Despite being fundamentally familiar, the addition of online multiplayer modes extend the game's re-playability, while bringing fresh ideas to the series. The game can be far too complicating for its own good at times, but a stellar soundtrack and vivid art-style make up for the title's frustrations.
Patapon 3 is a structurally familiar game that fans of the drum-beating franchise will immediately feel comfortable with. You play as an army of bongo wielding eye-balls, using the power of rhythm to control what is ostensibly an RPG. Drumming to the tune of PATA-PATA-PATA-PON, your monocular army will march through the game's vivid worlds, out in search of loot and fisticuffs. It may be a sequel, but Patapon 3 still feels like a breath of fresh air three entries in. In an industry consumed with shooting people in the face, banging out rhythms feels like a welcome change. Even if your thumps of PON-PON-PATA-PON command your army of grayscale beings to throw spears in into the faces of unsuspecting critters.
Patapon's one of the more intelligent franchises to emerge this generation. While the uneducated lament the PSP's "portable console" direction, few share a thought for Sony Japan's easily digestible portfolio. Make no mistake, if Patapon originally released on the iPhone, throngs of "trend-setters" would be showering the app store in chants of DON-DODON-DODON. Patapon 3 has a surface accessibility that makes it the ideal candidate for five-minute romps, but unlike the App Store's most regarded offerings, also possesses an underlying depth that will keep you hooked for anywhere upwards of thirty hours.
It's an impressive feat for a game that's ultimately all about controlling characters with simple beats and phrases, though admittedly the game can get a little complex for its own good. Still, its hard to deny the pure, idealistic pleasure of marching through Patapon's vivid worlds with the thump of the game's four-to-the-floor soundtrack ringing through your ears.
It's fluid too. Controlling your army of Patapons will confuse newcomers at first, but it's not long before it all becomes second nature. Each of the PSP's face-buttons represents a different drum. There's Chaka, Pon, Don and Pata. Combining them in specific sequences gives you full control over the actions of your army, from marching to jumping and everything in between. Hit the timing and you'll feel like the greatest musician alive. As your troops sing to the theme of your actions, the music bounces and the screen fills with colour. But miss a beat, and the soundscape falters. Full melodies dwindle into the background, replaced by the monotonous clicking of the soundtrack's rhythm section. Your Patapon will look at you with disbelief. Suddenly you'll feel like the worst musician alive.
Hitting rhythms in time becomes pretty important as you progress through the game's more challenging stages, largely because your team's moves become enhanced by the "Fever" snake. This snake improves your performance in combat, prompting additional attacks from your "Hero" Patapon, and heightened reactions from your team. Combat becomes a case of looking for tell-tale signs in your opponents, while maintaining the rhythm of your squad. You always need to be one step ahead, because it takes at least four beats for you to complete an action. While the game is designed with this in mind, it can be a challenge at first, and you'll often find yourself retreating or defending a bar of music too late. The game's insistence on repetition means you'll learn the ropes before the game gets too challenging.
Patapon 3 puts you in command of less Patapons than before. Assuming the role of a "Hero" Patapon, you'll be joined by three other squad mates. While there are less members for you to manage, there's still a catalogue of options available for each being. It's here that Patapon 3 starts to come a little unstuck. Depth is fine, but at times there can be too much of it. Bogged down in classes, skills and levels, Patapon 3 can be a confusing game to manage. At its core, you're still controlling monochromatic blobs with drums, but beneath that there's some hardcore party management stuff bubbling beneath the surface. It wouldn't be so bad if the game didn't explain things with cries of "Shzammm!" and other such mumbo-jumbo. While the game's childish terminology enhances its personality, it's not always the best method of informing you about stuff you really need to understand.
It doesn't stop with character management either. There are layers and layers of inventory management, resources management and upgrades. Indeed, you'll spend equal amounts of time playing Patapon, managing stuff and wondering how you manage stuff. The additional layers of detail are not entirely unwelcome, but it feels like the game could do a better job streamlining options and communicating with you. And of course, the more time you spend managing your Patapon, the less time you spend actually hitting drums. Which is essentially what you want to be doing.
The game's pretty tough too. If you advance too quickly through the main campaign missions, you'll find your Patapon below the recommended level cap. Thankfully each stage has multiple permutations allowing you to farm resources and earn precious experience points that will allow you to upgrade your level. If you're not a fan of "grinding", Patapon 3 may not necessarily be the game for you. But replaying levels doesn't necessarily feel like a negative here, as the worlds are always colourful and the gameplay rarely tires. What's more, there's nearly always the incentive of new loot to keep you pounding on the drums and replaying levels.
That's where the online co-op really comes into its own. If you don't feel like you can cut it alone (and don't want to grind), you can employ the help of three online heroes to help thump your way to glory. It ends up making the game easier because each squad member is in control of their own "Hero" Patapon. These Patapons have additional super-charged moves compared to the other members of your party in single-player, so you can imagine the damage that you inflict with four similarly powered beings is significantly higher.
Thankfully, Patapon 3 includes an infrastructure option which lets you find partners online. It sounds like such a small thing, but frequent PSP owners will be well aware of just how uncommon this kind of support is. The implementation's surprisingly flawless too. There's very little in the way of lag and dropped connections, though naturally your mileage may vary. There's also all kinds of crazy clan support options and more. This gets as convoluted as Patapon's squad management features, but is actually pretty cool once you wrap your head around it. You're able to rank the members of your clan based on their ability in specific variables, and you can also set challenges for your clan members to complete, resulting in team points and more. It's crazy deep, and it's a shame so few players will actually get to experience it properly.
The more you play Patapon 3, the more you begin to realise just how much content's been crammed into it. The game's excessive detail can complicate the experience, but Patapon's primary mechanic is nearly always the perfect antidote to its frustrations. With flashes of metal, tribal and pop, Patapon provides the kind of sensory experience that's not always attributed to portable games. Sometimes it falls short of its ambition, but make no mistake — Patapon 3 is a wonderful game assuming you can get beyond its complex nature. The addition of online multiplayer alone should make the game a wildly appealing package for fans of the series.