You’ll know in the first few minutes exactly what Patapon has going for it. There’s the goofy premise, which casts you as the tribal god Patapon, lord of a band of creatures called, imaginatively enough, Patapons — little savages that are basically eyeballs with arms and legs. Then there’s the visual style: Most of the game’s figures appear as stark silhouettes against colorful backgrounds, something like a Lotte Reiniger film.
Your Patapons begin the game desperate to march to “Earthend,” where they can gaze reverently upon an object that’s cryptically referred to as “IT.” Alas, a rival tribe — the Zigotons — occupies the space between Patapolis and the Patapon Promised Land.
(Zigotons, your little Patapons explain, are evil, nasty not-our-tribers — not to mention they’re a different color, and their eyes a slightly different shape. At this point, college kids are excused to their dorm rooms to discuss the game’s penetrating socio-geopolitical commentary and get stoned.)
This is where your divine assistance comes in. As the Patapon prime mover, you direct your horde with funky tribal beats, pounded out on some sort of celestial drum kit — one drumbeat means March!, another means Defend!, and yet another means Slaughter those unclean Zigoton infidels! Tap these commands to the rhythm precisely, and your Patapons will be nigh unstoppable; screw up, and they’ll stand around cooking up designs for a golden calf.
Unfortunately, the Patapons you begin with are too few and too puny for the task of Manifest Destiny, which brings you to another divine duty: creating new devotees. Patapons are born in a suitably primitive-magic sort of way: Bury meat, sticks, and shiny rocks (money) under a holy tree, and a new Patapon springs to life.
Sorta. The raw materials of meat and sticks are relatively easy to come by in the land of Patapon, but money is scarce. That means that, as the Zigotons thin out the laity, you will likely lack the cash to make new or better Patapons.
This forces you to replay older, easier missions over and over to save some dough. It is what’s known in gamer-speak as “grinding,” and it’s also the point at which Patapon’s tribal beats go from catchy to mind-numbingly annoying. Long before you get to Earthend, you’ll be toe-tapping the march chant PATA-PATA-PATA-PON! in your sleep, like a mental patient off his meds.
It might be hyperbole to call the game flat-out repetitive and boring, but it wouldn’t be blasphemy. There are only a handful of drumbeats to learn, and two in particular — march and attack — are the biggies. So you’ll devote your attention to banging them out exactly in time, over and over again, often while replaying a familiar level many times over for extra cash.
Clever and unique do count for something. And for a while, Patapon is an enjoyable new spin on the rhythm-game genre, but in the long run, it’s mostly disposable.
Now, a PlayStation 3 sequel that kills the grinding, adds some new beats, and includes support for Rock Band’s drum kit? That would be a game to sacrifice some virgins to.