With Disney’s announcement of the rhythm game Ultimate Band and the millions in sales of Rock Band and Guitar Hero 3, it should come as no surprise that the new dominant genre of video games is shaping up to be music-based. That’s not a bad thing; the first-person shooter was and still is achieving new depths for the phrase “overdone”, but there are questions to be asked about what is being gained and lost in this change-up. What kind of problems and gains come with this shift? Sony Entertainment’s Patapon is a great example of the potential creativity this new genre has to offer video games while highlighting its flaws as well.
The game has you playing a benevolent deity to a race of eyeball creatures known as the Patapons. You use drum beats to issue various commands: go forward, attack, defend, etc. These have to be kept in unison with the level’s beat, which is depicted by a white flashing frame and the game’s soundtrack. You play four beats, your tiny army plays four back. As you continue without screwing up the rhythm, the musical response becomes more complex and active. Do this enough times and your little Patapons burst into fever mode, which triples the damage they can inflict. With this setup, the game engages you across a variety of missions. Everything from hunting to slaying giant monsters will be taking up your time. Each encounter has a rhythm within the rhythm, as your Patapons dance around the battles in a ballet of defending, pressing forward, and attacking.
All of this is eloquently presented in the game’s brilliant art and sound: you’re a god caretaking a tiny race of eyeball people. The game opts for a cute but minimalist appearance that attracts an almost Hello Kitty-like affection. The sounds coincide with this, as each Patapon has a high-pitched shout that will remind you of children. By combining the visuals and the audio, the game will engender an almost parental affection in the player for the little critters. You subconsciously start to think of them as your personal responsibility. This idea of being the Patapon parent is further elaborated by the huge disparity in size that many of the bosses have in comparison with your creatures. The odds seem overwhelmingly stacked against them, so much so that you may get caught up in the game purely out of concern for your people. It’s an interesting way to encourage the player to personally connect with the game, similar to The Sims or Pokemon. But instead of relying on a wide range of customization or cute anime images to induce the connection, it uses minimalist art and role play to engender that same feeling. This experience is cemented in the symbolic opening of the game where you, the player, sign a contract to be the caretaker of the Patapon tribe. It’s a great touch that cements the caretaking relationship and it’s backed by great art and sound.
Playtime is usually about five minutes per level for the casual nod (though it can get up to ten) and will leave the constant drumming of the game stuck in your head for hours. You have a wide variety of Patapon units and weapons to choose from, allowing you customize your play style to suit your method of play. If you like to hold back and build up combos until you hit fever mode, then you depend on the ranged units and cavalry more. If you like to just grind away with the attack drums, then your front line troops will be sporting the heavy gear. And for those not interested in either tactic, there are several juju spells that you can use to help out in a fight by changing the environment. If all these options are starting to sound similar to Final Fantasy and other JRPG’s, that’s because they are. They hooked up a rhythm game to a real-time RPG in 2D. Does this work as a game? Yes, mostly.
The first problem with the game is two-fold: expect to be grinding a lot to improve your characters, and the grinding is of the slot machine variety. By the fourth boss, you’re going to be expected to significantly overhaul your army. The little Patapons you start off with just aren’t going to cut it, and you’ll have to collect minerals and cash to upgrade to new units. Each unit requires two kinds of minerals and a decent price to be made. This is fine, except that you can’t buy minerals. You have to keep killing monsters until they randomly drop the resource, like pulling a slot machine lever for each killed monster. Normally, slot machine grinding isn’t a big deal in an RPG like Diablo or World of Warcraft because even if you don’t get the item, you’re still gaining experience. The difference is that you don’t level up your army in Patapon, you just get fancier gear or swap out weak units. After the third or fourth session of killing giant monsters and only having a wad of useless cash for your efforts, the process can get annoying. The game compensates for this by making it so that your units are usually resurrected if they die, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’ll get stuck at a boss you can’t defeat without doing this obnoxious grinding. You could also exchange items or make them by playing the mini-rhythm games, but in order to get the good stuff it expects you to nail it pitch perfect. The consequence of these flaws as a whole is that your play experience can stall very easily because there are no reasonable alternatives.
One of the most critical elements of a video game is not just how it plays, but how it plays for people who suck at it. Most rhythm games compensate for player deficiencies by providing a couple of different crutches for players. In Guitar Hero, you can get by if your hand-eye coordination is sharp enough to press the right buttons at the right time. In PaRappa the Rappa you can do the same. You’re never going to beat it on expert playing like that, but you can still get some fun out of these rhythm games. In Patapon, it’s you, the flashing white border (which means you’re not watching the monsters), and your capacity to stay in beat with the music indefinitely. I mentioned fever mode earlier and it’s there that that the second problem erupts: in order to beat the big bosses in this game you basically need to keep your units in fever mode the whole time. Otherwise, you won’t have the triple damage boost and won’t do enough damage to put a dent in them. Screw the beat up once and you’re back to building the combo. It’s an unforgiving play mechanic that is refreshingly challenging for some and impossible for others. An even lower difficulty setting which decreased the combo build-up count or provided more pronounced visual cues would’ve gone a long way to ameliorate this problem for players who would’ve liked the game if they could actually play it.
This complaint about the game serves to illustrate the greater flaw with rhythm games themselves: if you don’t have a natural sense of rhythm, then you’re up shit creek. It’s a barrier that’s just as bad as the dual-analog dysfunction that keeps people from enjoying the FPS. Unlike a game where generally anyone could pick it up and play it somewhat competently, the rhythm genre continues to exclude potential players. I’ve handed Patapon to hardcore gamers and casual players, with both either loving it or hating based on their own natural ability to hold a rhythm. It’s a phenomenon similar to the way some people just aren’t into Guitar Hero because they can’t hold the beat; this game, this genre, ends up excluding players. Now, making the game easy to play should not be confused with keeping the game challenging. As someone who suffers from dual-analog dysfunction, I know that sad look in someone’s eye when they can’t play a game. The quickest way for someone to not enjoy a game, for the player to not be immersed, is for them to not be able to play it. The rhythm genre may be a step closer to sucking in wider audiences to the video game scene with its musical themes, but it still isn’t for everyone.
Naturally, these caveats aren’t going to bother a large portion of the gaming population, and if you love rhythm games then you’ll love Patapon. It introduces a refreshingly parental approach to the RPG by making you the powerful protector of a childlike tribe. It uses a catchy drum beat and rhythm system for the commands while combining it brilliantly with strategic decision-making. Perhaps best of all, it unapologetically mixes these elements to create a game that can appeal to multiple ages and groups to equal effect. Some will like the cutesy Patapons, others will like the tricky boss fights. Some will enjoy a game that doesn’t turn itself into a bloodbath, and others will enjoy a strategy game that engages a different skill set beyond tactics. When a game does that, it still does more than enough.