Patapon Hands-On

We spend several hours waging war with a demo version of this intriguing rhythm-based action game.

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The Patapons are a brave and noble tribe of beings who are mocked by their enemies for looking like eyeballs with limbs. They've fallen on hard times lately as well because they're useless without a god to lead them, and it's been a while since anyone has heard from "Almighty" and his war drums. Patapon for the PSP will see you assuming the role of said deity and, through the rhythm of your handheld's mighty face buttons, attempting to restore the titular tribe to its former glory and to the homeland that it was driven from by the evil Zigaton army.

Patapon's missions feature some quite varied objectives.
Patapon's missions feature some quite varied objectives.

You'll do this by playing through various missions that task you with leading your Patapon army from left to right through environments littered with all manner of obstacles and enemies. The most unique feature of Patapon is the control scheme that you'll be using to give orders to your minions. The orders at your disposal--most of which need to be unlocked as you progress through the game--include such seemingly simple instructions as "move forward," "attack," and "defend," as well as godlike powers that can influence the weather. Every command is triggered by entering a specific sequence of four or five button presses in time with the ever-present drumbeat, at which point your troops will sing the order back to you while carrying it out. Different drum sounds are mapped to each of the PSP's four face buttons; the square button is "pata," circle is "pon," triangle is "chaka," and the X button is "don," and memorizing the various commands isn't nearly as difficult as you might expect. Moving your army forward is "pata, pata, pata, pon" for example, while the order to attack is "pon, pon, pata, pon." If you give a series of orders in quick succession without missing a beat, you can trigger a "fever" combo, which makes your units more powerful for as long as you can keep the orders coming.

The Patapon units under your command all have unusual names but perform conventional military roles. The units that we've learned to command thus far include frontline melee fighters, spearmen, archers, and cavalry, and we wouldn't be at all surprised if there were still several more for us to unlock. You get to take only three types of units with you into each mission, and depending on the units you choose, you'll be permitted to have up to either three or six of each. You'll also get to customize your units by picking out weapons and armor for them, although the "optimize" option that automatically kits them out in the best gear that you have available performs its function admirably in our experience. Most of your gear will come courtesy of slain enemies, but it can also be crafted using other resources that you pick up on the battlefield throughout the course of a mission. Those same resources can also be used to resurrect fallen heroes, incidentally, and rare resources can be used to create different-colored soldiers that are more powerful than their black-and-white comrades.

Regardless of the fact that Patapon is story-driven, you'll have the freedom to revisit levels and to attempt new ones in any order that you choose once they become available. The missions offer plenty of variety, but based on our experiences thus far, each of them falls into one of three categories: hunts, in which you gather resources from wildlife; battles, in which you go up against Zigaton forces; and boss fights, which pit you against dragons, giant sandworms, and the like. The units and the strategies that you'll need to employ in each of these scenarios are quite different, and when revisiting missions, you'll often find that things have altered somewhat or that you're able to trigger changes in the levels, such as by messing with the weather to make it rain or to summon a tailwind for your archer's arrows.

You'll want to equip your army's best gear before going up against bosses like this one.
You'll want to equip your army's best gear before going up against bosses like this one.

In between missions you can spend time at the tribe's current home of Patapolis, where you'll find a number of useful characters and structures to interact with. Fallen units can be resurrected, items can be upgraded and crafted by completing five different minigames, and you'll get advice on which mission to play through next from the Patapons' chieftain.

As you've probably guessed, Patapon isn't a game that fits easily into any established genre. Its colorful LocoRoco-like appearance and seemingly simple rhythm mechanics belie a quite strategic action game that, frankly, has us hooked right now. The demo version of Patapon that we've been playing appears to be an almost-finished version of the full game with only minor localization issues (Patapon is already available in Japan) needing to be addressed before its North American and European releases next month. We look forward to bringing you more on this one soon.

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