‘Patapon’ is beautiful in its simplicity

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If you’ve skipped straight to the review box, you’re probably wondering what the heck a “rhythm/strategy” game is. “Patapon” may very well have created its own genre; there’s nothing else quite like it on any platform. The scary part? It actually works.

The one aspect of “Patapon” that most people will find captivating at first glance is the art style: 2-D in the purest sense, with clean, solid colors permeating the visuals, eerily reminiscent of the developer’s previous PSP title, “LocoRoco.”

So what’s with all these eyeball-looking creatures holding spears and swords? That’s your personal army. Players assume the role of the invisible, omnipotent force known only as the Great Mighty Patapon. The Patapon soldiers on screen are lost without a leader, and thus wait for the player’s commands before doing anything. The tale resembles some sort of fantasy based on ancient Mayan spirits, and gives off a very tribal vibe.

Believe it or not, the player must assume the role of a musician. A drummer, to be more precise. Patapons will only perform actions while the player maintains a steady beat to the music by pressing the four face buttons. A streak of successful commands puts the Patapons in Fever Mode, which enhances their capabilities in different ways, but only if players have perfect timing to the beats.

Each face button corresponds to a type of drum beat, and different combinations of beats result in different commands. For example, tapping “square, square, square, circle” in time with the beat creates the “pata, pata, pata, pon” beat, which orders your soldiers to advance forward. Watching the little guys move and hearing them chant your commands never gets old.

... And that’s about it. No items to use, no units to micromanage, no resources to gather; just focus on keeping the beat.

“Patapon” is a strategy game in the loosest sense. Players don’t control their soldiers directly, but they must anticipate the enemies’ moves in order to input the appropriate command in time and keep their Patapons alive.

Mobilizing your army is only half the game, however. The process of preparing your army before each mission involves attaching equipment to soldiers, performing musical mini-games to acquire items and using those items to create more Patapons. Each type of Patapon — spearmen, archers, horses and more — serves a unique purpose, and players can only bring along three different types per mission, so careful planning becomes essential to victory.

With such simple game play, it’s a wonder anyone would ever get stuck on a tough fight. But sometimes you lack the proper equipment and/or manpower to get through a mission, and so must return to previous missions to collect more money and resources. That’s right — grinding: an abhorrent concept usually reserved for MMO games, and something that slows down the pacing of “Patapon” to uncomfortably slow.

And make no mistake, the missions toward the end of this 9-12 hour adventure are punishingly difficult without the right equipment and units. Be prepared to beef up your army, use all of the available commands and suffer through some trial and error in order to conquer “Patapon.”

Fortunately, the game is fun and charming enough that repeating the same tasks doesn’t become tiresome or repetitive. You’re a drummer, after all — it’s your job to be repetitive. Controlling an army of miniature eyeballs using music might sound like a strange concept, but the results are extraordinary. Innovative and unique games don’t come around often on the PSP, so don’t let this one slip by.

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