Patapon A Pedestal?
I never had a PSP or Vita or whatever handheld Sony were sending out to die at the time Patapon was a thing. So having never entered the world of the Patapon before, I was vaguely aware of the franchise being held in some high regard. Of course, having never played any of the games before doesn’t bode well for the review of a remaster but look, no one else was available and you know what it’s like here at NGB.
A favourite of Greg Miller, a man who looks like every game journalist rolled into one, Patapon 2 is on the contrary something quite unique. It’s somewhere between a tactical warfare experience and a rhythm game, via Monsters Inc. As an almighty deity, you control a growing squad of soldiers that all look a bit like Mike Wazowski by the medium of beating out rhythms on a drum. These inputs are hammered out on your console’s controller, so this is sadly not an opportunity to dust off the Donkey Konga bongos. A missed trick if ever there was one, competing companies be damned.
Shipwrecked while searching for Earthend (which does raise the question of whether these eyeballs with legs are flat-earthers), you must explore new lands by fighting and hunting your way through the unsuspecting and seemingly innocent natives. The army does your bidding by way of responding to commands on your drums, which must be played in time to the ‘earth’s natural rhythm’ (around 90bpm, tempo fans). These mainly revolve around rhythmic taps of the square and circle buttons, with a cheeky bit of triangle thrown in for some defence rhythms and occasional use of the x button to summon miracles, such as changes in the weather. The focus on the square and circle inputs for basic commands makes getting into the game accessible and easy, while the introduction of more combos down the line presents a learning curve that is perhaps a little slow once you’ve got the initial commands down.
If you hit the drums right on the beat and in time with the rhythm of the earth, you get a stronger response from your units to whichever aural command you’re issuing, and if you hit all four inputs on the right beat you get a cheeky little extra ‘ting’ noise. There’s a snake in the top left corner for some reason that turns red when you get a bunch of commands nailed in a row, and when this fever state kicks in this unlocks more abilities. Keeping this euphoric fever state going is part of the challenge, getting into a flow state and anticipating which command you’ll need next and I found myself getting into the groove quickly, only to feel like a pretty lame demi-god when I messed it up.
There’s plenty of originality and character here, and this is one of the title’s main strengths. You’ll be commanding the cutest army of walking eyeballs, and you’re also treated to some special soundbites as your boys attack enemies, the favourite of which is “Spank them bottoms”. What’s less adorable is that seemingly very little has been done to update the dog-rough menus and presentation. The translation is full of spelling errors, even over a decade on, and the styling is downright nasty in places. The overall look and presentation are painfully cheap, and it’s not the best introduction to the experience.
Thankfully, things get a little better when you’re in the flow. Your little Mikes march from left to right under your command through a variety of landscapes including forest. desert, swamps and all the other usual videogame staples. These are split into different types of mission, such as hunting or battles, which you can see from the central hub area. The sprites are mostly silhouettes, which provides a striking image against the backgrounds. The whole thing is generally adorable, with environs populated by rounded, big-eyed characters who could be painted on a creche wall. The sounds, as you’d expect as its really the focus here, are also pretty great. When you input your first few commands of the level, your Patapon (I’m fairly sure that’s the plural but I wouldn’t bet money on it) will chant the rhythm back to you with the sort of enthusiasm you’d expect from a service station cashier at 3am. As your hot rhythm streak increases, the chanting grows to an addictive and mesmerising crescendo to raise the intensity.
Patapon 2 has a few additions that, while nothing new in the grand sphere of videogames, aren’t something I’d associate with a rhythm game. Items you gather during hunting missions can be thrown together Frankestein-style to create more units, which raises some serious concerns about how the Patapon came to be in the first place and their reproduction as a species. You can upgrade your units using a familiar-looking skill tree, again advanced using items picked up, to buff them against certain types of damage. Before deploying said troops, you can also choose to remove certain units from battle, tool them up further or just quick-equip them with the best gear you have to hand, a nice short-hand to get everyone kitted out without having to faff about too much.
The hunting is a good example of what makes this more than a throwaway portable title, as you take down the cartoony beasts to harvest their organs and bones to create more soldiers. The wind on each level can change direction, and you’ll find it much harder to sneak up on an unsuspecting prey from downwind than if you time your attack. Also, some types of units smell worse than others, so having these at the front of your squad will scare off prey quicker. This is never explained.
I did nearly fall out with Patapon 2 at one point; a boss encounter featured a big bad that was invincible, but eliminating his cronies would trigger a cut-scene to move things along. However, the final crony stood outside of the range of my archers, with my Patapon unable to get nearer. I didn’t know this at the time, and just thought the enemy was a bullet sponge, spending around twenty minutes vainly pumping arrows into an invincible enemy. This upset me. This upset me greatly. This is sort of indicative of a problem with Patapon 2, as potential attacks are limited. Without enemy health bars, it can often leave you wondering if you’re doing any proper damage. There’s clicker-esque numbers bouncing off damaged areas, but with no context it’s hard to gauge what’s happening.