It's midnight in Paris, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. A fearsome dictator has come back from the grave, secret treasures of untold power have been unearthed, a girl is in trouble. Nothing left to do… but dance, dance, dance!
That's about the sum of Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's Treasure, a new 3DS game from longtime Sonic The Hedgehog designer Shun Nakamura. Sound silly? It is. It's also a hell of a lot of fun.
Rhythm Thief tells the story of Raphael, a young redheaded Parisian who, like many of the characters in the game, distinctly lacks anything resembling a French accent. Raphael has a secret—at night, he dons a blue suit and a cool blue hat and moonlights as "Phantom R," an infamous art thief. (Note: The characters who do sport Frahnch Accahnts have about as much fun pronouncing "Phantom R" as you'd think.)
(Second note: Raphael's friend and trusty companion is his dog, named — what else! — "Fondue." (Sample Fondue dialogue: "Woeuf."))
Are you on board yet? The story of Rhythm Thief is told through charming if occasionally nonsensical animated cutscenes—Raphael is looking for his father, and in the process of doing so uncovers a plot to reanimate Napoleon Bonaparte and use a superpowered ancient artifact to rule the world. Okay! He also meets Marie, a lovely young busker who plays the violin. See, her fate is intertwined with his. And maybe that violin will come in handy…
Rhythm Thief could have been a stealth/action game, or a platformer, but in fact, it's a music game. The game oscillates between two modes—exploration of Paris and 30 different rhythm-based minigames. The rhythm games are the heart of Rhythm Thief and with a few exceptions, they are fun. The games replicate the stealthy tricks Phantom R must use as he infiltrates various famous Parisian buildings. Breaking into the Louvre involves first using the 3DS stylus to match dance poses to statues in order to hide from guards, then fighting off some enemies by tapping the face buttons in time, then bouncing buttons in time to aid a rooftop escape.
There are over 30 rhythm games in all, and while several repeat throughout the 5-6 hour story, they never get old. For the first several hours of the game, I couldn't wait to get to the next challenge. Just when I'd think I knew what's going to happen next, the game would throw a dog-biting game or a stylus-based violin challenge at me to change things up. Some of the purer rhythm games (particularly the combat games) feel more than a touch like Nintendo's incredible Rhythm Heaven Fever, though nowhere near as varied or difficult.
Each of the rhythm games can be played multiple times to achieve a high grade. It's a testament to how fun the games are that I found myself doing this more than once immediately after finishing. That said, there are a few big whiffs—a flying game that uses the 3DS' motion controls is a disaster, and a couple of the stylus-based dancing games towards the end are frustratingly difficult. But the majority of the games are fun, funny, and satisfyingly groovy to play.
The reason for this is primarily the fact that Rhythm Thief has a fantastic soundtrack. The music, a blend of bouncy jazz, funky human beatboxing and uplifting Disney-style pop, was composed by longtime Sega maestros Tomoya Ohtani and Naofumi Hataya. The Rhythm Thief soundtrack is so much fun that it makes the game more fun. Rather than embed a bunch of screenshots or waste any more words, I'll let the music do the talking. Here are some of my favorite tracks:
The main theme from the game has everything that makes the music great—it's an overture, really. The main hook, with that sly chromatic motif; the harpsichord, the vibraphone, the horns, the broadway jazz-meets-late-night-TV-theme bounce. Over the course of the game (like the very groovy exploration version), it becomes like an old friend.
This is a great example of the funkier, "high-tech break in" music — the soundtrack isn't all jazz, and the puzzle sections feature some welcomely grooving electronic stuff.
One of the main violin melodies from the game, "Moon Princess" combines a lovely melody with some beautiful animation and art to give a pure old-school Disney vibe. You even get to play it using the stylus! Each of the songs are divided into three sections, which gives a great sense of pacing - Introduction | Development | Resolution - to each composition.
"Escape from the Opera House"
This one plays during the timed jumping sections—pure spy goodness. Killer horns.
"One More Time"
Occasionally Raphael will do a dance routine to a straight-up pop tune. These are super, SUPER cheesy, to the point that you kind of can't help but grin and go with it. And again, the tunes don't repeat themselves at any point - they follow a 3-act setup to match with the three-level build of the games, so they never really get stale.
There's a ton more great music in the game, and all of it is good enough that you'll want to sit back and listen to it apart from the game. And you can... well, if you live in Europe. The soundtrack is on iTunes in Europe, and will be on the American iTunes store in mid-August, according to Sega's site.
In addition to the rhythm games, Rhythm Thief has a few other things going on. Unfortunately, none of them are all that interesting or fun. Paris is navigated via a tiny mini-map of sorts that lays across the 3DS' top screen. On the bottom screen is a still image of the area where Raphael is standing. You can tap the screen to try to find hidden notes, sounds and gold coins, but it's all pretty arbitrary, and mostly a hidden-object game. Sometimes you'll have to go gather a sound effect and play it back to someone to proceed (for example, record the sound of roasting meat to make a hungry guard depart her post), but the game tells you exactly what you need to do, so there's no element of challenge.
There are also musical puzzles that you'll have to solve every so often, and they're also far too easy for the most part. I actually liked these though, mainly because they require melodic recall, pitch matching, and other lightly musical skills that reinforce just how musical Rhythm Thief is. That, and they have the most hilarious, goofily jazzy victory music ever.
Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's Treasure is a light and joyful game that breezes along on its easy charm and fantastic soundtrack. I completed the main story in just under five and a half hours - completists who want to gather collectibles to unlock three bonus chapters will get a few more hours out of it, as will those who want to pursue a perfect score on all of the rhythm games.
The game seems expressly intended to become the first in a series, as the story leaves the door open for a sequel. Furthermore, the "Emperor's Treasure" subtitle indicates that Sega is setting up Phantom R to be the Professor Layton of music games. That's just fine by me—I didn't see Rhythm Thief coming, but I'll be at the front of the line to play the next game in the series. I want to spend more time in this world, setting off into the colorful Paris night and embarking on yet another musical adventure. And dancing, dancing, dancing.