LOOKING FOR "IT" Witty dialogue and a far-fetched plot give Patapon 2 an appealing light-hearted tone.
The PSP is usually touted as the less innovative of the two modern handhelds, and that makes games like Sony's music/strategy franchise Patapon — the second installment of which is out now — sort of a big deal. Although the game has more than its share of problems, its fresh beats and stylized visual and audio elements make it one of the few games Sony can boast that rival the creativity of the best games on the DS.
Patapon 2 picks up right where its predecessor left off. The beleaguered Patapons, a zealously religious tribe of walking eyeballs, are sailing the seven seas in search of Earthend, where they'll achieve nirvana by gazing upon some spiritually magnificent entity that's referred to in the game as "IT." You take the role of their god, and as such it is your job to beat the divine drums and lead them into battle as they conquer all who stand in the way of their pilgrimage. The dialogue is witty and the plot is humorously far-fetched — indeed, the game's light-hearted tone is one of its most enjoyable elements.
Patapon 2's artistic stylings represent its biggest success. Stark black-and-white sprites contrast with the colorful and constantly moving backgrounds. The wild chanting of the Patapons as their battle fever reaches climax after climax is maddening in its ability to creep into your head. You'll find yourself muttering the "pata-pata-pata-pon" marching chant in time with your footfalls as you walk down the street.
The battle system blends musical gameplay and strategic, side-scrolling combat. You issue commands to the army of Patapons by pressing different combinations of four buttons in time with a simple 4/4 beat. If your rhythm is solid, the Patapons' battle lust mounts and they enter a ferocious fever mode. If your timing is perfect, a special hero ability is triggered, during which the reincarnated "hero-pon" (a new addition for the sequel) lays waste to the Patapons' enemies until you miss a beat.
As opposed to the intuitive simplicity of combat, the more strategy-oriented pre-battle elements are over-complicated and under-explained. You level up by purchasing new levels and classes with items won in battle; you unlock more powerful Patapon types by progressing through a semi-linear "evolution map." A significant amount of trial and error is required to get the hang of the evolution map's intricacies. It is easy to switch among a Patapon's previously purchased classes after exploring the map's possibilities. That's never actually explained to you, however, and in fact you'll discover many such important gameplay nuances only through exhaustive experimenting (or, if you want to skip all that, Googling). Massive grinding (backtracking to replay the same levels over and over) is necessary to cope with the ever-increasing difficulty. And on top of that, there's no way to pause mid battle, a troubling omission for a portable game.
You can, of course, overcome most of these problems by switching the difficulty settings to easy. The rhythmic detection, which can be downright frustrating at higher difficulties, becomes as forgiving as a best friend, and that makes most battles easy enough that you can have fun experimenting with different classes and strategies. This also means that if you just want to play through the story, you won't have to spend as much time in battle.