Patapon is an excitingly unestablished idea for video games. A rhythm-based real-time strategy game sounds ridiculous, but commanding troops with different patterns makes a lot of sense. It’s a premise that allows for both rhythm-based gameplay with player agency and strategy gameplay in which the player’s execution of commands is as important as the commands themselves. Leading an army as a deity with a set of drums is then a brilliant way of keeping this premise simple and contextualised. That simplicity, though, is one of the reasons I’d call Patapon a great idea; not a great game.
Your Patapon army is directed by patterns of four drum hits timed to an ongoing beat. Square, square, square, circle commands them to march forward, for instance. This command only lasts for the following measure, though, meaning you’ll be pounding that pattern over and over to keep moving. Reach some enemies or obstacles, and the army will need to be commanded to attack. Once you’ve also learned to defend, the gameplay becomes a matter of marching towards enemies and repeating the attack command with some defending where necessary. The likelihood of your success, then, comes down to the aptitude of your troops.
Different types of units are unlocked through the course of the game with various strengths and weaknesses to suit certain oppositions. Units can be birthed with components collected in battle, and fit out with gear acquired the same way. Buffing up your team with the best gear is really what Patapon’s about. Mission difficulties ramp up quickly, so you’ll be clambering for gear between each stage. Bosses level up each time they’re defeated, so taking on a powered-up old foe is usually the best way to land some gear. Heading to a hunting ground is a good way to collect currency and components to create new units; though once you’ve reached the maximum amount of each unit type, that’s it. Old, base-stat units cannot be swapped out for better replacements; you’re stuck with them.
For me, this meant about 80% of my time playing Patapon was grinding the levels I’d already played to be prepared enough to move forward. The game doesn’t give any indication of your army’s ability or the difficulty of missions, so the only way to know if you’re not ready for one is to play it until you fail. This is a structure that could feel rewarding to progress through with strong mechanics to lean on. Patapon doesn’t have strong mechanics to lean on.
While drumming in time is a clever way to lead an army, there isn’t a single fun thing about repeating two patterns over and over in a place you’ve walked through dozens of times, just to take one step forward. Imagine if there was a song in Guitar Hero with two notes played in two different patterns of four for its entirety. Now imagine the only way to beat each now song was to play this old one a bunch more times. Now imagine that each new song is the same as that first one, but with one extra pattern of four popping up here and there. Now imagine wasting your time on that.
Patapon certainly isn’t an outright bad game, though. It’s presented in a great, sleek aesthetic only elevated by the PS4 re-release and its charm penetrates its monotony pretty consistently. As bored and frustrated as I found myself with Patapon, I was still somehow endeared to it. If things had been structured with a little momentum and actually playing the game went a little deeper than repeating three simple inputs, the personality and style here would solidify it as a wonderful game. As it stands, though, it’s a redemptive quality of a repetitive bore.
Patapon is an excellent idea executed badly. The focus on grinding fails to create a rewarding sense of progression when it boils down to entering the same basic patterns over and over. Throw in some more commands to use in more dynamic ways and speed things up, and you’d have a fantastic game. Short of that, Patapon is a laborious grind only held up by its charming, contrasting aesthetic.