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Patapon: Pata-Pata-Pata-Pon!!

There's bound to be some confusion between the highly graphic style of Patapon and Loco Roco that we can clear up right now. The PlayStation Blog posted a feature on Patapon back in December pointing out that while both games fly the Japan Studio flag, Patapon was developed by Pyramid while Loco Roco actually was developed by Japan Studio under the direction of Tsutomo Kouno. The visual design for Patapon is very distinctive and comes from ROLITO, who was not associated with Loco Roco, so far as we know. The style may seem similar but ROLITO actually has a much more abstract approach. The most important common thread between the two games is the music. Kenmei Adachi was behind the score for both games and gamers familiar with Loco Roco know that the tunes were unbelievably catchy and the sound effects were equally memorable. Imagine if the sound and music were more than just a cool backdrop for the action and you're close to understanding why Patapon is going to take the world by storm.

Patapon could be filed under the "rhythm game" heading without causing too much stir since the gameplay stems from successfully tapping out musical sequences on your PSP. The problem with most rhythm games in my opinion is that they have never been able to break down what I think of as a visual wall. Any scene in a rhythm game is invariably funny and cool to watch, but you can never devote your attention to anything but the onslaught of button commands sliding across the screen. Everyone has just come to accept this as a feature of the whole rhythm-game genre. Patapon throws all that convention out the door and frees the rhythm game from its design shackles. Instead of matching rhythms, this game is about creating rhythms. Your characters don't have a programmed set of actions that they perform if and only if you nail the correct sequence of buttons. This game is all about you playing a god and helping out a Patapon coalition of the willing as they fight for their survival in a bloodthirsty world.

Not to take away from the creators of the game, but if you'd simply taken something like Parappa The Rapper and combined it with Pikmin, you'd have created Patapon years and years ago. The latter reference point was a game that involved taking an army of small creatures and directing them toward various goals that would ensure their survival. You could only influence the little guys so much, rather than overtly placing them somewhere on the screen and taking control. This created some really creative and interesting gameplay. The former example is the classic rhythm-game example. Both games have been replicated or honored in imitation, but not until now has someone found a way to fuse the rhythm-game mechanic with a more open, player-directed environment. The ideas in Patapon are deceptively simple, but if the game finds its audience, everyone will realize how much depth and craft it contains. The best part is that the formula for Patapon lends itself to all kinds of new game types, including multiplayer and online variants we can only dream about for the future.

The basic gameplay idea behind Patapon is that you control a series of drums and in turn can use the drums to motivate small armies of characters drawn from a Patapon tribe. This tribe recognizes you as some kind of god, calling you Almighty and bestowing upon you a mission to help strike down enemies of the Patapon race. You'll find that your role in tribe includes creating some resources that can then be used to give birth to mighty soldiers that will march in step to your drum beats. You'll hunt for other resources and after creating the ultimate fighting force, you'll equip your troops and lead them into battle. The rhythm gameplay is done through repetition - you'll listen to a beat and then perform that beat using one or more button on the PSP. There are contained imitation segments, usually in the village, that you'll use to produce special items. After you move to a battle or a hunt, you'll use certain combinations of beats to make the Patapon army perform specific actions. One pattern will produce an attack, while another puts your force in defense mode. Other special beats will produce special effects that can turn the tide of battle, like wind or rain storms.

At first, it is hard to understand how all this will string together in a way that makes for fun gameplay. After you get used to beating out drum beats in rhythm, you'll find yourself sinking into the music, listening to make sure you are keeping good time, while watching the action to make sure you are beating out the appropriate messages to your troops. Think of it like a real-time strategy, war-game, rhythm-game combination and you're getting very close. The action becomes intense quickly and you'll find yourself going back to the drawing board to build up your army after a big battle; in the most heated battles, you'll have moments where a Patapon doesn't make it home... Gathering resources allows you to rebuild your army and stock your troops with bigger and better weapons. The potential for this game to take the world by storm is very high, but it will depend on how much impact the abstract style of Patapon has with gamers. On shelves packed with name-brand characters, it can sometimes be hard for a "new kid on the block" to be noticed. After toying with an awesome preview of the Patapon world, we're hoping like hell that this game does find a well-deserved audience when it hits shelves next month.

-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock
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