“Patapon” review

by on Mar.05, 2010, under PSP Game Reviews

Game: Patapon
Developer: Pyramid

Whoever said “RTFM solves any problem” obviously hasn’t played this game!

While flipping through the reams of notes I usually take when gaming, I stumbled across my musings on SCE’s Patapon game from the middle of last year. As this game was undoubtedly one of the better titles of 2007-2008, it would be remiss of me not to post my thoughts and experiences in the form of an extremely belated review. It might also encourage North American gamers to temporarily return to this classic while they wait for the sequel to hit stores next month.

Patapon is a rhythm-based, side-scrolling real-time strategy game that focuses on the trials and tribulations of the Patapons, a tribe of hairy, monochromatic eye-balls. Displaced from their homeland by the dastardly Zigotons (whose evilness is implied by their bloodshot eyes,) the Patapons want nothing less than the destruction of their oppressors and to triumphantly return to their promised land, Earthend. Your job is to assist them in this epic endeavour as “Almighty”, their recently re-discovered deity. Unfortunately for the Patapons, they lack the self-determination necessary to get even the most mundane chores completed, raising the interesting (and unanswered question) of how they managed to feed themselves whilst you were in-absentia. They only thing they willingly respond to are the rhythmic beats of four drums, bound to the face buttons on your console. By pressing well-timed button combinations, you can give your worshippers the motivation needed to get off their butts and do something a bit more constructive than just sitting around a campfire all day.

The story progresses through missions that the Almighty can choose from a World map. After selecting up to three squads of wide-eyed Patapons you’re transferred to one of the many bizarre and colourful battlegrounds designed by French graphic designer Rolito. It’s across these varied environments that you’ll march your small army to engage a variety of foes in mortal combat. There are six primary drum combinations used within the game that empower your Patapons to advance, attack, power-up, defend, retreat or trigger a miracle as required. While some scenarios (like hunting) are relatively simple exercises, there are also plenty of pitched battles with the Zigoton tribe as well as challenging boss battles at regular intervals. In between missions your troops gather in the village of Patapolis to recuperate from their recent adventures and prepare for the following day’s impending battles. Within this settlement you can indulge in a variety of rhythm-based mini games to garner materials and weapons for your troops. You can also breed enhanced Patapon warriors to help you defeat the more difficult opponents found later in the story.

Discovering game play elements as you progress through the carefully constructed milieu are some of the more exciting events that a gamer can experience. Designers are usually aware that a balance needs to be found between the amount of information provided to the gamer and the in-game knowledge that the player will eventually acquire. Unfortunately, Pyramid dropped the ball here by providing an inadequate manual that omits many of the basic instructions necessary to play the game. There is no written information on how to remove existing patapons to make room for new recruits, and the actual process in-game isn’t intuitive. The effects of automatically equipping your small army are also unclear and you’re left wondering if, in doing so, you’ve equipped the selected Patapon or the whole squad. While I am quite happy to discover challenges, power-ups and strategies by experiencing a game, I draw the line at being forced to discover through trial and error HOW to use the game interface as well. There’s obviously something seriously wrong when a player needs to download a player created FAQ document just to play a new game! The interface is also rather clunky with the player unable to perform related tasks on the one screen. For example, you can only create new patapons if there is a free squad position available. To free up a slot requires the player to navigate to the mission launch screen, “retire” one of your unworthy patapons (assuming you figured out how to do this), cancel the intended mission, then return to the original crafting screen once more to perform your mojo.

The lack of decent documentation and unintuitive interface also manage to artificially steepen the game’s learning curve; which is a pity as the game already possesses more than enough elements to slant the games difficulty in an upward direction. The design team’s penchant of making some of the boss missions automatically unbeatable on your first attempt is a prime example! This mechanism was presumably introduced in lieu of in-game cut-scenes, with the player having to experience the futility of the battle at least once before a hint is dropped that perhaps some other mission needs to be completed first to unlock a power-up or miracle. The trouble is that newly available missions aren’t highlighted on the world map and it’s quite possible that the one you need to undertake will be overlooked. It’s also hard to tell if you’re actually making progress during these battles, which can result in stubborn initiates to the world of Patapon repeating these un-winnable missions several times, thus increasing gamer frustration. The rhythm-based game-play (the heart of the Patapon experience) also shoulders some game-play elements designed to add un-necessary complexity to the game. The key to all of the battles is to repeatedly execute button press combinations in an effort to reach Fever mode, an enhanced state that boosts the combat power of your Patapons significantly. Unfortunately (or perhaps deliberately) some of the musical riffs appear to have been composed fractionally off the beat that you are required to follow. Using just your hearing to determine the required rhythm can gradually shift your overall beat, resulting in you inevitably failing to sustain Fever mode. There is a visual cue displayed on the edge of your screen that you can use to help maintain tempo but continuously monitoring this prevents the player from fully appreciating the visually spectacular battles taking place centre stage.

It should be pointed out that once you get past the initial learning curve and have fully comprehended the game mechanics, Patapon is an incredibly addictive and entertaining indulgence. The mission design is well varied, and the player will be required to implement a range of unique strategies to overcome many of the challenges and bosses found within each level. There are plenty of power-ups to discover, miracles to unveil and even environmental conditions to overcome. You can repeat any of the boss battles in order to gather more power-ups however your nemesis’ strength is increased markedly with each successful completion. Only the repetitive hunting missions and Patapolis mini-games that you are forced to play through detract from the experience. These are the primary sources of materials and currency necessary to breed the more powerful Patapon warriors, and you’re going to have to repeat these levels several dozen times during the course of the game. The musical themes are remarkably varied etudes full of foot-tapping Celtic-influences and tribal rhythms. If you’ve ever wanted to immerse yourself in a world full of bagpipe music and tub-thumping drum beats, this is the game for you.

Rolito’s artistic rendition of the world of Patapon melds perfectly with the game’s audio accomplishments. With nary an audible word in-game, the design team has managed to endow your adoring devotees with a full range of emotions, ranging from the squeaks and yells of victory to wails of anguish upon defeat. It’s almost impossible not to fall in love with your ocular disciples, and the untimely demise of any of your key warriors can leave you just as upset as his erstwhile comrades are. The games finale is the usual “non-event” highly prized by developers who want to justify a sequel. Nevertheless, despite the disappointing destination the game ultimately reaches, the preceding 12-15 hours of game-play yield a delightful pilgrimage that every PSP owner would be well-served to travel.

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