little soldiers is incredible. But what expands on it is the detail of the enemies that you face. From stony monsters to evil plants, shield carrying Zigotons to generals with elaborate helmets that you can steal and wield for your own soldiers, the details on these beasts will constantly keep you playing to see what strange opponents will be flung at you next.
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