In fact, with its colorful, bright rendition of Paris, its stylish character designs, and its simple gameplay, Rhythm Thief gives me a distinct "Sega" vibe. But not 2012 Sega – good Sega, when insane, cartoony experiments were the order of the day. Rhythm Thief is proof that, somewhere deep within Sega, an ember of the company's Dreamcast-era style remains.
Sure, there are some nagging issues keeping it from perfection, but even a little bit of unevenness in keeping with the Sega experience. Rhythm Thief is what would happen if you took Rhythm Heaven minigames, swapped them into a Professor Layton framework in place of puzzles, and transplanted the new chimera into Paris. So you walk around a map screen, tapping to find hidden objects and talk to people, which will then trigger a rhythm-based minigame.
Mild-mannered student Raphael pulls off dashing art heists in the guise of the blue-suited Phantom R, much to the chagrin of the constabulary and incomprehensible delight of the Parisian citizenry. We catch up with Phantom R and his very French dog Fondue ("Woeuf!") as they break into the Louvre to steal the Bracelet of Tiamat, an artifact bearing an icon identical to that found on a coin left by Raphael's missing father. This setup takes Phantom R across Paris, searching museums, libraries, and people for more information, all while dodging the tenacious Inspector Vergier and protecting his violin-playing love interest Marie. In short, it's a grand adventure.
At least at first. The story very quickly turns into – well, I don't want to spoil all of the bizarre twists, but the main antagonist is the reanimated Napoleon, who controls an army of soldiers in full armor and capes, known as the Chevaliers Diabolique. Really! It ... gets weirder from there.
I fell deeply for many of the minigames, which range from swiping to match dance moves to tapping the control pad or buttons to attack enemies on the left or right ... to holding the stylus to cook broccoli ... to tapping to return soccer balls ... to swiping to play a violin. My favorite minigame had me tapping the directional pad to make the debonair thief Phantom R jump from platform to platform, and then tapping A to have his dog jump from differently spaced platforms – in parallel. My least favorite minigame involved tilt controls – enough said. Remember how I said Rhythm Thief evokes old Sega? Well, it does so in some overt ways in addition to general tone – the gameplay of both Samba de Amigo and Space Channel 5 can be found in optional tribute minigames (complete with "chu" commands!). I recognize that it's a shortcut to making me like the game, but I also recognize that it worked.
Strangely, the one part of the minigames that didn't jump out at me – and which should render the game a failure – is the music. The in-game music simply isn't as memorable as it should be for a rhythm game, and isn't even as memorable as the music in the rest of the game. It's not bad, it's ... pleasant, but I never got it stuck in my head.
Between minigames, you move from spot to spot on a map. The locations are drawn beautifully and teem with fascinatingly weird characters, but there's an unsettling roteness to the segments between rhythm games. The map screen always tells you exactly where you need to go, so exploration is unnecessary; this makes puzzles (which ask you to record a sound from one location and play it in another, like using a bulldog growl to scare away a policeman or a popping balloon to wake up a narcoleptic antiquarian) less like "puzzles" and more like "inane errands." In lieu of the actual "puzzles," you'll spend your time tapping every part of the screen to find in-game currency and "phantom notes," the latter of which unlocks an extra chapter when collected in full.
Though I spent more time on the map screen than I would have liked, the world of Rhythm Thief is so beautiful and lively that I was, in general, just happy to be inhabiting it, and delighted to play out some absurd scenarios in clever musical vignettes. It's not a flawless experience, but it is a joyful one.
This review is based on a retail 3DS copy of Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's Treasure, provided by Sega.
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