Saturday, August 4, 2012

Review: Some filler aside, Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's Treasure (the latest from the creator of Samba De Amigo) does not disappoint

In the age of M-rated shooters and large-scale open world games, the "quirky rhythm game" seems to be a bit of a lost art. With the coming-and-going of the Guitar Hero franchise and an increasing shift of small-budget games to digital download services, it seems like a strange time to release Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's treasure, a game so openly quirky and unyieldingly pleasant that you can sense while playing it the difficulty that it'll have finding an audience in today's cynical times.

In many ways it's too bad, because what we have here is a charming title; a game so eager to win you over that, if you're open to it, it quickly will. The characters are likable, the anime-styled city of Paris is lovingly rendered, the rhythm games are fun, the music's jazzy, and the graphics are colorful. What's not to like? Rhythm Thief places a heavier emphasis on its story than any other game I've encountered in the genre. You play as Raphael, a polite fellow who shares an apartment in Paris with his dog, Fondue. Raphael lives a double life as Phantom R, a rogue who breaks into museums to hunt down artifacts that may serve as keys in solving the mystery of his missing father. Along the way he meets up with a girl, Marie, whose mysterious violin may hold the answers he seeks.

Key events in this story are presented in gorgeous 3D anime cutscenes, and they do a great job of drawing you in. The script's solid, while the voice actors complement their characters well, even if the acting itself isn't always fantastic. It would have been nice to have seen a bit more of it, especially given the amount of time you'll spend reading text boxes as you progress through Paris looking for clues. Yes, Rhythm Thief fancies itself as a bit of an adventure, and between the rhythm games you'll spend time going from one location to another to talk with people, record sounds, solve the occasional puzzle, and search for hidden notes.

This aspect of the game takes place against static backgrounds; you tap the touch screen with the stylus to search the environments for clues or to talk to NPCs. The top screen serves as a 3D map, with your destination always clearly marked. Admittedly this is where Rhythm Thief could have used some more thought. As you can probably imagine, tapping the screen isn't nearly as immersive as it would have been to get to explore these environments personally. That's not to say that these parts of the game aren't fun; with the colorful backdrops, the many people to interact with, and great incentives to find the objects hidden in each location, I didn't find myself too frustrated with this somewhat low-budget approach to exploration.

Most likely designed with kids in mind, the sound-based puzzles that you'll come across aren't going to challenge too many people, with the game going out of its way to help you through them. Gamers hoping for a more fleshed out puzzle experience may be disappointed that Rhythm Thief didn't try harder in this regard, but I personally didn't mind. The real reason to play this is for the story and rhythm mini-games, and these aspects do not disappoint.

Even with all the other stuff going on, they've managed to cram 50 mini-games in here, many of which you'll encounter over the course of the story, some you can purchase in the shop, others you can unlock in the post-game. These are where Rhythm Thief really impresses. The various games make use of nearly every control aspect of the 3DS, from the touch screen to the face and L/R buttons, to even the d-pad and gyroscope. Only the latter fails to work well, with motion controls never being a good fit for a game that demands and scores you based on timing and precision. Thankfully, few mini-games use this, with the majority focusing on controls that rarely fail to perform the way you want them to. Your score meter doubles as a HP bar, with it decreasing every time you miss a cue and with it increasing when you're successful, even more if you do so with perfect timing. The more filled the HP bar is at the end of a mini-game, the higher your score and grade.

These games are funny. Not only do they look great visually, but the sight of enemy after enemy approaching your character (in rhythm with the music) only to have your character fight them off, again, in a rhythm, never ceases to entertain. Others, such as games where Raphael must dodge guards in a museum by hiding behind posing statues or when Marie gets to use her violin, prove to be equally fun, and with the exception of a couple repeats, there's no shortage of variety from one game to the next.

These are where Rhythm Thief shines, and without a doubt they steal the show.


Verdict: As I made sure to point out, Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's Treasure is not a perfect experience; the ability to wander through Paris, while fun, is also woefully simplistic from a gameplay perspective. I'm glad it's there, as these parts add to the richness of the experience, though the game could have used quite a bit less of it and more of the rhythm mini-games, which is really why we're all here. The gyroscopic controls, though rarely used, don't work nearly as well as they should, and some of the music comes across as a little forgettable. Still, this is the type of quirky Japanese rhythm game that I wish we saw more of. With a gorgeously presented story, a memorable cast of characters, a setting clearly designed with care, and no shortage of fun rhythm games, this is an enjoyable title from start to finish, one that gamers with an open mind should give a try. The ending even hints at a sequel, something that I feel may be a bit unlikely, but also something that I'd pick up in a heartbeat were it to ever see release.

Presentation: Lots of text boxes begging for more voice acting, especially since the actors are so likable. Anime cutscenes are great, especially in 3D. The story really tries and delivers a rich backdrop to the game. Paris feels truly alive.

Graphics: Though a lot of Rhythm Thief is static environments that are visually appealing but don't push the system, the rhythm games look great, as do the anime cutscenes.

Gameplay: Divided into rhythm games, puzzles, and (sort of) point-and-click exploration, there's a lot here. The content outside of the rhythm games could have used more variety, but the games themselves are loaded with it, and it all adds up to a well-rounded product.

Sound: Good voice acting, upbeat music, and quality sound effects make for a pleasant audio experience. Some tunes are great, others are a little hard to remember. 

Replay Value: Game for me clocked in at around 8 hours and 20 minutes, with some time taken to work on collecting items for sidequests. Trying to collect everything will add to this and grant you a couple of short additional episodes, with a 3rd bonus episode available to the hardcore Rhythm Thief fans who manage to score all A's. I definitely wish you luck with that one.

Overall: 7.5/10 (Note: My reviews go on a .5 scale)

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