To be brutally honest, there’s nothing really that special about the gameplay. In some form, you’ve probably seen and done it all before. The rhythm action sequences are perfectly paced and the difficulty level scales up nicely, but the puzzles are weak and the game insists on using prompts and whacking exclamation marks on the map to practically solve most of them for you.
Sequences involving the tilt controls can be frustrating, particularly as the 3DS doesn’t always recognise the forward-tilting motion, and in a few cases even the stylus controls feel hit and miss.
Enter Professor Layton - Style and Sophistication
Yet Rhythm Thief gets away with this on account of its style. Like Professor Layton, it has the bright and breezy looks of a Studio Ghibli film, and it makes a lot of the City of Lights and its eccentric inhabitants. The game skilfully blends hand-drawn 2D art with cel-shaded 3D animation, and there’s some excellent, restrained use of 3D effects both in cartoon cut-scenes and the action sequences.
There’s also plenty of knowing humour, and a whole lot of simple, silly fun. Just as it was impossible to dislike Elite Beat Agents – a game where you helped a little doggy find his home to the tune of Deep Purple’s Highway Star – so it’s improbable that anyone could not enjoy Rhythm Thief.
One minute you’re engaged in a football duel with your would-be nemesis, a child prodigy PI, the next you’re raising glasses and offering hors d'oeuvres at a waiting masterclass or ensuring that Fondue gets his teeth into a chubby policeman’s posterior. It’s infectious stuff.
One Last Jazzy Score
The music, meanwhile, is inspired. Where most rhythm action games shoehorn current hits and old classics into the storyline, Rhythm Thief has its own soundtrack, mixing the odd disco beat in with the kind of jazzy sounds you’d find in a sixties spy movie. It’s genuinely catchy, in a cheesy sort of way.
Best of all, it’s a game with unexpected long-term appeal. At the end of each action sequence you’re hit with a grade, running from A down to a miserable E. You can get so far by getting through each sequence by the skin of your teeth, but to properly finish the game you’ll need to polish your timing and build up those A grades.
This can be a pain where the tilt controls are concerned, and the game has a nasty habit of dropping you a grade for just a few isolated flunks in the final section, but most of the sequences are a pleasure to revisit. Plus, if you share your 3DS and the game with a loved one or friend, then it won’t be long before some bitter competition starts to stir.
You might say that Rhythm Thief and the Emperor’s Treasure is a triumph of style over substance, but the substance is very enjoyable and the style extremely entertaining. It’s exactly the sort of quirky, leftfield gem that the 3DS needs, and a game that richly deserves to become a sleeper hit. Here’s to another outing for Phantom R and his faithful dog Fondue.