How Napoleon Got His Groove Back
Japan and I aren’t exactly on the best of terms. Like most red-blooded Americans, I fear anything I don’t understand, and ever since a poorly worded AltaVista search and some misplaced tentacles brought my childhood to a premature end, most of Japan’s cultural exports have fallen squarely into that category.
You can understand, then, why my hand was trembling with anxiety as it reluctantly slid the Rhythm Thief cartridge into my 3DS. By all outward appearances, the game was going to be far more kawaii than I could handle. But, hey, I’m a professional, so I took a deep breath and did my best to dive in with an open mind.
And you know what? I’m glad I did. For as eccentric and decidedly foreign as Rhythm Thief may seem to a dedicated Westerner like me, there’s a certain innocent charm to the game that’s difficult to ignore.
Take, for example, the game’s plot. You play as Raphael, a shy orphan boy who moonlights as suave art thief Phantom R. With the help of your trusty dog Fondue, you’re tasked with stopping the newly resurrected Emperor Napoleon and his legion of demon knights from using a magical ancient artifact to conquer Paris. It’s completely asinine, and it only gets worse as the game progresses, but there’s something altogether endearing about how earnestly the game commits to its ridiculous premise.
Of course, it helps that the story’s built on a foundation of excellent rhythm gameplay. The 50 minigames offer up a surprising amount of variety, both musical and mechanical. All of the 3DS’ controls are put to good use—whether it’s the buttons, the touchscreen, or the gyroscope—and the toe-tapping soundtrack features jazz, samba, classical, and just about everything in between. Rhythm Thief features surprisingly few recycled minigames, and repeat appearances almost always add another layer of complexity to keep things interesting.
The only weak spot here is the rating system, which is confusingly tied into how full your life meter is when you complete a song. Most rhythm games keep the two separate, and for good reason. Rhythm Thief’s method means the grade you receive is incredibly biased toward the last 15 seconds of your performance. On tougher levels, missing the final three beats can knock you down from an A to a D, but the inverse is also true—you can completely tank the first two-thirds of a stage and still eke out an A if you pull it together at the end. It’s not a dealbreaker by any means, but it takes a bit of the fun out of replaying old songs for a higher grade, as the entire system can feel frustratingly arbitrary.
Unfortunately, the point-and-click-adventure segments that link the minigames aren’t nearly as enjoyable as the rhythm gameplay. Adventure games thrive on lateral thinking and exploration, but Rhythm Thief’s approach is so dumbed down that it completely removes the need for either. Everything you need to do is marked on your map and carefully explained through dialogue, so you just mindlessly trudge from Point A to Point B, talking to people and finding the sounds you need to “solve” puzzles.
Technically speaking, you’re also free to explore the map on your own to complete the game’s two sidequests, but there’s really not much point. Both involve quite a bit of backtracking and blind tapping, and as a result, they quickly descend into tedium. If you’re anything like me, you’ll quickly run out of patience and breeze through the overworld sections as fast as possible so you can get to the next story beat or minigame.
And that’s reallyRhythm Thief in a nutshell. One half is excellent, the other is utterly forgettable. Still, it’s hard to focus on the weak points when you’re in the middle of a dance battle/swordfight with zombie Napoleon. The rhythm gameplay and wonderfully cockamamie story do wonders to sell an otherwise flawed experience, and if you’re willing to look past a few minor frustrations, Rhythm Thief will make a solid addition to your 3DS library.
SUMMARY: Rhythm Thief’s collection of musical minigames is one of the best in recent memory, but the game’s bogged down by dull adventure segments and a broken rating system.
- THE GOOD: Stellar minigames, off-the-wall story
- THE BAD: Busted rating system, tedious adventure segments
- THE UGLY: The unholy chimera that is the Master Instrument
Rhythm Thief & the Emperor’s Treasure is a 3DS exclusive.