Rhythm Thief & the Emperor's Treasure Review
This is how rhythm games get their groove back.
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SEGA brings back the funk with its latest rhythm game, Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's Treasure.
We’re glad to see the famed developer/publisher bring a fresh concept to the table, even when the game shows off its rough edges. Most characters fall flat in a story that doesn’t deliver on its promises. Predictably, the soundtrack is the most appealing part of the game, bringing plenty of rich and varied songs that you'll want to tap to over and over.
Unlike the Professor Layton titles, where characters will just shout random puzzles at you, Rhythm Thief's minigames actually fit well within the overall story. It's just a shame that the story isn't exactly worth that attention.
Phantom R, our hero, uses the power of dance to solve all his problems, whether he’s running from the law or preparing French cuisine. It's your job to make sure he can bust out the freshest dance moves and solve a few mysteries along the way. All of Paris is your dance floor, and its people are your audience.
French French Revolution
At its core, Rhythm Thief succeeds at providing a whole mess of entertaining rhythm games. These games are almost always tied to the game's story, with “boss battles” and thieving missions galore. After moving through the world map of Paris, chances are you’ll run into a situation that requires you to dance. One level has Phantom R exploring the Louvre like a point-and-click adventure–until he snags the treasure and is forced to dance his way out safely through a minigame.
Most rhythm games involve swiping the stylus or matching the A button to the beat. There are scrolling bar games like Rock Band that require keeping the beat for an entire song, and call and repeat games a la Space Channel 5 that have you "battling" other dancers by matching their moves. One game has Phantom R cooking meals for a chef by holding down the stylus, then flicking upward to serve the cooked food to the waiter.
We were in rhythm heaven (pardon the reference) when the game asked for more than taps and swipes. A tribute to Samba de Amigo had us using six buttons at rapid fire speed to play a rousing samba tune (complete with maraca sound effects). One of our favorite games involves physically moving the 3DS from side to side to dodge karate chops from a burly bodyguard. These unique mini-games helped to break up the monotony that came with the usual taps and swipes.
Not every minigame is as groovy it could be. Marie, Phantom R's partner, has a few stiflingly dull violin performances that require little more than rubbing the stylus back and forth. Marie and Phantom R also share a ballroom dance together, which goes on entirely too long and could stump only the most tone deaf, left-footed players.
Halfway through the story, new minigame types stop appearing and are replaced with harder variations of earlier ones. There are enough core concepts to make the game feel fresh, but there are one or two game types that just keep popping up. We actually liked that the games we played at the beginning of the story had their difficulties ramped up as the story came to a climax. By combining and expanding upon previously mastered minigames, really engaging play experiences are created.
On the other hand, several challenges proved to be trial-and-error experiences due to a lack of instruction. More than once, we were dropped into a mini-game without any idea of what patterns we were supposed to match, making our failures feel unjustified. Drawing circles and using the gyroscope were also stupidly frustrating and difficult to pull off correctly, keeping us from achieving “A” ranks on minigames.
Rhythm Thief remedies this by offering one-time use bonuses like retries, though we rarely needed to purchase them with in-game currency. Almost every minigame is passable, though we needed to enhance our game to perfect the frustrating gyroscope minigames.
Taking It to the Streets
When you're not grooving your problems away, you'll be tapping 'round the streets of Paris. This part of the game is your typical point-and-click adventure set up, and boy is it bare-bones. You can tap away at background objects to find hidden coins and items, though this becomes formulaic and stale after five screens. Find the two coin caches, find the secret item, rinse and repeat.
You can also talk to people to get hints or advance the story. Some people will rattle off the same casual one-liners for several chapters, which is worth skipping through for the eighth time, when they finally let you play their secret bonus minigame. Most secondary characters do little more than take up space, and there's little incentive to revisit older areas. Besides, any time you hit a barrier that is unlocked with a puzzle, arrows will point you exactly where you need to go, removing any need to wander and explore.
To further expand on the theme of music and rhythm, at various points Phantom R is required to solve rhythm "puzzles". These are either 4-note Simon Says games or musical jigsaw puzzles. That's it. None of these “puzzles” are challenging in the slightest, and their musical nature feels forced. We didn’t enjoy any of these sloppily constructed time-wasters.
Keeping in line with the point-and-click style, Rhythm Thief asks players to use sound effects to solve smaller puzzles. If a wimpy security guard is blocking the path forward, you’ll need to record an angry dog to scare him off. Phantom R, that crafty thief, uses his cellphone to record the sounds of Paris, then uses his sound library to his advantage.
These sound puzzles utilize the whole “sound and music” concept more effectively than the music puzzles, but there isn't any challenge in finding necessary sounds. The map will always tell you what screen you need to be in next, and the object you need to tap to record sticks out like a sour note. These half-attempts at expanding the overworld make us wonder: Why bother putting in the world map at all? Rhythm Thief would have been fine as just a series of levels and cutscenes.
Most minigames control smoothly (it'd be hard to mess up button presses and stylus tapping), though we have a few gripes underlined in sections previous. Trying to achieve an “A” rank in challenges involving the gyroscope is nigh impossible. The 3DS has a tendency to get off track and cause us to unfairly miss notes. Whether this is the game's programming or the system itself, there are only two minigames that are affected. It's a shame they don't work, but the game is still playable.
There are two sidequests to complete while moving through the main story. By finding hidden items and sound effects, you can unlock a few backstory chapters and their subsequent mini-game.
Post-game unlocks include Hard modes for every mini-game, and believe us—they are hard. If that isn’t enough challenge, there are also optional “perfection” missions that require the ultimate precision and impeccable groove factor. You can also unlock four “marathon” mini-games as well.
You won't be spending more than three hours on these extras–that's including perfecting Hard modes, too. This is a short game, which is no fault. Rhythm minigame collections just tend to be a shorter experience overall.
Pacing & Flow
Rhythm Thief is broken up into ten short chapters, running about an hour each. Each chapter has roughly four mini-games, along with a sound effect "puzzle". Peppered throughout the story are cute cutscenes that push events along. Rhythm Thief rarely lingers on one event or locale for too long. You'll jump from the Louvre to a ball then to Napoleon's Tomb in forty-five minutes, which is great for pacing yet terrible for story comprehension.
By changing up the rhythm game formula, Rhythm Thief reveals its most ambitious fault: its storyline makes almost no sense whatsoever. Huge plotlines are left unresolved and the ending is a cliffhanger that falls flat. While the storyline gives Rhythm Thief its personality, this personality is an enigma trapped in its own forced quirkiness.
France is known for its love of cheese, so it's no surprise that the plot and dialogue of Rhythm Thief is terribly cheesy. The patriotic Inspector Vergier asks his policemen, “Are you pansies or Parisians?” In the climactic final battle with the villainous Napoleon Bonaparte, Phantom R declares that he’ll “put the Water in Napoleon's Loo.”
In fact, the whole storyline is dripping with cheese. Napoleon Bonaparte has been resurrected from the dead somehow and is looking for ancient treasures, Indiana Jones-style. Instead of an Ark or the Holy Grail, this time it's the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Who would have guessed that they'd be buried under Paris all this time? ...And not in the Middle East?
The main cast of Rhythm Thief is pretty straightforward—not the norm for most rhythm games. Phantom R is your average pretty boy by day, mysterious fedora-sporting treasure thief by night. His sidekick Marie is a preppy girl with a hidden talent for playing the violin. He’s got his dog, Fondue, who helps him dodge the chief of police's cross-dressing daughter. The only real caricature is Napoleon, who has a terrible accent and is stereotypically villainous to a fault.
Secondary characters can really help to flesh out the world, though Rhythm Thief's minor cast ended up being dull and uninteresting. What is the point of having twenty generic townsfolk if they're only going to repeat the same dull lines for the entire game?
Entire story arcs are thrown to the wind, including Phantom R’s search for his missing father. “Papa R” shows up during the post-credits to reveal that he was secretly the villain. Oh boy, what a twist.
A smaller issue irked us: The game's subtitles were often mismatched with the recorded dialogue. Did the game go through a major re-write before it shipped? With no way to turn off subtitles, this disconnect proved to be distracting.
Nothing is particularly unique about any character’s voice acting, though if you are looking for an accurate depiction of French accents you should look elsewhere. Strangely enough, Napoleon’s laughably bad accent is the most interesting voice in the game. The chief of Paris' police force, the patriotic symbol of the city of love, has a gruff voice that reminds us of someone's dad doing an impression of a French man. Even Marie, who is related to a French duchess, sounds pretty British to us.
The in-game cutscenes are the most enjoyable part of Rhythm Thief. Yes, the plot that they convey makes no sense. Yes, we know that the bad accents are distracting. And yes, we know that Napoleon looks stupid. Despite all that, these lavishly animated cutscenes are a treat to watch. The art is clean, the backgrounds look like fine paintings, and there's a lot of action portrayed. This stuff looks like it belongs in the Rhythm Thief OVA... That's not actually a bad idea. What say you, SEGA?
Graphics & Atmosphere Overview
Rhythm Thief has a unique visual style that's isn't too anime, but hardware limitations result in it looking like a cheap iPhone game. The music is fresh and original, cultivated from French culture in the best way. The stereoscopic 3D used in everything from the minigames to the main map really helps bring Paris to life in front of you.
There's a real true tour de France to be taken here. You'll explore Les Invalides, the Eiffel Tower, the Champ de Mars, the Tuileries Garden and other French locations we're glad we're writing instead of speaking. The map itself is a modified version of France, and the developers keep true to each piece of classic architecture. We're glad to see France as the setting for the game–the rich culture is the perfect backdrop for the adventures of a treasure thief.
It's great that Paris looks so good, because we had at least something to look at to avert our gaze from the bland character models. While Phantom R and his cast of main characters have a distinct, clean look to them, the other citizens of Paris have not been given the same level of polish. The game still applies the same level of "realism", which ultimately causes every NPC to look exceptionally dull.
Not only are the mini-games a treat to listen to, but also to look at–the 3D effects employed are truly eye-dazzling. As opposed to the stoic, half-baked 3D used in the game's exploration environments and conversation scenes, the mini-games employ unique angles that make 3D a legitimately helpful tool to have (that is, when your sense of rhythm fails you). In one visually distinct mini-game, Phantom R kicks a soccer ball back and forth with an opponent. The players point of view jumps from behind R, to behind his opponent, to eventually pulling way, way back to a view of the two, the roof they're standing on, and the cityscape behind them. It's playful, it's effective, and it looks cool as heck.
However, the 3D character models in these mini-games look like lifeless dolls. They don't really move around a lot–more like their bodies get thrown around. The terrifying realization came to us during a scene where enemies "jumped" at Phantom R, their soulless corpses being tugged about by some unseen puppet master. We weren't expecting mo-cap, but we feel that using 2D anime characters in a 3D-rendered world would have allowed for greater freedom of movement.
Your first rhythmic test as Phantom R is to dance to "Show Time", a groovy tune that would make The Village People regret not having rappers on their tracks. As we tapped to the beat, the song's lyrics celebrated Paris' architecture and the joy of music. The music stopped to allow a Beastie Boys' sample to scream "It's the new style..." before we jumped back into the song.
Like "Show Time", every mini-game has its own distinct feel and rhythm. When Phantom R needs to put an imposter in his place, the music is fast and jazzy—perfect for a dance-off. To blend in with the ritzy crowd at a fancy ballroom, R will need to dance to a version of the Blue Danube. Trumpets, strings, guitars and accordions all take turns in the spotlight.
Marie is a violin prodigy, so we're glad to hear some truly beautiful violin pieces. Any time Marie took center stage, we started to tear up. Even though the violin mini-games were beyond simple, we loved just sitting and listening to the music.
Rhythm Thief features some pretty goofy sound effects. An overly dramatic string crescendo plays every time you find a hidden item. Every. Time. In the actual rhythm games, the sound effects are fun and engaging.
Rhythm Thief has a few multiplayer modes, though they feel tacked on. Only a handful of songs are available in "head-to-head" mode. We're sad to see StreetPass functionality take a hit as well.
Players can only choose seven rhythm games to challenge their friends with. Two players will see who can get the higher score, and whoever gets the highest score wins. Hardly groundbreaking.
Unlike most 3DS games, Rhythm Thief does not make innovative use of StreetPass. After getting a few tags, players can head to an alternate Paris where they can track down those tags. They take the form of random citizens (no character customization) who challenge you to a rhythm game. If you win they become your "fan", which doesn't really add up to much.
Phantom R should have teamed up with a fellow treasure enthusiast to tackle multiplayer-exclusive rhythm games. What if SEGA developed an hour-long co-op campaign to help flesh out the story? Unfortunately the multiplayer in Rhythm Thief feels like a missed opportunity. Expect a bare-bones experience if you try to groove with a friend.
For a new IP, Rhythm Thief does a great job at mixing game styles to create a fresh experience. The “Professor Layton meets Elite Beat Agents” style of gameplay works surprisingly well, and the mini-games make sense on the handheld console. We just wish the odd story and lack of game polish were remedied.
If you're looking for a shorter game with a fine soundtrack, pick up Rhythm Thief. At the end of the day, it’s the mini-games that matter, and they’re good, simple fun. If you can overlook the bizarre story quirks, there are some groovy tunes to jam out to.
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