Handhelds are often a haven for quirky, off-the-wall yet highly addictive titles. Yet another is on the way for the PSP, and it's called Patapon. It follows in the tradition of rhythm-based titles like PaRappa the Rapper, only it also implements an element of strategy into the gameplay, which results in one of the most interesting blends we've ever seen. Basically, players will lead the little Patapons into battle and they will march to the beat of a battle drum, which you have to control. If you can manage to hit the right notes at the right time, your troops will respond quickly and efficiently. If you're lacking musical capability and can't keep the beat - like Steve Martin in "The Jerk" - than your army won't respond and will be in imminent danger. We have no idea who came up with this idea, and while we've seen other games that seek to combine elements from two different genres, this is entirely new. In fact, it may very well be the most unique concept thus far in 2008, so PSP owners should pay attention. If you want a wholly new experience, check this out.
The storyline is actually a little depressing, but you'll soon see the uplifting side of the following scenario. The Patapons were once a faithful and flourishing tribe, and they took it upon themselves to scour the planet for something they called "IT." But when they left to search, the nasty Zigatons immediately took over the Patapon homeland - only recently abandoned for "IT" - and the Patapons could never return. Morale was obviously low, and the defeated tribe lost faith in two things- 1. the magical war drums that propelled them successfully into battle, and 2. the "Almighty." You actually control the "Almighty" (you're allowed to choose another name for him, her, what...whatever), and it's you who must lead the Patapons to victory. One brave little dude by the name of Hatapon hears the war drums, picks up the banner and leads the charge to reclaim his homeland. So this sounds like a plucky little tale about down-and-out heroes who must find a way to regroup and take back what is rightfully theirs. Not bad, eh? But as we said, you, the "Almighty" must be the brains - and the beat - behind the operation.
If you're familiar with any rhythm games, you can probably guess the style of gameplay. There's a box at the edge of the screen, and this box dictates the beat you must follow. By hitting the correct face buttons at the correct time, you will issue orders to the little Patapons and they will obey you; miss the beat, and your commands will fall on deaf ears. Obviously, as the game progresses, the beat will get faster and more complex, which means your reflexes will get quite the workout. But if you can string together a bunch of flawless beats, you'll hit "Fever Mode," which means your soldiers will move at a faster pace and deliver stronger blows to their opponents. Essentially, you need to make sure you keep the beat without losing control; if you just can't get a handle on one particularly tricky rhythm, you'll probably have to start over. Practice makes perfect with any game, but when it's a rhythm game, sometimes you just have to wrap your brain around a piece of music. Thing is, that's a little different than simply trying to nail down a simple button combo. Nope, need some true timing, here, folks!
So that's the gameplay foundation; it all relies on your own reflexes and timing. But there's a lot more involved in Patapon and it actually revolves around the strategy aspects of the game. As is the case in certain real-time strategy titles, you will have several different units to choose from. For example, there are a couple ranged units to go along with the front-line attackers; the latter are the buff and brave Tatapons, while there are also spear-chucking dudes called Yaripons and archers called Yumipons. It also seems there will be a robust upgrade system for each unit, as defeated enemies will drop a variety of items and weapons, which you can then equip on your own soldiers. You can obtain new stuff by playing one of the many min-games included in the game, although we haven't determined if your units will actually gain experience. We know you're rewarded for your efforts with the new items and equipment, but are there specific abilities we can enhance as we go along? Will each member of the unit have special skills, or is everything group-oriented? These are questions that have yet to be answered, but there's plenty here to interest us...and it should interest you, too. How many games have you played that involve both rhythm timing and strategy tactics? Yeah, not many, we'd guess.
By the way, we'd just like to say that there's a lot of humor going on in this game (if you hadn't already noticed). For example, the currency used is called "Ka-Ching" (hahaha!), and provided you have enough of the right kind of item, you can resurrect fallen warriors at the Tree of Life in Patapolis. Of course, you can only resurrect if your poor little solider hasn't already been eaten by enemy soldiers or guardian spirits. Doesn't this whole thing sound wonderfully quirky? We were kinda hoping the game would offer a multiplayer or online mode of some kind, though, because the developers may have missed out on a big opportunity. Then again, perhaps it would be extraordinarily challenging to implement multiplayer into a gaming concept like this...we still would've liked the option, but we understand the inherent difficulty. And besides, all we ever hear nowadays are veteran gamers complaining there just isn't enough "originality" or "innovation" in new games, so Patapon should be refreshing for all the naysayers out there. Not only will it be refreshing, it'll be almost entirely fresh and new, so don't think for a second developers are out of ideas!
The game is scheduled to arrive on February 26, and if you like this very unique and very interesting idea, we strongly suggest giving Patapon a try.
1/11/2008 Ben Dutka