You don't need me to tell you that music-based rhythm action titles are hot shiz these days. Is it because the combination of music with skill-based activity triggers endorphins? Stimulates the brain's reward center? I'm not a neurologist, but I like to pretend to be one. In fact, the cops are looking for me right now, something about a "botched" brain surgery. While I'm hiding out in a secret underground bunker, I've been playing Ontamarama, the latest Japanese beatmaster to reach our shores grace a the good folks at Atlus, hoping a new rhythm title will help pass the time and make me feel good. Sort of like a crack addiction, but without the depression, poverty or the soiling myself.
A good rhythm-action title just might make me wet my pants, though. So is Ontamarama the latest game to make me wish I had quarters with which to launder my delicates? Before you read this review, please watch the above Japanese advertisement for the game, and then hit the jump.
Did you watch the commercial? Do as I say, damn it! That odd, quirky vibe, that catchy tune, those floating... things. I don't know exactly what those things -- the Ontama -- actually are, but a good ol' google search reveals pictures of things that look like poached eggs floating in soup. Fluffy, sweet and nutritous, but Ontamarama's cuties are not edible. They're musical, in fact, and the game's themes remind you of this at every turn. You can play as either a boy named Beat or a girl named Rest, your teacher's a pretty green-haired geek called Coda, and you fight enemies with names like Alto, Aria and Elegy. You know, in case you ever forget it's a music game.
If you did as I said and watched the commercial, you probably couldn't make hide nor hair of the brief gameplay clips that are shown. And Ontamarama is deceptively complex. Colorful Ontama will begin to appear on the touch screen, and you need to clear them away. Single Ontama can be tapped to make them disappear, and if Ontama of the same color appear in a group, you can draw a circle around them with the stylus to clear them all at once. Sometimes, big fat Ontama will pop up, and you can either tap them twice or draw a circle around them to send them on their way.
So what happens to Ontama when they're cleared? While you're poking them in their fluffy little faces, color-coded notes will be scrolling across the bar at the top of the screen. Each color corresponds to a direction you must press on the D-pad, and you need to time that press for when the scrolling note is directly inside its spot at the left end of the notes bar. But the note won't play unless it's filled -- and you fill notes with Ontama. Following me?
So in other words, you have an orange and a green Ontama floating on the screen, and an empty orange note and an empty green note scrolling across the top of the screen. Tap the orange Ontama to clear it from the screen and fill the orange note, tap the green Ontama to clear it from the screen and clear the green note, and then push each note's corresponding direction on the D-pad as the note arrives in the correct spot. By so doing, you "play" the music currently going on in the level.
Some notes are "long" -- they require several Ontama of the same color to fill, and you must hold down the appropriate D-pad button until the note passes by. In easier stages and modes, sometimes only a few Ontama will appear on the screen at a time; the more notes a song has, though, the more Ontama will crowd the screen. It's best to clear the colors of the notes coming next, but sometimes it's all you can do to keep filling those notes. In a neat twist, you have a "breath weapon" -- up to three times per stage, you can puff into the microphone to blow away all of the Ontama on the screen. You'll earn points the more Ontama you can clear in one go.
You rack up your Performance gauge for hitting notes well, and lose Performance for missing them. When your Performance gauge reaches zero, it's game over. Sometimes, white Ontama will appear; tap them and get a Performance boost. There are also black Ontama -- if they get snagged in a circle or tapped by mistake, they cause your Performance to drop.
If it sounds complicated, it is, a bit -- there is definitely a steep learning curve to this game. You've got to watch the notes for timing, keep an eye on the many different colored Ontama and clear them, keep straight the color and directional coordination of the D-pad with each note, and you've got to listen to the music to determine the appropriate timing. Fans of brain training games will love this, as Ontamarama requires you to coordinate so many reflexive and attentive elements at once it feels like your hemispheres are being wedged open. Once again, I'm not allowed to practice neurology, and if my parole officer reads this, it won't be pretty.
The sort of busy, brightly-colored backdrops of Ontamarama don't help things, either. During play, your character can be seen grooving merrily alongside her opponent against a detailed scenery background behind the Ontama, and flashes of your or your opponent's image, either cheering or struggling, will streak across the top screen from time to time. Simply put, it's information overload -- but as you become more practiced, you'll associate colors with D-pad directions more readily and will tune out all that visual static necessary for play.
Fortunately, the more you play, the easier you can make things for yourself, oddly -- you can earn Ontama Points, or OP, for completing levels successfully, and you can spend them in the main menu's shop to gain little boosts, like starting levels with an elevated Performance, being able to draw longer lines (and therefore, bigger circles), or getting to use the Breath weapon an extra time each level.
There's an unlockable Free Play mode, during which you can practice (and rack up OP) at levels you've already completed, and in Story Mode, the character of your choice is aiming to thwart a demon attempting to co-opt all of the Ontama to some dark purpose, and you fight musical battles against his henchmen along the way. Finally, there's an enormously challenging Hard Mode, for experts.
The art style and animation is somewhat odd, vaguely juvenile and stilted, but the whole package is so cute that it all begins to grow on you. It's a likeable sort of weirdness, like that kid in high school who was always nice to everyone even though he had no friends. You just kind of want to invite Ontamarama to your birthday party.
But it's all about the music, though, so how is it? Well, it's strange to say the least, and doesn't really fall into one particular genre or another. Some are jazzy, others are synth-poppy, and there's one song, Club House Gig, that I've become bizarrely addicted to, and I have to say I dig it. The thing about rhythm-action games in general is eventually the songs lose all their original meaning -- you develop associations with them related to your enjoyment (or not) of a particular game, and you come to enjoy them as the soundtrack of levels you like. I swear to god, that's why La-La is on my iPod: Because I love Elite Beat Agents.
Overall, Ontamarama is a very puzzling package to digest. It looks weird, it sounds funny, and the gameplay has several things going on at once. Perhaps too many things. Unlike the DS rhythm games from whose book Ontamarama takes a page, there's no multiplayer mode, either -- which seems odd, because the levels are structured as head-to-head fights. And yet, it's most definitely adorable, vaguely addictive, and with a little dedication, that steep learning curve can be enormously rewarding. You really note that the more you play, the more your reflexes and ability to synthesize that information overload improve.
If you've never played EBA or Ouendan, I'd be cautious to recommend Ontamarama as an entree into the genre. Unless you're a DDR fan, because what with the colored directions and offbeat Japanese vibe, there's definitely some paralells. The big get for a game like this is finally pulling it all together and getting it right, and feeling that little shiver of glee when you hit a note precisely. Rhythm-action veterans know that they'll stumble at first, and take joy in surmounting that clumsiness and replacing it with mastery, but those less practiced in the genre might be more confused and frustrated.
Ontamarama is definitely unwieldy and a bit overcomplicated, but it's still engaging, time-sucking and solidly fun. And the oddball factor actually works in its favor -- after all, how many games out this season look just like everything you've seen a million times before? Different is great in this case, and patient types should snag this nice, albeit bewildering, surprise.