The Taiko No Tatsujin series is largely exclusive to Japan, but every now and again, these colourful rhythm titles do head West. In the case of Taiko No Tatsujin: Drum Session, it's the first time the franchise has been brought over to Europe, making it the most widely available outing yet. However, this is still very much a niche within a niche; fans will likely already be playing, while for everyone else, it's a harder sell.
But let's pull back a bit. This game sees you matching taiko drum beats on screen as they scroll from right to left. Red beats represent the face of the drum, while blue ones require you to strike the rim. On a DualShock 4, the face buttons and d-pad are split between the two types, while the triggers can also be used to play the blue beats. In terms of gameplay, there's very little more you need to know; occasionally there are larger beats that call for two button presses, and sometimes you'll need to perform a drum roll, but you'll essentially be matching beats to the music in the same way throughout the game.
It sounds simple, but it can take a bit of time to get used to the game's visual language, straightforward though it is. It also gets very tricky on the higher tempo songs, and of course, there are several difficulty levels, the highest of which will see your digits leaping about the controller like it's scorching hot. Once you complete a song, you'll receive a score and performance valuation before you're on to the next challenge. One nice addition is the bingo card, which gives you simple objectives to meet, like get score of X, or get a combo of X. Completing these fills out the card, and if you get a bingo - three in a line - you'll earn a Don Coin. These can be spent on what amount to loot boxes, which provide you with outfits for your little taiko drum avatar, as well as titles and greeting phrases for online use.
The online mode is ranked, and pits you against the ghosts of other players' best runs. Because you're not playing live against other people, there is no lag or other usual online hiccups to contend with, making it totally effortless to play. You can, if you prefer, play local multiplayer with a friend to see who can keep the best rhythm.
The track list on offer is large and varied. There's plenty of J-pop and anime music, as we mentioned earlier, but there's also classical music, songs from other games like Tekken 7 or even Ridge Racer Type 4, and plenty of original tracks produced by Bandai Namco. The mix is eclectic and unconventional, ranging from the Japanese version of 'Let It Go' from Frozen to some almost unbearably energetic metal.
It's just a shame there aren't more ways to enjoy all the songs. You're either playing them online or offline, and unless you revel in the challenge of improving your score and climbing up the difficulty tiers, there's not much more to keep you playing. It feels like there's potential for some really fun alternative modes, but aside from two-player versus, there's not much else to see once you've had your fill. It doesn't help that the game will often mention the drum controller, a bespoke peripheral that can only be purchased from Japan. We can't help but feel that playing the game with such a device would bring it to life as you tangibly strike a miniature taiko drum. The game plays perfectly well with a DualShock 4, but it's definitely lacking that novelty value. Similarly to Guitar Hero, playing on a regular controller somewhat neuters the experience.
That's not to say there's no fun to be had at all here. The simple red or blue gameplay is tight and compelling, and a slow down/rewind feature allows you to practice tricky sections to improve your performance. It's easy to see why the game is popular in its homeland, as the skill ceiling is very high, but the basics are so straightforward that almost anyone can jump in and have fun with it.
The decision not to release the drum controller in the West is a baffling one, as it robs Taiko No Tatsujin: Drum Session of its identity. However, if you're willing to give it a shot with a regular pad, there's a challenging rhythm game here for you to master, with a wide variety of tracks and seamless online play. The lack of extra modes is a shame, but if you get hooked on this game's unique brand of beat-matching gameplay, the climb towards better scores should keep you going for a good while.