Rhythm Thief Wasn’t Finished

Ever since I first played the Parappa the Rapper demo on a Playstation Underground disc, I’ve loved rhythm games. When I saw shots of Rhythm Thief & The Emperor’s Treasure last year, I couldn’t help but look forward to it.

Well I finally got my hands on the game, and it has some very obvious flaws.

The game certainly has some good points. The music is quite nice, and some of the games really are quite fun. The game’s animated sequences are pretty amazing. After watching them, I’m starting to think that 3D animated movies (non-CG) might work pretty well Unfortunately the game has quite a few problems, some of which I’m surprised let stay into the release.

Let’s start with the core of the game: the music mini-games. The controls are quite inconsistent. Some of the mini-games use buttons, which work exactly as you’d expect. In some games (such as one in which you kick a soccer ball) using the touchscreen can really detract from the experience since it’s no where near as precise as buttons. There is just no good mechanical feedback on the touchscreen to know how close you are to touching and registering a tap. There is one dance mini-game where the controls work well, but they don’t do anything buttons couldn’t do just as well. This doesn’t have to be the case. Both Theatrhythm and Elite Beat Agents have show how well a touch screen can work for a rhythm game.

Still worse the controls are inconsistent. In some mini-games tapping the screen at the wrong time counts as a miss. In every game, missing are penalized very strongly. It’s trivial to go from getting an A to a D in the game. It’s like 1 step forward 10 steps back.

But in other mini-games, there is no penalty at all to using the screen at the wrong time. That means in some (such as cooking) just holding the pen on the screen and sliding it back and forth will get you an easy A. It has nothing to do with the scene in the game; but since it’s only checking that your pen is down and/or moving at the right moments it’s an easy win. This takes all the challenge out of some games.

Of course there are the requisite motion controls, which are amazingly slow, insensitive, and wildly break immersion. I know the 3DS can do much better, it’s pathetic.

While I enjoy the anime style visuals, the game has some graphical problems as well. There is a level where you are running across a rooftop to escape perusers, but you can’t enjoy the scene at all. Between the fast movement, low resolution, repeating texture, and occasional object flying into the screen it’s hard to get any detail out of the scenery.

The outlines are the characters are generally too this, and just shimmer. The cooking mini-game suffers from this terribly. In a static scene, there shouldn’t be any problems. But the white chef robes combined with ultra-thin lines for detail on the uniforms means they look out-of-focus. I tried turning off the 3D effect to see if that made things any better, but it didn’t make a difference. It’s very distracting.

Earlier I said that the animated scenes are beautiful, and they really are. Of course, they are videos, which means they are pre-rendered and the depth can not be adjusted. So when animating these scenes, they naturally chose to maximize the depth. If you don’t find having the 3D slider on all the way comfortable, too bad.

3D is poorly handled in general. During minor dialogue in the middle of some games, a static 2D drawing of a character will show on the top screen. This drawing is at zero-depth (screen plane), making it easy to see in front of the rest of the action. On the other hand, the end-of-level screen is designed to look like it’s popping out of the screen. Between the small letters and the fact they are near the edges of the screen, this makes the information very difficult to focus on, breaking any immersion.

But the dialog can keep you from getting immersed anyway. The game takes place in France, and takes every opportunity to make hit you over the head with generic French stuff. The main character’s dog is named Fondue. The people you talk to one the street drop little bits of French that would be in a 1st grader’s travel guide. I found this disingenuous, but the real problem is that it’s occasionally spelled wrong. “‘Toot suite”? Really?  It’s tout, and there isn’t supposed to be an apostrophe in front of it.

The voice acting is generally acceptable, but it’s not good. That’s just as well since the subtitles don’t always match the readings. The character will say “Baby.”, but the text will say “Childish.” That’s the entire sentence in that instance, and it was wrong.

If this takes place during battle, it’s often spoken by those 2D character drawings I mentioned. They (roughly) lip-sync with the dialog, except for the few times they’re off by about 1/2 second. The animation matches the dialog well, and that’s the expensive part. But a quick scene where a character talks by cycling between mouth-open and mouth-closed frames? It can be way off.

I am actually enjoying the game. When walking the streets it’s largely identical to a Layton game, and I’m eagerly awaiting the first 3DS entry. Rhythm Thief shows it could work really well. But I keep running into baffling little decisions that massively detract from the game. Just a few little bits of polish could have made such a big difference. As it is the game feels mediocre as a whole, but it could have easily been quite good.