Review: Rhythm Thief & the Emperor's Treasure
It's not every day you get a rhythm game for the 3DS. In fact, prior to last month, only two rhythm games had been released in the system’s fifteen month lifespan: Gabrielle's Ghostly Groove, and Michael Jackson: The Experience, both of which proved to be critically underwhelming offerings.
This summer, however, we were treated to not one but two new 3DS rhythm games, released within a week of each other. The first to be released? Square Enix's Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, a high profile game celebrating the music from the acclaimed Final Fantasy series, which not coincidentally turns 25 this year. It's a huge game filled with hours of nostalgic stylus-swiping, and it even offers additional songs via DLC every week. It's such a huge game, in fact, that it has unfortunately overshadowed the second rhythm game, released just a week later. Had it not been for the intriguing demo offered on the Nintendo eShop, Rhythm Thief & the Emperor's Treasure would have flown completely under my radar. Suffice it to say, that would have been a shame, as Rhythm Thief is a great new title featuring incredibly fun gameplay, a charming story, and high production values.
Raphael is a Parisian with a secret: by nights he adopts the role of his alter ego Phantom R, thief extraordinaire. Known for stealing priceless works of art and then returning them, his mission is actually to track down clues that could lead him to finding his father, who abandoned him years ago. Things become complicated when he and his trusted dog Fondue stumble into the middle of a sinister plot involving a young orphan named Marie and the supposedly resurrected Napoleon Bonaparte, who happens to look nothing like Napoleon Bonaparte. Now, Raphael and Marie must uncover Napoleon's plans, all while staying one step ahead of the law.
The story itself is imaginative and light, though it lacks any amazing story beats or plot twists. Its execution is for the most part quite impressive, however, as story segments are often delivered through animated cutscenes, which blend 2D characters and 3D backgrounds in interesting ways. Though the voice acting could be better, the overall production value in these cutscenes is high.
Of course, while the storyline is enjoyable in its own right, it's really just a means to string together the rhythm mini-games. And if we're being honest with ourselves, those are the real reason we're here, right?
Well, I'm happy to report that in this respect, Rhythm Thief absolutely knocks it out of the park. Whereas the gameplay in Theatrhythm all stems from the same basic mechanic (swipe, tap, and hold the stylus against the screen in time to the music), Rhythm Thief offers a wide variety of mini-games, each using different mechanics. In one, you have to press A and B with precision as you leap from building to building, while in another, you have to tilt your 3DS at the right time to dodge an enemy's attacks. Yet another has you pressing the trigger buttons to shoot oncoming henchmen. All in all, there are 50 mini-games offered (though some repeat mechanics). Each one is a blast to play, but my personal favourite is the type that has you sliding the stylus against the strings of a violin in time with the oncoming notes—who knew Violin Hero could be so fun?
Almost as important in any rhythm game is the musical selection, and here Rhythm Thief once again rises to the challenge. The songs composed for this game are all original recordings (three or four are original covers of classical pieces). The lesser of these offerings are fun-but-forgettable tunes that do little more than complement the rhythm mini-games they accompany, which is fine. For the most part, however, these songs are incredibly catchy, memorable tunes that serve well beyond the call of duty. Some, in fact, are simply a joy to listen to. Two examples are Knights of the Devil Blade and Mastermind.
These are just a few highlights of what is probably my second-favourite video game soundtrack of the year (first place goes to Austin Wintory's excellent soundtrack to thatgamecompany's Journey).
Beating the game should take about 15 hours. After the story mode is done, however, there's still plenty to enjoy. Music tracks are hidden throughout the city in a manner similar to the hint coins from the Professor Layton series, and once found can be listened to in the Gallery. There are also two side quests that unlock bonus chapters with new songs. Furthermore, there are four Marathon Modes to be purchased in the game's shop. Achieving high scores in these modes is a fun challenge. Finally, after beating the game there is an option to switch difficulties from “Hard OFF” to the questionably titled “Hard ON.” The fun never stops with Phantom R.
While the game is certainly fun, a fair warning should be given about one odd oversight in its ranking/scoring system. In any mini-game, your rank starts at D and constantly improves as you achieve “good” or greater on each note. Miss a note and your rank decreases. This is pretty standard, yet by the end of a mini-game the penalty is so harsh that in some cases a single bad note can knock you down from an A ranking all the way to a D. To make matters worse, the game tracks high scores, which are earned by achieving combos of successful notes in a row. This means that a score where someone hit every note except the last (earning a D ranking) could be higher than someone who messed up a note in the middle of the song (breaking the combo), but managed to climb back up to an A. Normally this would merely be frustrating, but it's made all the more so by the fact that a certain extra chapter can only be achieved by getting an A rank in every song. If you had earned the aforementioned D ranking, this would actually make things much more difficult for you, as you would need to then achieve a flawless score for your A ranking to count; anything less than a high score is ignored. Does that make sense? Whatever, it's frustrating, and a poor design oversight.
That one complaint aside, this is a very fun and original title, one I'd recommend it to any fan of rhythm games. Sadly, it doesn't appear to be garnering strong sales due to the overshadowing presence of Theatrhythm, and that's something of a shame. Download the free demo in the eShop and try it for yourself. This game deserves attention, and I for one will be hoping to see Phantom R reappear in the future.