Release Date: February 26, 2008
If I mention Katamari Damacy to you now, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about, but it wasn't always that way. Released for only $20, Katamari Damacy was a rather obscure title that seemed destined to be overlooked for its combination of strange gameplay, unusual art style and bizarre title. It was only through word of mouth and Internet hype that it propelled itself into unexpected success. Of course, all of this would have been worthless if Katamari Damacy hadn't been one of the most imaginative and appealing games of the last generation. In many ways, Patapon echoes Katamari Damacy. It's basically unknown, has an unusual art style, strange gameplay, a bizarre title, and costs only $20. It also has something else in common with Katamari Damacy: It's one of the most creative and charming games to come out in a long time.
Patapon places players into the role of the long-forgotten deity of the Patapon tribe. Patapons are best described as "eyeballs with limbs" and are on the verge of extinction. Forced into a tiny sliver of land by their rival Zigaton tribe, besieged by beasts and monsters, and left without any sort of guiding force, the Patapons are about to meet their end. It is only the desperate prayer of one Patapon and his magic drum that awakens the forgotten deity. Now that the deity is back, it is his job to revive the Patapons and lead them to their promised land to find the mysterious "It," the most sacred object in Patapon lore. The fate of the Patapon tribe is in your hands, and only you can lead them to victory of the Zigatons and to the greatness of It.
The best way to describe Patapon is half-rhythm game, half-real-time strategy. Set in a 2-D world, it is your goal to move your Patapon army across the stage, conquering any obstacle in your path in order to succeed. However, commands in Patapon are not given through any sort of mouse pointer or interface. Instead, orders are given to your Patapon via the four face buttons on the d-pad, each of which corresponds to a particular drum beat. Different combinations of drum beats issue different commands, such as "charge," "defend" and "retreat." However, it isn't just enough to pound wildly on the buttons. You have to "drum" to the background beat, keeping in time to the music, in order to keep the Patapons from getting confused. It's important to stay in time with the beat to keep your Patapons comfortable, but the longer you can keep an unbroken chain of beats going, the higher the combo that you create. Create a high enough combo, and your Patapons enter a Fever mode.
Fever mode is by far the most important ability in your Patapon arsenal. Once they reach it, each Patapon undergoes a transformation. Shield-bearing Tatepons trade their small shields for giant ones, arrow-firing Yumipons begin launching super volleys of arrows, and Megapons gain special new attacks. However, the most important element of the Fever mode is that it gives you, the player, the ability to perform miracles. Once in Fever mode, you can activate a special command to activate one of a number of different weather-based miracles. These miracles can both be used to disable enemies and pass by environmental hazards, such as using the Rain miracle to douse the scorching heat of a desert. However, Fever mode requires constant effort to keep up. One error, and you break the chain, reverting your Patapons to their regular state and removing your ability to perform miracles. This can be a potentially deadly fate if it happens in the middle of an area where the Patapons are only being kept alive by your miracle's power.
There are a number of different stage types in Patapon. Regular stages take the Patapon on quests through new areas to either battle their rival Zigatons or simply to discover new areas and hunting grounds. Each of these areas generally has some sort of objective to complete, and they're the primary way to get new weapons and Patapon types. Once you finish a regular stage, they can't be replayed, so make the most of your visit to these stages, or end up using cruddy weapons and inferior Patapons.
Boss levels are epic fights against the nastiest creatures the Patapon world has to offer — giant enemies that take up the screen and require specific tactics and careful strategies to defeat. Even then, they may slaughter half of your Patapons before you can pull off a victory. Once you beat a boss, you can refight it in a new and more difficult form to earn special materials and ka-ching (the cash of the Patapon world), or simply to test your army.
Hunting stages are populated by harmless animals and are the closest thing the Patapons have to safety. In these stages, your goal is to simply hunt as many of the animals as possible before they escape in order to get valuable ka-ching or materials. Of course, sometimes these stages hold various other secrets as well, such as the path to new miracles or simply hidden bonus stashes. There are roughly 30 or so stages in the game, not including the various rankings of boss fights and replayable hunting stages, but don't fear the short length. Patapon is short enough to avoid getting repetitive, but it's also long enough to be fun, and the gameplay is addictive enough that you'll want to come back and replay it time and time again.
There are actually a number of different kinds of Patapon that can become members of your army: spear-wielding Yaripons, archer Yumipons and even bizarre bard-like Megapons. Each Patapon has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Yaripons are great for hunting but weak in combat, Tatepons offer unstoppable defense but terrible hunting abilities, and Megapons are either the strongest or most worthless 'pon in the game, depending on their equipment and type. It's crucial to learn the strengths and weaknesses of Patapon since you can only bring three types into any level. Bring nothing but combat 'pons into a hunting level, and you'll come back empty-handed, and Yaripons will find themselves being slaughtered by bosses. You'll probably end up building favorite groups for some of the game's more free levels, so don't worry about being shoehorned into a "winning build" for every stage in the game.
The Patapons' abilities can be further changed or amplified at the home base. Weapons and armor that you find during the course of your adventures can be equipped on the Patapons to increase their combat abilities. Hammers, spears, swords and other weapons can boost strength or attack speed; shields with various attributes can be equipped to make your Tatepons defend better against specific attacks; and armor can be used to give your Patapons lasting strength.
However, the most valuable thing you can do at the home base is create new kinds of Patapon. You can actually use rare materials to change what sort of Patapon you get. While the basic "jobs" of your Patapon remain the same no matter what, the materials used can influence exactly in which area those Patapon are strong or weak. A Tatepon, for example, is your basic defensive unit. However, create a Tatepon with a better ore, and you may find yourself with a Gekolos-Tatepon, which is both strong against fire and gains a small attack boost. Other Patapons may be faster, have better defense, or, in the case of certain rare materials, just become pure powerhouses that can't be stopped. It's surprisingly addictive to try to create a mix of Patapon that can work in any situation, and most gamers will probably find themselves spending quite a bit of time creating their ideal Patapon army.
Besides creating new Patapon, your home base also houses a number of rhythm-based minigames. These minigames are fairly simplistic, and generally involve sacrificing some sort of material to one of the objects near your Patapon's base and playing a short song-based game with them. In exchange, you can get valuable new resources for your army. Of course, like so much else in Patapon, the quality of your items is directly connected to your rhythm. If you play a poor beat, you'll get poor items, and if you rock out, you'll get some of the most useful stuff in the game. While these minigames can get a bit repetitive, they also serve as a nice break from the regular Patapon gameplay, and as a fantastic way to earn new and better material for your Patapons.
Patapon is the sort of game that is easy to gush over. It is charming and enjoyable on almost every level, but that isn't to say that it is flawless. There is a slightly unfortunate money grinding aspect to the title that interrupts the otherwise enjoyable flow of gameplay. The valuable ka-ching and items that you need to create new Patapons are in fairly short supply through the main game, and the primary way to get these items is to play the hunting levels. A lot. While you can generally earn your way through most of the game with clever tactics and solid rhythm, there will come inevitable times when your army's strength needs to be reinforced, and that means hunting for ka-ching. The problem is that the hunting levels are among the least interesting in the game, and they are generally straightforward rushes with the same units to kill the same foes over and over again. The levels never get any more challenging and feel more like work than fun. Thankfully, the rest of Patapon's levels are enjoyable enough that the occasional grind for cash doesn't feel too frustrating, but it is the weakest element of an otherwise enjoyable title.
Patapon's largest problem is that it is one of the least portable handheld games I've ever played. Having to play to the rhythm is nearly impossible while one is on the move. Even with a good set of headphones, the conditions just don't allow you to play Patapon to its full extent. Anything from the rumbling of a bus or train to the background noise from normal conversation to the glare of sunlight can completely throw you off balance. Since Patapon's rhythmic timing is so precise, particularly on the miracles, even a brief off-balance moment can be the difference between victory and a whole lot of dead Patapons. There certainly isn't enough to detract from the fun of the game when you're playing it under optimal conditions, but Patapon is not a game to purchase for mobile gaming.
Patapon's art and music blend together into something that can only be described as charming. The graphics are simplistic, an unusual silhouette-based art style that is simultaneously adorable and sort of creepy. The Patapons themselves are so adorable that you'll want to do your best to keep them alive not just because you want to win, but because seeing those hardworking eyeballs getting killed just breaks your heart. The way the Patapons interact with the music is surprisingly effective. Every beat of your drum causes them to dance and sway and even sing along to particularly good rhythms, and you can't help but crack a smile as the unflappable Patapons sing and dance their way through every obstacle in their path. The music is simplistic enough to drum along with, yet catchy enough that it never gets annoying or tiresome to hear the same beats over and over again. If anything, it becomes rather addictive, and gamers might find themselves humming along with their onscreen Patapons without even realizing it. Everything in the game, from the landscapes to the enemies, simply vibrates with life. There may be titles with more realistic or more fantastic graphics than Patapon, but rarely does a video game feel as alive as Patapon does.
Patapon, much likes its spiritual brothers Katamari Damacy and Loco Roco, isn't going to appeal to everyone. It's strange, quirky, and unlike any other game on the market. It's also incredibly fun. The unusual mix of rhythm and strategy gameplay blends together surprisingly well, and it isn't strange to look up from a session of Patapon only to realize that you've lost a few hours when you only intended to play for five minutes. It isn't a flawless game, and the slight focus on grinding up your Patapons and sometimes difficult-to-understand objectives may turn off some gamers, but if you actually find yourself enjoying Patapon, those will be incredibly minor issues. At the surprising budget price of only $20, Patapon is the sort of game that all PSP owners owe it to themselves to at least try.
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