Patapon 2 (PSP)
A common joke made at the expense of traditional role-playing games is that you only do one thing when playing them: Press the "X" button. Patapon, Sony's quirky PSP role-player from just a year ago, found a way to make mashing that same button over and over again a little more interesting. The trick was a clever one: Rather than simply choose an action, like attack or defend, the player taps out a rhythm in time with the game's tempo. Patapon made every command into a musical mini-game, transforming battles from turn-based slogs to fights with a genuine pulse.
On the surface, Patapon and its new sequel Patapon 2 seem like wildly unconventional games. Their reliance on music and their quirky visuals (from the pen of French artist Rolito) put up a good front. But there's a serious, strategic role-playing game beneath this offbeat surface -- one with deep customization, a high level of challenge and a brazen reluctance to hold the player's hand.
So don't be fooled. Patapon 2 is hard. It's almost like the game's difficulty is an act of direct opposition to its aesthetic. Sure, the army the player commands is a legion of eyeballs wielding swords, axes and spears -- way too cute to feel fearsome. And the music they sing is much catchier and more upbeat than you'd expect to hear from squadrons of elite warriors. Yet the fact remains: Patapon 2 is a difficult, occasionally obtuse role-playing game -- one that demands that players engage and immerse themselves in its intricacies. Truly, Patapon 2 is a game where simply pressing "X" just isn't going to cut it.
The last game I played that made me feel quite this disarmed was Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, the PSP re-release of Square Enix's 1998 game for the PlayStation. It was hours into the game that I encountered my first really hard fight -- one that I failed over and over again. And I quickly grew appalled at the notion that I'd have to grind through old levels to strengthen my team and defeat my enemy.
There are similar brick walls in Patapon 2 -- moments when the opposition is so formidable that your army stands no chance. The only recourse is to turn back, lick your wounds, and gear up for a future showdown. Where Final Fantasy Tactics failed to inspire me to persevere, Patapon 2 has, somehow, steeled my reserve. The game has taught me yet another way to love the grind -- because in Patapon 2 (like its predecessor), the places you re-conquer change perceptibly when you revisit them. The monsters you attack get more difficult to kill. Depending on the weather, rare creatures may turn up. And, most importantly, there's always new loot to be found.
Here, arguably, is where the real game inside Patapon 2 is found. Those musical battles may feel, at first, like the be-all and end-all of the action. But they're just where the numbers are put to the test. That's the nuance that I failed to understand about Final Fantasy Tactics -- that the fun of the game isn't necessarily in whacking your opponent on the head with a sword. It's in massaging the game's job system until your fighter has an arm that's strong enough to lift and swing a sword effectively.
In Patapon 2, that means futzing with the game's new evolution system -- a branching tree of upgrades that allows you to spend loot to upgrade and transform your fighters, granting them new powers, resistances and other useful battleground buffs. Patapon 2 is stingy with the goods needed to effectively tweak and train your army. Each unit is trained and outfitted individually; and leveling each of them up is costly -- requiring a good amount of hunting, raiding or musical mini-game mastering in order to pay for these changes.
In earlier days I might have groused about such repetitive tasks. I may have even called such an undertaking tedious. Patapon 2 has helped me changed my tune and learn that mysteries, intricacies and difficulties aren't getting in the way of my fun. They are the fun.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.