Patapon is an example of that rare beast in the videogame industry nowadays; a genuinely innovative and charmingly designed title that simply defies categorisation on many levels. It’s an experimentation in control and design that could easily have fallen flat at the first hurdle, and yet somehow manages to break down any preconceptions that you may have about fitting a specific control scheme to any particular genre. It also serves as a hearty lesson in how to go about making an emotional connection with the end user, without defaulting to the stoic concepts of photorealism and gigabytes of spoken dialogue. It’s a rhythm-action, real-time strategy title at heart, with some incredibly deep RPG elements included in the mix. Whilst that may sound like needless complexity, it works out as quite the opposite in practice.
Your role then, is that of a God, with your subjects consisting of mischievous little circular creatures known as the Patapon. Although any semblance of a plot is largely irrelevant to the game design as a whole, the overall goal here is to return the army of creatures at your disposal to a land from which they have been summarily ousted by an opposing force (the ‘Zigaton’); crossing horizontal battlefields and singing a whole bunch of songs along the way. Each little warrior under your command needs to be pumped full of confidence via the bard-like influence of musical repetition, and it’ll be your job to bang the drum to that particular beat.
As an ethereal creature, you end up with no direct control over the army itself, so issuing commands boils down to a rather interesting mechanic. A metronomic beat ticks away constantly in the background audio, dictating the pace at which you can influence the proceedings. As an example; for one musical bar, tapping the square button three times (followed by circle), will represent the beat ‘pata-pata-pata-pon’; which tells your army to move forward. The little tykes will either mirror your chant back at you and begin to move, or offer up some sarcastic advice on exactly how to match the timing correctly. There are only six different beats that translate to six different movements, but surprisingly enough they offer up all of the control options needed for some fairly complex scenarios.
Repetition is the key to success though, and building up your army to a crescendo of activity boosts both attack speed and power. If you manage to hit ten beats in a row, the Patapon enter ‘fever mode’, in which instance they sing louder, throw objects further, and generally create a mess of any opponents or obstacles foolish enough to stand in the way. Managing to stay in this state for a protracted period of time is fairly often the key to victory.
Not that it’s quite that simple of course, and it certainly isn’t all about whacking your drum repeatedly (as I’ve often been reminded in my personal life). Each stage represents something of a rhythm-based puzzle with strategic elements, and keeping one eye on the overall picture whilst simultaneously relaxing into the beat becomes the crux of the challenge. Anticipating the movements of your enemy becomes a key skill to learn, as you’ll have to wait for a full chant to pass before being able to issue any new commands, and advancing at the precise moment of an attack from your enemy generally yields costly results.
Around the core rhythmic action lies an RPG meta-structure of sorts, with your army demanding constant resupply of crucial items like food and weaponry. These resources are littered throughout each stage, and individual weapons and armour can be given to any member of your party between battles. Groups of warriors can also be banded together into a loose formation of sorts, and choosing which squadron to deploy in each stage becomes a matter of practicality and surprisingly also one of affinity. After putting them through level after level of gruelling combat, you’ll grow strangely attached to each of the abstract ocular creatures, and it becomes a genuine frustration when any of them fall to an opponents’ attack.
Most of the emotive charm behind Parapon lies with the incredibly playful visuals and audio, which, coming from the team behind LocoRoco, is something to be expected. Clean, crisp lines are the order of the day, with an infectiously cute design ethos. Bold, striking colours stand out on top of some plain but colourful backgrounds, and some excellent animation imbues each creature with an injection of infectious personality. It isn’t as joyously bouncy as LocoRoco, but perhaps the darker edge will allow the game to open up to a wider audience this time around. It’s far away from being anything like a mature-rated title, but the complex play mechanics anchor it firmly to that group anyway.
In that respect, there really isn’t anything like this on the market at present, and it comes from a team well-versed in designing specifically for the Sony handheld. This is the type of game that really makes the PSP hardware sing (in both a literal and figurative sense), and with the repetitive nature of the design also becoming its most positive aspect, there really is little to dampen the enthusiasm as a whole. It’s a title that you’ll either love, or it’ll completely pass you by on a certain level; but for those of you that manage to match your sensibilities to the beat ingrained into the UMD, it’ll represent one of the finest moments in recent gaming history.