What exactly goes into a great handheld game? A bit of everything. Patapon combines little pieces of gameplay from very different genres: rhythm-action, strategy, and role-playing. What emerges is a game that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Entirely original and brimming with charm, it's an accessible experience that boasts a surprising amount of depth. Patapon is, to be sure, a great game.
The adventure calls upon you to lead the one-eyed members of the Patapon tribe to the fabled paradise of Earth-end. Evil Zigoton warriors have driven the adorable creatures from their ancestral habitat and only by following your rhythmic commands can they force back their oppressors.
You don't have to touch a single button to fall in love with the game. Patapon presents an impossibly stylish two-dimensional world of green forests, wild plains, and scorching deserts that is like nothing else on any other platform.
The crazy forms of wildlife that populate these habitats range from giant enemy crabs, to hordes of crimson Zigoton soldiers, to the unbearably cute Patapon people under your charge. Darling sound effects and musical beats add to the delight. The resulting mix is so irresistible that you can't help but want to lovingly squeeze your PSP to bits.
There aren't a lot of opportunities to cuddle, though, as your hands are needed to beat out rhythmic orders to your troops. Since you don't have direct control, guiding your warriors through the side-scrolling stages involves musical commands drummed out via the face buttons.
Each of the buttons correspond to a specific sound: Square sounds off "pata", Circle "pon", Triangle is "chaka", and X equals "don". Issuing a command requires hitting a specific four-beat combination. So moving, for example, is done by tapping Square-Square-Square-Circle ("pata-pata-pata-pon"). Other actions include attacking ("pon-pon-pata-pon"), guarding ("chaka-chaka-pata-pon"), and magic ("don-don, don-don, don").
Orders work on a call-and-response system. Tap out a command, hold for a measure to let the units respond, then enter the next button combination. Succeed in keeping with the beat through the course of multiple commands and you hit fever mode. Faster movement and added attack power while in this status encourage you to stay in rhythm as long as possible.
This isn't difficult provided you listen to the music and refer to the flashing border surrounding the edge of the screen for a visual indication of the beat. In fact, Patapon is quite forgiving when you're not exactly on rhythm. As long as you've got the general cadence down, your units respond. The game does get picky during fever mode, but on the whole there's enough leeway to make it fair.
Before jamming with your Patapon pals, you have to organise them strategically into squads for battle. Up to three squads can be taken into a stage, each comprised of three individual units. Each unit type carries a different type of attack, as well as specific strengths and weaknesses. Spear-wielding Yaripons, for instance, are great for hunting down animals, whereas Tatepon fighters focus on melee attacks.
How you arrange your squads greatly influences your performance during a mission. Taking a group of Yumipon archers into a battle against melee monsters, for instance, won't work. Patapon forces you to think carefully before rushing into combat, encouraging you to figure out the best units for each situation. The strategies involved lend just enough depth to the game without it being too heavy-handed.
A bit of role-playing enters the mix as well, with customisable weapons and armour for your units. Items dropped by fallen foes can be equipped on your warriors before heading out to war. Against some of the tougher enemies and bosses, the added bonuses afforded by such equipment make all the difference between winning and losing.
What's particularly pleasing about Patapon is that you're not likely to blast through it in a single sitting. Unlike the PSP's other innovative exclusive (and Patapon's spiritual sibling), LocoRoco, this is a game with many hours' worth of gameplay. That's not a criticism of the latter, which we adore, but for those that might be wondering, more than 30 stages here – some of which are worth returning to for new challenges – ensure you'll get your money's worth.
There's something here for everyone, whether it's the accessibility of the game's rhythmic play or depth of strategy and customisation. Patapon is arguably more groundbreaking than any other title to have hit PSP yet and without a doubt the year's first must-have game.