Having recently manually grooved my way through Theatrhythm Final Fantasy's pleasant Squaresoft-inspired musical numbers, I approached Sega's Rhythm Thief & the Emperor's Treasure with the possibility of encountering rhythm-game whiplash, or at the very least a slight case of déjà vu. Fortunately, and to some extent surprisingly, Sega's collaboration with developer Xeen is one of the better products the monetarily ailing company has produced in some time. It's by no means a great undertaking, but its very peculiar, inviting take on the keep-the-beat genre offers gamers perhaps something they never thought could be a moderate success in this mass market of bloody, familiar first-person shooters and annually repackaged sports titles: a handheld rhythm game that possesses the spirit of the best kind of mystery-puzzler (Professor Layton) and sensibly combines it with some of Sega's most memorable digital dance-offs (Samba de Amigo, Space Channel 5). Throw in a decidedly quirky France-set storyline that fuses with an overtly Japanese aura, and, in contempt of a few detrimental miscues (a sketchy rating system, some off-putting voice acting, and minor graphical tarnishes), Rhythm Thief can stand as a perceptible shout from Sega, announcing that they're not quite ready to be dismissed as obsolete.
Rhythm Thief's fittingly kooky narrative concerns the City of Lights, specifically the Louvre, and a young portrait larcenist's quest to discover his true heritage among an encrypted wake of clues entwined in pieces of famous artwork. It's all initially very Layton-esque in vibe and presentation, but Rhythm Thief eventually wanders down its own partially involving path. With a strong script that introduces palatable twists at more or less the right moments, and a cast of eccentric characters that do well to avoid rigid stereotypes, the game's progression is nearly unwrinkled, only confronting potentially derailing issues late in the experience as difficulty levels begin to creep upward. Leading eager protagonist Raphael to his final goal is filled with dozens of sight-and-sound enigmas that are solved not simply by quick wit and tapping the 3DS screen with the stylus, but by maintaining a keen sense of timing during sequences of action-oriented advancement. Elementary objectives like tracking and setting off a potpourri of audible cues are interspersed between Rhythm Thief's most addictive tune-themed passages, the design of which promptly brings to mind Nintendo's Rhythm Heaven and iNiS's Elite Beat Angels, but because of the specific environment in which they take place (this story's backdrop is altogether idiosyncratic), just about everything comes together in a tight bundle of restorative novelty that permits several replays.
Reaching the end of Rhythm Thief's central journey won't take long—roughly six-to-seven hours if you move at a headlong pace. As is customary, there are plenty of non-throwaway side quests to provoke extended hours of gameplay. Clandestine ghostly notes are spread wide throughout the game, collecting a certain amount leads to the production of a section of a much longer operatic score that also opens up a new fictive episode. Spare melodies can be applied to various needy NPCs and their ability to construct increasingly modernistic instruments, and moseying around the plethora of Parisian back alleys is sure to yield concealed treasure in the form of helpful item medals that lessen the hassle of future rhythmic riddles if need be. As different techniques are ushered in, like controlling multiple characters at the same time (a girl named Marie plays you along on her one-of-a-kind heirloom violin) and interpreting hints from the barks of Raphael's trusty terrier Fondue, the procedure never varies much from its prior smoothness, adding moves to your arsenal incorporates variety without creating gaudy excess.
Unfortunately, maneuvering the 3DS's motion sensor controls is less successful. Once again, as in other gyroscopic failures (though not quite as appalling as Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir), wildly and inaccurately swinging around the 3DS in order to accomplish goals that could otherwise be completed in a much more dignified and preferable manner (stylus, d-pad, button-pressing) is totally unnecessary and a misuse of the technology. In addition, Rhythm Thief's scoring is, frankly, a broken component, and the gyroscope's functioning doesn't help to amend this. You'll likely be amassing A grades during the uncomplicated early chapters, but later on blundering a single bar near a demanding song's conclusion by way of late tilting results in tons of unearned C's. Thankfully, Rhythm Thief's grand finale suggests something of a follow-up, one that can hopefully amend the problems at hand here.
As a whole, Rhythm Thief is definitely a rejuvenating effort of sorts for Sega, with a catchy original soundtrack that will remain in your ears for days post-play; it's one that gradually restores a bit of faith in the alternatively floundering outfit.