Review: Patapon 3
The core concepts of Patapon hold a dear place in my heart. The original game melded rhythm and strategic gameplay in such a unique way that it strongly impressed me. It’s tribal thumping bore deep into my subconscious to such a point that I found myself randomly uttering its chants under my breath, right up until the launch of Patapon 3. I was pretty excited to lead my little eyeball troops into battle again, but I find that excitement tempered with disappointment and confusion. I still love the mechanics and ideas at the heart of Patapon 3; however, the game around it has lost much of its charm and replaced it with frustration.
If you’ve never played a Patapon game before, I can’t recommend this one as an entry point into the series. Though it features the requisite tutorial levels, the game seems to assume a fair amount of familiarity with Patapon’s gameplay mechanics and doesn’t ease players into things so gently. For those unaware, the Patapon series are two-dimensional strategy games where you command eyeball-shaped warriors by hitting different drums to the beat. The four drums are represented by the four face buttons, and the game helpfully lists the various beats at the bottom of the screen. Staying on beat eventually triggers a Fever, boosting your units’ performance. These mechanics have remained the same throughout the three Patapon games, though #3 does make the timing more forgiving at first (and requires more precision when you are on a roll). Another key difference is the army at your command; it isn’t an army this time around. Rather, you command a squad of three Patapon soldiers led by an “Uberhero”, a new special unit similar to the Hero from Patapon 2. It’s nice to see a more streamlined approach, as having fewer units makes for a little less out-of-battle management, but it also raises a whole host of balance issues. Your three units can die fairly easily, exposing your flagbearer; once he falls, the battle is lost. I would have assumed the developers were going to take the smaller unit count into consideration when balancing out this game, and it appears they have not.
The lack of units might be partially responsible for my next gripe: the sudden spikes in difficulty. Battles are a weird mix of pushover challenges followed by next-to-impossible obstacles. Rather than pitting Patapons against an enemy similar to themselves with an occasional boss monster, Patapon 3 pits players almost exclusively against monsters. One is supposed to watch these monsters for their telltale attack cue and use a Defend or Retreat beat at the right moment to avoid taking damage. This is complicated by several factors: 1) the monsters’ cues have stopped being obvious, often requiring one to lose units to massively powerful attacks before the pattern can be discerned; 2) you have to time your commands to the beat, and the monsters’ patterns are often slightly off the beat, resulting in their attack catching your units just before they Defend or Retreat; 3) the monsters deal ridiculous amounts of damage, resulting in many a cheap defeat. The recommended levels for each stage mean little: even being several levels higher, and having equipment meant for characters of a higher level than that, I was still routinely being defeated by a couple stray blows. I have rarely been so infuriated by a game.
I am appreciative, however, of the inclusion of elements that make the game play more like an RPG. Your four units gain experience, even when a battle is lost, and multiple classes unlock as they progress. There are class skills, and equipment that can be levelled up at a blacksmith, all of which tickle my Dungeons & Dragons-loving bones. The game, like its two predecessors, still requires a large amount of grinding to unlock and explore these options, but at least they aren’t dependent on random item drops like the previous two Patapons. Unfortunately this also brings me to my biggest beef with Patapon 3: the Uberhero. As an in-game unit, the Uberhero is fine; however, the narrative place him as the key character in the story, removing the past two games’ tradition of speaking directly to the players as though they were gods. The Uberhero resembles a tween’s Deviantart rendition of an anime-ized Patapon, and this style is carried into the Dark Heroes who oppose the player. The conversations between these characters are legitimately terrible. A female Dark Hero smacked her crotch at my Uberhero, and it was not funny, even in an ironic sense. The whole thing smacks of a somewhat immature style choice that really brings down the overall Patapon experience. The infusion of rock riffs into the tribal tunes might be part of this, but I kind of dig the heavy guitar bleeding into the otherwise cutesy themes.
While Patapon 2 had a small online mode, Patapon 3 expands the suite to feature four player co-operative or up to eight players competitively. Accessing these options is akin to filing income tax; from trying to figure out where to access the online, to figuring out which modes do what, to trying to decipher the team card totem thing, complicate things way beyond reasonable measure. When you can actually get online with other players, the game plays just as smoothly as offline. There’s no voice chat, but the preset phrases get the job done. Each player takes their Uberhero as their character in these battles, so they are no different than what one plays in the single-player campaign. In fact, it is even possible to jump into someone’s higher-level game and spoil the later plot for oneself. This can also result in earning equipment far beyond the player’s level, which can be brought back into one’s own campaign; the loading screens encourage this behaviour. Because the focus on multiplayer is so much higher this time around, the game features an unskippable multi-page EULA that must be flipped through every time the game loads.
I’ve rated the game at three stars; this represents the strong love I have for the core of Patapon, and the goodwill earned by the predecessors to this third instalment. It also represents the new elements I did enjoy, such as the RPG aspects and the guitar tracks. Fans of the Patapon franchise might still love this game simply for being more Patapon. I, however, will bang the drum no longer. I really want to love this game, but it abuses me so.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes. For more info on our review policy click here. This review is for the PlayStation Portable version of the game.
What I Like:
- Rhythm-based RTS mechanic.
- More RPG-like features.
- Tribal theme mixed with new rock influence.
What I Dislike:
- Unexpected difficulty spikes.
- Labyrinthine multiplayer options.
- Leading a squad rather than an army.
- "Immature" stylistic choices.