Version tested: PSP
Don't play Patapon if you suffer from insomnia. It's even more difficult to sleep at 4am with a tiny monocular army's chants of PON PON PATA PON reverberating around your head. Your every input in Patapon 3 is echoed and embellished by a chorus of little voices, cheering and yelling and marching perfectly in rhythm, and the insistent beat drives on and on long after you flick the PSP power switch for the twelfth time, and try to drift off.
It gives you a sense of power that most god games strive for in other ways. Controlling with rhythm is a very primal thrill. When it's going well you feel like an omnipotent beat-master guiding those tiny warriors on to victory. The slightest slip, though, and it's all over – you lose the beat, your army stands confused, your fingers fumble, and whichever imposing 2D creature you're fighting munches your Patapons like a handful of cashews.
There's a wonderful game in here. Patapon at its core is addictive, exciting and full of sensory thrills, and the artistic direction is superb. But getting in the way are thick layers of character and inventory management that do more to confuse than enhance.
Patapon's synthesis of rhythm-game and strategy is still fascinatingly unusual. The face buttons are drums – pata, pon, don and chaka – and through various combinations of the four, you order an army of teensy creatures to march, attack, defend, jump, retreat and so on. Drum perfectly in rhythm and they fight with more spirit; miss a beat and they'll be confused for a few turns.
All the four-beat commands are helpfully laid out at the bottom of the screen, but eventually they become instinct. The battles are as much about reading enemies' moves as keeping the rhythm. You must develop an eye for telltale signs that herald strong attacks, getting the Patapons well out of the way of giant clubs, swiping claws or streams of fire from a dragon's mouth.
It's presented in a beautiful shadow-theatre style. Patapons and their foes are black silhouettes with splashes of colour set against eye-catching, detailed backgrounds. The music – ever the backbone of the Patapon series – is superb, with flourishes of triumphant metal on top of the insistent beat of the drums and tribal, high-pitched yells of the miniature army.
Where before you were a god to the Patapons, beating a heavenly drum, now you play the role of a Superhero Patapon, leading the army and managing it from a central camp. There are only three other Heroes in your party, meaning you're in charge of fewer Patapons than ever before, but the control that you have over them is much greater.
Managing these four Heroes might not sound too hard, but it's extremely complicated. Each Hero has several different classes, which you switch between and level up separately. All of them can use different weapons, found within chests dragged home from the battlefield. There are huge trees of passive skills, and menus full of active ones that you have to select. There are options, options everywhere. Unfortunately, there's nothing except the loading-screen tips to tell you what any of it actually does.
This is one of a few reasons why Patapon 3 is extremely hard – so difficult that it feels impenetrable for the first few hours, for veterans too. Even if you're already intimately familiar with the rhythm battling, which in itself is quite nuanced and demanding, the character and equipment management could easily stump you. Patapon 2, which was itself way more complicated than the original, didn't come close to this level of obfuscation.
The gameplay itself has taken several step up the difficulty ladder, too. Patapon 3 demands absolute perfection from you in the rhythm stakes if you stand any chance of success. You have to hit the drums right on the beat every time to pull off special attacks, the windows for attack-dodging are often tiny, and a single mistake is usually enough to necessitate a restart. But even when you've mastered all of that, you'll still often lose.
There are two ways to fail a mission in Patapon: losing your entire army, or failing to protect its flag-bearing Hatapon. Nine times out of ten, you'll lose the second way. No matter how strong your quartet of Heroes is, a rogue attack will sometimes catch your defenceless standard-bearer off-guard, and it's curtains for you.
It doesn't feel fair. There are certain Hero skills and class combinations that make the Hatapon immune to damage, but figuring out what they are is a formidable task in and of itself. You'll take on quests that are supposed to be appropriate to your level, play perfectly in rhythm, fail, and not ever really be sure what you're doing wrong. Are my Patapons the wrong class? Are their skills levelling up properly? Is my equipment inappropriate? How would I know if it was?
It constantly makes you feel like you're missing something, and you probably are. On top of all the character management, there's a very detailed inventory and crafting system, with tons of weapon classes and effects. The PSP screen isn't physically big enough to display all the stats for a single weapon, and Hero stat screens feature endless lists of numbers that are difficult to decipher.
It gets a little better with time and practice, but only a little. You usually fall back on grinding and trial and error when you get stuck, neither of which are particularly fun. Good loot and experience rewards only come from level-appropriate missions, so replaying earlier ones doesn't serve much purpose. Because you're constantly up against it, Patapon never settles into a comfortable rhythm. You never really feel like you're getting anywhere – and crucially, you don't feel powerful.
Despite all of that, it's wickedly compelling once you break through the pain barrier. Lose yourself in the menus and you'll enjoy customising and micromanaging your Heroes even if you still aren't 100 per cent sure what an Attack Strength value of 82-848 offset against a shield breaker effect of 10 per cent means, or whether it's a good idea to change shields and sacrifice crush damage resistance for an 8 pet cent damage bonus against the undead.
For those who persist, its longevity is no doubt greatly extended by an array of co-operative and competitive multiplayer modes, which are a first for the series. Sony sadly hasn't made these available to test in time for this review, but it's safe to assume that online co-op would provide a welcome break when you hit a difficulty wall. Like Monster Hunter, this could be a game that really comes alive with friends.
Patapon 3 is, in many ways, a typical third instalment: bigger, prettier, more difficult, and much more complicated. But that often works against it rather than in its favour, diluting that brilliant and unique rhythm-action strategy gameplay. Many series veterans will be glad that there's more to get their heads around, especially with multiplayer – but I can't shake the conviction that Patapon was at its best when it was simplest.
7 / 10