What’s with all the Complicated in my rhythm game? You may find yourself asking this question about three hours into Patapon 2 when you’re trying to decide which evolutionary path you’d rather take one of your 30 or so walking eyeballs, aka Patapons, before battle. Will you go for a lumbering brute, with the in-game diameter of a giant squid eye, who has many hit points and is fairly resistant to stun and environmental effects or will you choose to evolve into an agile although altogether more frail eyeball? Maybe you’d like to create an ocular cavalry man instead, but to do so you need some more ore, and it’s off to play a rhythm on a giant rock baby’s toes. Welcome to the world of Patapon 2.
The Patapon series, for those of you who missed out on the first game, like me, is an unclassifiable mix of dungeon hack, side scrolling real time strategy and rhythm game. The basic premise is that you lead around a clutch of walking eyeballs by tapping out rhythms on the PSP face buttons. These rhythms are used to order your troops to do things like march, attack, defend and dodge. It’s also these rhythms that the player uses to guide his Patapons to victory in each level, usually through some combination of marching, attacking and defending at strategic times. Of course the closer you keep to the rhythm while doing this, the more emphatically the game’s music plays and your troops attack or defend. It’s a pretty neat premise that makes for an entertaining twist on two seemingly incompatible genres.
Patapon 2 can seem like a black hole of complexity, which isn’t really a condemnation, but something to note for those expecting a pure rhythm based game. You will spend a significant amount of time replaying old levels to gather resources to evolve your troops(yes, there’s an evolution tree for the multiple classes of troops) and collect new loot. There’s plenty of customization for all of the new classes, types of Patapons and even special Hero-pon that have special attacks and abilities. You can even pick the individual weapons your troops are equipped with. There are also several mini games at your Patapon base camp that help you towards making a super party. It’s a game of modifiers and stat adjustments and if you’re into that sort of thing you’ll feel right at home with Patapon 2. In that sense, it shares a lot in common with JRPGS, SRPGS and almost any other Japanese role playing game in which the grinding is a central gameplay element.
In terms of strategy and level grinding, Patapon 2 is as interesting as any other game featuring that kind of mechanic. Where it flounders about is as a rhythm game. Key to a good rhythm game are the songs, and Patapon 2 really falls short in that department. I don’t think it’s merely a matter of musical preference either. The game’s songs are strange little tunes, children’s songs really, that are eventually drowned out by the drum beat of your commands and the child-like chants of the Patapons. When your fever meter, a measure of how well you keep to the beat that also determines how effectively your troops execute their commands, is at its peak the game basically ends up sounding the same at every stage. The best rhythm games make the music and game play feel inseparable, and at times when you’re really hitting the beat in Patapon 2 it feels that way. However, I never had a burning desire to replay a level just to experience the song associated with it.
I don’t mean to suggest the game is an impenetrable esoteric mess – it’s not. In fact it’s really playable, even if you’re not always sure what you’re doing. The game has a new easy mode that, easy as it may be, feels like the perfect difficulty for a portable game. You still suffer defeats, but nothing is so frustrating that it destroys the basic fun of tapping your foot while you watch these crazy little characters beat down on all types of monsters. And it is a whole lot of fun to watch this game in motion. The game looks amazing with its bold colors and distinctive Samurai Jack silhouette visuals, and seeing the morass of Patapons moving about is pretty impressive. The characters are also really well designed and, for me, seeing the Patapons evolve into ever stranger forms was all the incentive I needed to go back and replay old levels in order to gather materials for new Patapons. Not that grinding is really a chore in this game anyway. Many of the levels actually change and offer new challenges after you’ve initially beaten them. So quite often you’ll find that old feels new again.
I want to quickly mention multiplayer, which has something to do with carrying eggs around with other people. This mode was lost in translation. Not because the game play is flawed, but because Sony has yet to realize that no one in America plays ad hoc multiplayer. Maybe it’s because we like to game in private, or maybe it’s because we don’t know three other people in a 12 mile radius who also have PSPs. Whatever the reason, as far as I’m concerned, ad hoc multiplayer is the same as no multiplayer. Needless to say, I didn’t get a chance to play it because I honestly don’t know three other people with PSPs in the same state as me.
Multiplayer aside, this game is a top notch package. I’m usually not one to talk about value, but at twenty dollars I couldn’t help but be impressed that, in addition to fundamentally sound game play, there’s just a whole lot of content. Patapon 2 is a carefully designed portable experience that’s more than some console port with a few quick save options. But it’s not a cop-out either; a “light” version of what should’ve been a more substantial game. In these regards, Patapon 2 is a rare game indeed.
Bottom Line: Patapon 2 is the game that serious gamers are too often denied on portable platforms.
Recommendation: The twenty dollars you’re going to spend at the Star Trek movie this weekend will probably be worth it. But the next twenty dollars should absolutely be spent on Patapon 2
Tom Endo thinks that next to the definition for Nihon-teki in Japanese to English dictionaries Patapon 2 should be mentioned.