Few debuts on Sony’s PlayStation Portable were as instantly arresting as Patapon. Sandwiched in the middle of their 2007 E3 montage, the teaser was short on context but high on appeal. Its 2D presentation was entirely unique while its gameplay, as we would soon discover, was a concept all its own. Patapon was a rhythm/action game where the player controlled a tribe of warriors by inputting short button sequences that not only had to correspond with commands, but also blend into the beat of the music. Upon release it was one of the most legitimately innovative titles of the current generation, and nearly four years later there still isn’t much else like it.
Except, of course, more Patapons. The problem with success is it often results in demand for a sequel while completely ignoring whether or not one was needed. Katamari Damacy has struggled to innovate upon its basic concept while Bioshock 2’s narrative contributions were looked upon as wholly unnecessary. They’re still great games, but purveying sense of familiarity pulsing through every vein didn’t have the punch of their prequel’s arresting (there’s that word again) debuts. Patapon 3’s fate isn’t too different.
The basic formula remains the same. Input commands for your tribe by performing a series of different button sequences. “Pata,” “Pon,” “Don,” and “Chaka” and their respective combinations become engraved in your mind as you strategically use them to attack, proceed, retreat, jump, and a host of other commands (including, finally, pause). It definitely takes some getting used to, especially for newcomers, but Patapon 3’s simultaneous strength and weakness is the excessive grind one must endure to effectively advance in the game. On one hand plowing through a few of the same levels over and over again creates an instinctive appreciation of the game’s finer mechanics – one that couldn’t be achieved through many other means – but, on the other, holy damn can Patapon 3 be an incredible grind. Finding a balance between repetition and progression was an Achilles’ heel of the previous two games, and unfortunately the third is hampered by the same issue. The new systems, which we’ll get to shortly, are neat, but I don’t think they’ll be enough to push a new player past the wall they are inevitably bound to slam into.
Patapon 3 is intense. A lot of games, especially handhelds, can be sort of passively engaged where you can listen to music or hold a conversation while your brain autopilots the action on screen. Patapon 3, not unlike its two prequels, is unique in that it requires the player’s complete attention. While I was playing I had to shut everything else off in my mind; my television, girlfriend, or pizza burning in the oven all became secondary to effectively managing my tribe. I even started to notice I was bopping my head or swinging my foot to the beat in order to keep up with the rhythm. It was almost like watching someone drum in Rock Band (or in a real band, I suppose) where some additional physical action was required for a stellar performance. That sort of immersion doesn’t come cheap and, while it may be an annoyance for those who don’t value a high sync ratio with their games, it stands out as one of Patapon 3’s more unique assets. Patapon is at its highest when it’s doing what it does best, and unfortunately the new systems layered into Patapon 3 drop off, rather than extend, that particular plateau.
Change arrives with your considerably streamlined tribe. Rather than saddle the player with a plethora of disposable Patapons, a precious handful of three are permanently allotted under the command of a player-controlled (well, sort of) superhero Patapon. A fourth takes the role of the flag-bearing Hatapon. It’s a neat way to stay in line with the series’ playful fiction, but the Hatapon’s effect on gameplay is somewhat offensive. Almost a wildcard, if he falls in battle, through your lack of oversight or a random accident, its game over for the mission. This can be incredibly demoralizing, as there are few bummers as significant as kicking the crap out of a mission you’ve been grinding for only to fall at the hands of a seemingly random event. Patapon 3 was already a hard game for newcomers and fans alike, and I can’t imagine Hatapon’s presense doing anything but dissuading players from engaging Patapon 3 beyond their first ruined mission. It’s all a bit baffling.
Patapon 3 delivers options like Sonic delivers speed; it’s in great supply even if you’re not sure what it’s for or where it’s going. Weapons and other accessories can be leveled up at the blacksmith, and their corresponding skills can branch out for further customization. Ditto for each Patapon’s particular class, which is so specific that each of the 20+ classes for all four Patapons can be leveled up individually. On one hand granting the player that sort of customization is conceptually enticing and a real treat for those who exhausted Patapon 1 and 2. On the other hand the game seems especially terrible at laying out most of its finer intricacies, tossing out random explanations at loading screens at nowhere else.
Honestly there’s so much going on with stats, abilities, loot, and numbers that it left me at a loss. Patapon 3 doesn’t seem interested in explaining much of it, which, at least in my case, defaulted my position to trial and error or aimless grinding rather than actually figuring out what was going on. Tweaking numbers, collecting loot, and trying to find the best class combination for each particular challenge might have seemed great on paper, but its gets in the way of Patapon 3’s appeal; every second spent buried in a menu is time wasted. One could argue that Patapon 3 would have been an awfully short game it eased up on revisions to its system, but maybe it would have been a case where less was actually more.
Multiplayer is another area that has seen significant refinement. Introduced in limited ad-hoc quantities with Patapon 2, its concept has expanded and reach extended with full online infrastructure. Your superhero can join other superheroes online and, in theory, work together to tackle challenges and build levels for your superhero to take back into your solo adventure. I tried to do my homework with this, given the PSP’s lack of voice chat and other user-friendly amenities the system in place does the best it can, but the fact of the matter is that I couldn’t find anyone to play with. Gathering three other players nearly happened once but then one quit out and crashed the game before we could finish a level. In theory if you could wrangle some of your real life friends (or an online community) to play it with you Patapon 3 could be fantastic, but the infrastructure for random parties isn’t built to last.
One aspect that remains immune to criticism, in fact one that three games deep I still simply can’t get enough of, is Patapon 3’s art direction. It’s like a crazy person went nuts with construction paper, sprinkled it with magic to animate it, and then set it loose on an island for a few generations and let it evolve into a world all its own. It walks a perfect line between wholly organic and improbable and fantastic. Nothing looks like Patapon and nothing sounds like Patapon; consistently nailing the input and hearing the accompanying symbol rush yields a sense of satisfaction on par with some of the biggest highs in gaming. Mashing that march to the rhythm of the beat is insanely addictive and creates an experience few other games even strive to obtain. There’s one problem; this has all been done before.
And a final squabble that seems picky but eventually grated my nerves was the ridiculous boot sequence. You have to mash X or start no less than twenty times before you can actually start playing Patapon 3. Notifying the player of an auto save along with flipping through an online user agreement was somehow necessary every time one starts the game, as was trying to get out of the opening movie and loading a save. Again, I know this seems silly but load Patapon 3 nine or ten times and try and figure out why anyone thought that was a good idea.