We're long past the days of narrative not mattering in videogames. The moment that gamers stood in an open field west of a white house with a boarded front door, the pressure's been on the developers and the designers to create compelling stories, and to tell them better.
That's why we have triple-A titles - like BioShock, Shadow of the Colossus and Half-Life - that wade into the contemporary discourse on subjects as varied as politics, societal issues and the act of gaming itself. That's why we have a burgeoning indie gaming scene through which creators like Edmund McMillen, Tim Schafer and Phil Fish can peddle intelligent, evocative narrative works without the consumer ever having to leave their couch. That's why the games industry is constantly pursuing the ultimate goal of becoming cinematic in the way it tells its stories (though whether it's desirable to aspire to films is another debate in and of itself).
There's a whole market full of games out there that offer rich, deeply satisfying narrative experiences. The bar's been lifted so many times, even on handheld consoles, that it's easy to lose count. Take the 3DS, a platform in its infancy that still has on offer games like Kid Icarus, Cave Story 3D, and Ocarina of Time. If developers are going to make interactive fiction in this market, they have to put some effort into it. It's not enough to cobble together something inane and slap-dash in the hope that the gameplay will distract the audience. They'll notice.
This is advice that director Shun Nakamura (most notable for his work on 2006's reboot of Sonic the Hedgehog) probably should have been given. If he had, maybe he would've taken a step back before releasing Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's Treasure to the general public.
Let's be straight - there's a very good rhythm game in Rhythm Thief. It's a saving grace - 'rhythm' is right there in the title, the game would've been irredeemable if Nakamura hadn't delivered on that. The fifty games available are intuitive and varied, ranging from classic dance routines to intricate violin solos, from sneaking past guards to helping a dog attack them.
The games are tough, but not so tough as to be insurmountable, and the drive to 100 percent everything in sight is fuelled by Rhythm Thief's unforgiving attitude towards mistakes - one screw-up and the player is down a grade, three or four in a row at the wrong time and it’s as good as over. The game even includes Marathon Modes and Full-Contact Challenges, both of which ramp up the already-inscrutable difficulty levels in order to compel the player to do his or her best. Perfection is the aim of the game, and Rhythm Thief is refreshingly open about the high standards it holds us to.
Those high standards don't appear to extend to their own work, however. Rhythm Thief is remarkable in just how lame the central narrative is, and, given how the game spends a substantial amount of time scrolling through text and playing anime cutscenes, the lack of a 'Skip' function is sorely felt. Rhythm Thief focuses on one Raphael, a bespectacled Parisian orphan who leads a double life as master thief Phantom R. After stealing the Bracelet of Tiamat from the Louvre, Raphael is drawn into a conspiracy involving the French monarchy, a sweet, violin-playing girl named Marie, and a resurrected Napoleon Bonaparte, and it's up to him to solve the mystery before it's too late.
This is the kind of narrative that could, in the classic anime tradition, be played to the rafters, absurd to the point of hilarity. It's not a story that can, or should, be taken seriously. Nakamura apparently disagrees, however, and the game plays out with such a distinct lack of humour about its central plotline that every other problem becomes more apparent.
The game layers on the twists and 'mysteries' in an astoundingly po-faced way, to the point where one character's betrayal feels like a personal insult because of the matter-of-fact way it's delivered.
The supernatural elements are underused and underwhelming - even the game's villain, the resurrected Napoleon, is little more than a surly man in a stupid bullet-shaped helmet who plays his role with absolutely no flair or style. The characters are all cliches drawn as broadly as possible, and they refuse to develop for the eight hours the game takes to finish (bar one cut-scene at the end of the second act, which develops one relationship in a particularly off-the-cuff way).
The central relationship between Raphael and Marie is incredibly corny, so clunky as to even have Raphael respond to Marie's confusion over a lack of angels at Versailles (long story) with the line "I saw at least one angel tonight". Paris itself is mercilessly abused, French words jammed into dialogue and tourist hotspots forced into the narrative as if compensation for not actually providing an immersive game environment. As if it couldn't be any worse, Rhythm Thief even ends on a sequel hook.
This pile-up of bad storytelling decisions is only somewhat mitigated by its presentation. The anime cutscenes are fluid and energetic for the most part, only dropping the ball a couple of times during the third act. The 3D looks especially good during these cutscenes, but it's worthless during the gameplay itself, so bad as to actually be of detriment to the experience.
The character designs are inconsistent - some are abysmal, ugly geometric shapes that look like placeholders for designs that never came, while other designs, such as Inspector Vergier's, are fantastic and tell us everything about the character as soon as we see them. One could almost say that the game manages to package its terrible story in a palatable way - that is, if one didn't take into account the voice acting. The voice actors in this game are atrocious, utterly incapable of effectively delivering dramatic material and shackling their performances to awful approximations of English and French accents. I do not have enough words to express my loathing for the performances in this game.
So yes, there's a good game in Rhythm Thief. It's a game that's not shy about its commitment to accurately evoking the skill and dexterity required of a master thief and master dancer, and as a result it's a fun and formidable challenge, regardless of whether Raphael is stomping the yard or stomping some goons. However, that game's built into a story so anodyne, so unimaginative, so resolute in its seriousness, that it's almost not worth the pain.