In the wake of Guitar Hero’s apparent demise, rhythm-action has found itself at a crossroads of sorts. Should the youngest videogame genre continue along the path started by Harmonix in an appeal to the pop-loving masses or should it return to its roots, using abstract gameplay and original songs, like genre godfather PaRappa The Rapper? The brightest developers realise, of course, that there’s actually a third option – to take the rhythm-action game and fuse it to another genre. Theatrythm Final Fantasy blends the form with JRPG conventions for rather brilliant results while Rhythm Thief And The Emperor’s Treasure – the latest game from Samba De Amigo creator Shun Nakamura – drops its rhythmic minigames into a structure almost identical to that of the Professor Layton series. Sadly, however, Sega’s genre mash-up doesn’t quite hit the right notes.
Taken in isolation, Rhythm Thief’s minigames are at least pretty decent. Each challenge takes a critical scene from the plot, featuring a music-obsessed Parisian child-thief named Phantom R, and adds some rhythm to his actions. There’s no overriding style to the gameplay. Instead, each scene has its own system, whether it be based on button presses, touch screen taps and swooshes, or even a tilt of the 3DS itself. Like Nintendo’s exemplary Rhythm Heaven, this approach gives each minigame its own identity and naturally makes some challenges more memorable than others. Gently sweeping the stylus from side to side in a violin-based challenge, for example, is a moment of true innovation for the genre. The emotion required to feel out the music and get those bow strokes just right takes a lot of practice but is ultimately rewarding, and few other games have come this close to nurturing a sense of musicality in the player. Mimic-based dancing games on the other hand are, as the bread and butter of the rhythm minigame genre, far less innovative but there’s no denying their ability to get you playing almost entirely by ear, feeling the beat and playing ‘in the zone’ as it were.
Curiously, Rhythm Thief very nearly torpedoes its best qualities with a horribly unhelpful guide function that’s switched on by default. Leave the guide on and the game will use Ouendan-style concentric circles to help struggling players get their timing right, but it actually does more harm than good. The best way to beat these minigames, as in any decent rhythm-action title, is to get into the groove and react to the sound effects and music but Rhythm Thief’s visual cues distract from this fundamental, promoting an incorrect way of playing which produces poorer results on the whole. Consider yourself warned: turn off the guide.
Rhythm Thief’s minigames don’t exist in isolation, of course, and that’s the game’s biggest problem. Just getting to play a tune can be a bit of a slog as you work through the Layton-esque narrative structured around the minigames. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the quality of these sections. The stereoscopic animation is of a very high standard for a handheld title, with generally excellent voice acting, and makes comfortable viewing for anyone who’s enjoyed the likes of Belleville Rendezvous or Lupin III. Likewise, the point-and-click adventure sections are nicely drawn, feature pithy, well-written dialogue, and are packed with lots of distractions such as collectibles or audio-based puzzles. They’d be right at home in a Level-5 produced adventure game about a gentleman sleuth and his unlikely cockney ward. The problem is they just don’t fit that well with a rhythm-action game.
One of the strengths of the rhythm-action genre is its arcade-like immediacy. Even PaRappa, with its focus on lengthy cut-scenes, put its musical sections at the forefront and allowed players to access them as urgently as they liked. Guitar Hero 5 even allowed players to jump into a song at any point as it played on the title screen. Why? Because rhythm-action games are, first and foremost, for people who love to play with music. It’s obvious really, which only makes Rhythm Thief insistence on burying its mini-games under layers of padding so difficult to understand.
It’s a problem of pacing more than anything else. If Rhythm Thief threw a minigame at you as often as Professor Layton does puzzles then its awkward structure would be practically invisible. You’d be too busy tapping along to the tunes to notice. But that kind of pacing would be unrealistic on a development level, of course. The hundreds of original songs that would need to be written and recorded, not to mention the game design and artistic resources needed, would likely make Rhythm Thief the most expensive game of its kind. Even Sega’s modest effort to populate its game with content shows signs of an over stretched budget, and within the first two hours of play you’ll notice that almost all of the minigame designs are reused and recycled throughout Phantom R’s story.
Perhaps if there was something more interactive about the exploratory portion of Rhythm Thief, the low frequency of rhythm-action action wouldn’t be so galling, but plodding through the streets of Paris, no matter how amusing the dialogue of its citizens, feels like a cheap way of stretching out the game length. Which was actually an unnecessary trick if you ask us. The rhythm games are just about difficult enough that they’d need to be played repeatedly to earn the best possible grades, and this would give Rhythm Thief all the longevity required. Indeed, if you happen upon a friend’s copy of the game, with all the rhythm parts unlocked and ready to play individually, there’s definitely a few hours of fun to be had here. Finding a friend willing to grind through the game to do that for you, though: that would be a treasure worthy of an emperor.