The early part of 2012 has brought us some blockbuster titles on 3DS that, in their own way, involve plenty of tension and shooting enemies. Perhaps it’s time to sit back and indulge in something a little more off the wall and unexpected, and Rhythm Thief & the Emperor’s Treasure certainly fits the bill. Despite the danger of the rhythm game genre leading to a mediocre, disposable title, SEGA has succeeded in producing a game with an irrepressible beat.
Much of what makes this title succeed is down to its character, self-confidence and refusal to take itself seriously. Protagonist Raphael is a polite teenager who, with a simple removal of his glasses and the donning of a snazzy hat, becomes the renowned – or perhaps notorious – Phantom R, a fugitive art thief. Never without his charming sidekick dog Fondue, he travels around beautifully recreated locations in Paris meeting characters along the way, most notably the talented violinist Marie. The storyline involves a former French Emperor being brought back from the dead and trying to procure treasure that will give him the power to retake France in the current day: bonkers but enjoyable.
The storyline is entertaining to the point that it’s capable of holding your interest, but the experience of this title is ultimately all about rhythm-based mini games. Like titles such as Rhythm Heaven on DS, your task is to complete various musical stages by tapping and swiping your stylus, as well as occasional use of buttons and the system’s gyroscope. The stylus and button controls are responsive and accurate, avoiding the potential pitfalls of lagged input responses. With clear and easily understandable prompts for each beat, these stages are enjoyable and immaculately constructed.
The gyroscope controls, however, are a mistake. It feels like the levels with gyroscope inputs were included simply because the functionality is available, and they are typically awkward and unresponsive, with the speed of movement not suiting a dual-screen system with a loose screen hinge, for instance. We’re thankful that only a small number of the 50 rhythm stages use motion controls in this way, as they detract from the otherwise exceptional controls.
There’s also a problem with the scoring, which applies a grade from A to E. The quest for A grades can be a frustrating business, as it’s possible to accumulate a big score and hover on an A grade for 90% of a song, only to make a couple of mistakes and tumble to a C. It’s harsh and uncompromising, with some in-game objects available to buy to ease the pain slightly: the grades should have been based on score alone, as the existing system means that you can achieve a higher score than before but still get a lower grade. Not game-breaking, but irritating nevertheless.
These rhythm sections are interwoven into basic elements of exploration and puzzle solving. The story mode is broken up into ten chapters, with each lasting around an hour if you’re playing relatively quickly, and it’s not just a case of going from one rhythm challenge to the next. You explore different areas of Paris, albeit in a linear fashion, by walking between screens. On each screen there’s often a character to talk to, and there are also a lot of hidden items to find, ranging from coins which serve as currency, to soundtrack clips and side-mission objects. It’s basic hidden-object gameplay, blindly tapping everywhere on the screen to find items: it can be redundant, but is also strangely addictive. It may be a contradiction, but extra goals of finding items to unlock bonus content may draw you in, and it’s also a simple style of play that will suit children: it’ll also feel like a familiar practice to fans of the Professor Layton series.
Beyond tapping every square millimetre of each area, there are objectives to follow that advance the story. The typical process is to travel to a landmark, such as the Louvre, and the storyline will take you into a new, one-time area where you repeat the object hunting and rhythm games. These sections will throw up an occasional music or rhythm-themed puzzle, but there are unlimited attempts and they are never challenging. Although some will wish for more difficulty in the puzzles, they serve the purpose of adding variety to your activities.
While basic puzzles and hidden objects play their part, the memorable moments all revolve around the rhythm sections, so it’s a relief that the – mostly – tight controls are complimented by exceptional music. With the exception of a gorgeous violin performance of a piece of well-known classical music, the soundtrack features original tracks that impress throughout with catchy beats and high production values. While the 3DS speakers are competent, this is a game above all others on the system that fundamentally has to be played with headphones. The quirky, off-beat nature is also perfectly portrayed by cel-shaded visuals, with some attractive animated sequences used for storytelling. The 3D effect is unnecessary – it’s even disabled in gyroscope sections – but does add vibrancy to the environments and animations. For a title so reliant on its presentation, especially sound, Rhythm Thief hits its mark impressively.
While the story mode and its various side missions and collect-a-thons will take over ten hours to finish, there are some extras to add value to the package. It’s possible to repeat all rhythm challenges that you unlocked in story mode in order to chase high scores, while you unlock the Hard setting by beating the campaign. Marathon mode poses the greatest challenge, taking the four prominent rhythm styles and setting them up in punishing long routines, best suited to the most musically talented players. A gallery, meanwhile, will allow you to listen to the soundtrack, watch the storyline movies bought in game and access three short bonus chapters, all of which are unlockable in story mode for those with enough persistence. For families sharing a game card, there are three profiles to go around.
The final options are multiplayer, which include local and StreetPass options. If you have a friend with a copy you can choose levels to play together, competing to get the highest score. There are also three stages available for Download Play, if you only have one cart, but the limited options mean that it’s unlikely to be used often. StreetPass, meanwhile, takes an opponent's score for you to challenge, with a victory earning you a ‘fan’ on the streets of Paris. We haven’t accumulated enough hits or fans to see the pay-off, but it’s a decent if unspectacular addition.
Rhythm Thief & the Emperor’s Treasure is a title overflowing with charm and verve, with a style that can entertain children and adults alike. It has a couple of missteps, the biggest of which is the occasional use of gyroscope controls, while simple puzzles and missing object searches don’t quite match the title’s overall quality. It’s the audio-visual presentation and stylus/button-based rhythm challenges that steal the show, representing some of the finest beats in the genre. It may not be perfect, but musical gamers with some groove to share should certainly consider a trip to Paris with Phantom R.