The problem with "Patapon," a new rhythm game for Sony's handheld PSP, is that once you spend any amount of time playing it, you're doomed to wake up in the middle of the night with this looping through your head:
Pata, pata, pata, pon! Pata, pata, pata, pon! Pon, pon, pata, pon! Chaka, chaka, pata, pon!
I've been playing the whimsical and addictive "Patapon" for days now and for every day I've played it, I do not exaggerate when I say that the following night has been haunted by the four-count beat of the drum that is the driving force behind this game, which, by the way, is nothing short of a total visual and sonic delight and thus worth losing a good bit of sleep over.
Featuring the freaky-cool silhouetted artwork of single-named French graphic artist Rolito, "Patapon" lets you play God to a lost tribe of marching, fighting, singing eyeball creatures called — you guessed it — Patapons. A proud warrior tribe forced into exile by a bunch of enemy eyeballs known as Zigotons, the Patapons are on a quest to regain their former glory and make their way to a place called Earthend in hopes of finding IT — though what IT is is something of a mystery.
As the Patapons' disembodied god, you command them into battle by beating out various four-button combinations in a rhythmic pattern — one combination ordering them forward (pata, pata, pata, pon), another ordering them to attack (pon, pon, pata, pon), another ordering them to defend (chaka, chaka, pata, pon), etc.
The challenge here is to keep the proper beat while hitting the right button combo needed at the right time. You'll have to listen to the rhythm of the music that pulses and grows as you play, striking the PSP's square, circle, triangle and X buttons in a call and response pattern with the Patapons. If you're able to keep the proper beat, the little Patapons grow more powerful and more frenzied – eventually going into "Fever" mode – and are able to deal some serious damage to their foes (Zigoton warriors as well as a host of fantastical monsters).
But this is not just about rhythm. "Patapon" deftly blends rhythm play with action, strategy and RPG elements, to create a wholly unique game. For example, as you progress you'll acquire different classes of Patapons who specialize in different battle styles. The Yaripon do battle with spears, the Yumipon are archers, the Kibapon fight from atop horses. The tactical elements kick in as you decide which Patapons should be sent into which battles. Meanwhile, your hard-won wars will leave you with all sorts of booty — improved weapons and armor to upgrade your warriors becomes especially important. You'll also collect ka-ching (money) and various kinds of meats, stones and sticks that you can combine to create new and unusual Patapons at the Tree of Life Mater in Patapolis.
Speaking of which…when you aren't marching your eyeballs off into battle, you'll spend your time in the growing village of Patopolis. Here you'll not only be able to spawn your army, but you'll find some truly addictive mini-games to play. One game has you trying to play a trumpet to the rhythms sung by a giant singing and dancing tree. Match the rhythm and the tree gifts you items needed to create new warriors.
Beyond the unique gameplay, "Patapon" deserves praise for the visual wonderland that is its setting. Rolito's peculiar two-dimensional creatures and outlandish landscapes are a treat to behold. (You can check out his work at Rolitoland.com.) And, of course, there's the music — wonderful stuff that builds and grows as you play it. From the bagpipe-laden victory march to the quirky, tribal beats you drum along to and the swelling kiddy sing-song sounds of the Patapon … you simply won't be able to get it out of your head. And what a lovely, desirable addiction it is.
On the downside, it's sometimes hard to enjoy the beautiful, whimsical artwork — or really catch much of what's happening on the screen – because trying to keep the beat requires so much focus. It's also worth mentioning that you really do need to play this game with headphones on — not only for the sake of fully enjoying the music but to help with the beat count.
All in all, "Patapon" is everything a great game should be — it's beautiful to look at and to listen to, it's easy enough to jump into but a surprisingly deep and challenging thing to master, and, most importantly, it's a genuinely original piece of work that's a blast to play.
Certainly, it won't be easy to get pata, pata, pata, pon out of your head.