Behold ‘Patapon’ — Hands-On With Near-Final Version Of Sony’s Wild PSP Rhythm War Game

Even though Nintendo is the company with the reputation for innovation, many of the most original big-publisher games I played in 2007 appeared on Sony systems. None may have been quite as odd and engaging as “Patapon,” the PSP game I tried out earlier this week.

Sony reps were in Manhattan to show the winter line-up for PSP, PS2 and PS3. They told me “Echochrome” would be there. But before I could make a bee-line to play it, they suggested I try some other stuff. OK. How about…”Patapon”?

The game had caught my eye at E3 and I had appreciated Brian Crecente’s Tokyo Game Show write-up. On Tuesday I could finally play it, via a PSP Slim and link cable on a big-screen TV. Better yet, I could finally get a chance to understand it.

And it is good.

It was explained to me that the game is made by Sony’s “Loco Roco” team. No surprise there. I can sort of liken it to “Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat” in that you do something musical to make some really vivid side-scrolling action happen. That’s a poor description, sorry. This one’s tricky.

It’s a rhythm game, but not one that requires the player to follow musical cues, the way “Rock Band” or “Elite Beat Agents” do. Instead a thin light rectangle pulses at the perimeter of the screen and a beat plays through the speakers. But the characters you control — a small army of little critters with swords and spears and the like — don’t do anything. They stand still, until the player stars pressing buttons.

The PSP’s square button is assigned to a chant of the word “pata!” The circle button is “pon!” Create the chant “Pata! Pata! Pata! Pon!” and the little guys march forward. The chant: “Pon! Pon! Pata! Pon!” and the guys attack, shooting their bows and arrows, sending their horsemen in. The triangle button is “Chaka!” so that “Chaka! Chaka! Pata! Pon!” can make them defend. The X button is “Don” which somehow triggers miracles (I was told these are handy in, say, a desert level where the miracle of rain is needed).

The key thing is to play these chants in sync with the game’s beat. Getting the chants on beat the right amount of times (I think the count is nine), and then “Fever” mode will be activated, which makes the little guys more energetic.

I was told that there will be hunting levels, collecting levels, bosses, and mini-games. I played one straightforward level. It took maybe three minutes, just marching my guys to the right and then attacking a troupe of enemies. Clearly the incentive is to do this swiftly, efficiently for a better score.

Players can assemble their army in a staging screen, swapping different types of units and leveling them up with the items they collect. I was introduced to arrow-wielding Yumipons and blade-swinging Tatepons. The guys with spears are called Yaripons. (I did a quick Google search and found all the characters I saw and some extras on this blog.)

The only knock I ever heard about “Loco Roco” was that its controls could be unresponsive, sometimes unforgiving. People loved the art and the charm, just not the interface. “Patapon” has the look and the charm. The controls I used were solid. I’m curious to see if the game offers enough gameplay variety — enough rhythms for the player to apply, enough strategies for them to execute. If it does, then this game should come together nicely.

Over the years, good rhythm-based games have been consistently impressive to listen to and to control, but not often to look at. If “Patapon” comes together, it could be joining “Rez,” Jungle Beat” and “Everyday Shooter” in some rare company: fun to hear, to play and to see.

The game ships in the U.S. in February 2008.