In the summer of 2006, LocoRoco was released for the PSP – and with precious little in the way of fanfare. With the exciting launch of the first next-gen console forthcoming and a crowded release calendar, which included new installments of such venerable franchises as Half-Life, Tomb Raider, Splinter Cell and Final Fantasy, it wasn’t a surprise to see this excellent new IP fall under most gamers’ radars. Today, however, it stands shoulder to shoulder with Katamari Damacy as among the most innovative platformers to come to video games in decades. Its simple, yet distinctive aesthetic proved uniquely appealing, while its gravity-oriented game play mechanics were a breath of fresh air next to more traditional fare.
LocoRoco was a brief thrill, admittedly, but an unforgettable one nonetheless. Considering how much it has in common with Patapon, one can only hope that Japan Studio’s latest effort proves able to carve out a more appealing fate. And let it be said: this game demands your recognition.
Patapon won’t be for everyone. Simple rhythm-game controls belie an experience that is equal parts God game and real-time strategy, but it straddles these genres with such conviction, you’d be forgiven for thinking its creators have made such games before. Assuredly, they have not, and Patapon is all the better for their invigorating new approach. You do not so much control the titular creatures – a tribe of eyeballs with legs, fallen on hard times – as inspire them. Each of the PSP’s four face buttons is mapped to a particular sound, be it pon, pata, don or chaka, and by combining these voices to the songs your army discovers throughout its journey, the player is able to drum out certain rhythms which the Patapon understand to mean such things as attack, retreat, charge and defend. There are no on-screen prompts beyond the initial tutorials: you will memorize these songs, or you will fall to the Zigaton, a warring tribe which controls the eastern part of the island.
The earliest stages of the game are thankfully rather easy going, giving the player enough time to grasp the importance of both your growing army’s make-up and load-out and the competing rhythms of the Zigaton forces. It isn’t long, however, before you realize that what might appear a cutesy cash-in on the increasingly mainstream rhythm-game franchises is instead a deceptively deep simulation, as rewarding as it is taxing.
None of which is to say that Patapon isn’t worth your time. It’s an incredibly satisfying title which hooks you in and refuses to let go until you’ve stamped out every last Zigaton and gazed, ultimately, upon the mythical “it” which awaits your army at the end of their hardship. The clarity of the simple graphics are a perfect fit on the handheld platform, and a courageous challenge to all those developers bent on low-res realism. The music and audio effects are as madcap as can be – utter nonsense, and yet utterly infectious. The controls are intuitive and effective; and this is surely a fuller and better developed experience than LocoRoco offered.
Sadly, however, some of Patapon’s length is a cheat: believe it or not, there is grinding to be done here, and plenty of it. Kids and the otherwise attention-challenged aren’t likely to have the patience to see it through, but should you – and you should, I urge you – there is a bittersweet lesson to be learned of the uncomplicated narrative that steers your adventure, and an experience to be had that is unlike any other, in any genre of video games and in any medium of entertainment. Flawed, then, but absolutely inimitable, and unequivocally brilliant.
Patapon is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB for Mild Cartoon Violence.