I bought Patapon at launch, played for a week straight, and got to the third boss, a giant sandworm. After countless failed attempts, I put the game away for over a year, until Patapon 2 was released in 2009. Naturally, I could have just skipped to the sequel, especially considering the attractiveness of its new difficulty settings, until I learned that you can import some materials from the original. I finally learned just how to “play” Patapon, and suffice to say that the game is not only original, but highly deceptive.
If you are to succeed at this game, and by succeed I mean “win at all costs” rather than “handily”, you will need the following:
– A sense of rhythm that doesn’t falter under pressure. This is necessary not only to execute any commands, but also to keep your troops in Fever mode, in which their effectiveness increases dramatically. In fact, Fever is so important that attacking and defending without is almost pointless. Of course, those without a natural sense of rhythm are going to have a hell of a time right off the bat.
– Ability to successfully complete hunting stages, and the patience to play them multiple times. This is crucial because hunting is the easiest way to earn the money and materials needed to make new and better troops. No matter how good you become at controlling them, you are going to make mistakes, and as I learned when I finally beat that sand worm, those mistakes hurt less when you have six of every unit instead of three.
– More patience in order to complete the minigames. Early on you get access to Pan the Pakopon, who will help you play the first and simplest minigame. Pan is a filthy liar, claiming that by giving him pieces of meat, he will help you get tree branches needed for building units. What he doesn’t tell you is that you will get a branch or two in the midst of half a dozen useless tree leaves, and that the minigame will also reward you with stones, which is the other essential pieces of building material. If you want to actually build some units, you go on hunts to earn money and meat, save some of the meat, and use the rest to play with Pan. Considering the minigame never changes, this is incredibly boring, and yet far more necessary than the game ever lets on.
– Willingness to crunch numbers and micromanage. Patapons often have a tradeoff between attack power and attack speed, both of which are critical. If you create a “tank” unit with high attack and defense and slow speed, and don’t have others like him around, he will lag at the back of the line and become ineffective. Armies have to be carefully balanced until you are rich enough to make one of every type. It is also not prudent to replace all your standard Patapons with more powerful (and colored) Rarepons, since only standard white Patapons can equip helms, which can outclass a Rarepon with stat bonuses. Of course, to know this, you need to have a varied inventory, which all boils down to how willing you are to refight bosses for their random item drops.
– Willingness to read the information found in the instruction book and patience to wait for the rest or enjoy the game by the seat of your pants. Did you know that you can get the same type of Rarepon from different item combinations? Do you know the difference between Rarepons? Did you know that the pulsating white border on the game screen can be used to help your timing? Do you know the different ways in which you can change levels with the Rain Miracle? Did you know that using vegetables instead of meat will make a Patapon cost less to make? This is all vital information should you want to play the game with some modicum of control, rather than on a wing and a prayer. Some of it is explained in the instructions with so little detail that you may glance over it. Some of it is explained as tips during loading screens, which appear at random. Some of it is up to you to discover. This gives Patapon a certain old school flavor, and indeed, I saw many a player trading secrets and information in a virtual version of the grade school playground when the game was fresh.
I can appreciate this on one level. It is fascinating to see a game that combines old style challenge and experimentation with cartoon quality visuals and modern day “genre mash up” design. It is also understandable that such a game with so much going on will likely never work perfectly. But Patapon still feels like it could work better, and the problem comes down to randomness. It is everywhere. The rewards from minigames are random, as are the rewards from hunts and items left by bosses. The number of attacks that hit your target is random (at least this is based on the flow of the battle). As stated, even important instructions are random. Too much of Patapon is left to chance, and it is clear that this occurs because it takes much too much influence from Japanese RPGs, making it part of a much bigger modern trend.
You might be able to feel the beat, tweak your units just a bit, and still find yourself with a worse army than another player in the same area, simply because they had better luck. This in turn leads to the inevitable need for grinding, a design trope that rarely works in any genre. Patapon should feel less like Final Fantasy Tactics and more like Myth, focusing more on the player’s skills and smarts in battle than on how the game decides to reward you today. It shouldn’t hide complex systems under a guise of cuteness and simplicity. Most importantly, and it does not have limit itself to only players who can keep a beat. Like its spiritual cousin Locoroco, the original Patapon is something you want to recommend, but is much too rough around the edges. And again like Locoroco, it appears that the sequel fixes so many flaws that it just may be the only version worth considering.