It's usually a good sign when Nintendo takes over publishing duties on a game set to be released by a different publisher. More often than not, it means the game is of very high quality and Nintendo is publishing it so it can put its marketing force behind it to get people to notice it more. It's done this deal plenty of times with Capcom games in the past (Monster Hunter Tri, Super Street Fighter IV 3D and Resident Evil Revelations were all published by Nintendo in the UK), and now it's doing the same deal with Sega for Rhythm Thief. Does this mean it's a great game, too? You'd better believe it.
Set in Paris, Rhythm Thief tells the story of Raphael, a young boy living on his own with just his dog, Fondue, for company. What his fellow Frenchmen don't know however is that Raphael is actually the mysterious Phantom R, an eccentric criminal who steals valuable works of art. His intentions are undeniably noble: Raphael is trying to use the pilfered art to get to the bottom of his father's mysterious disappearance, and he plans to return everything later (natch) - but that, obviously, doesn't stop the narked French fuzz wanting to slap some handcuffs on him smartish.
Oh, and there's also the odd matter of Napoleon Bonaparte rising from the dead after nearly 200 years of being worm food, which for some reason is also linked to Raphael's dad.
This Lukes Familiar
At its core, Rhythm Thief can be described in one sentence: it's Professor Layton with rhythm mini-games instead of puzzles. Within half an hour it's abundantly clear that Sega's game borrows liberally from Level-5's excellent Professor Layton games, from the dialogue scenes to the way each 'puzzle' is numbered, right down to the way you tap parts of the screen to find hidden coins.
But whereas most of the time this sort of imitation would be grounds for heavy criticism, Rhythm Thief comes up with a clever way of avoiding the flak - it does most things better than Layton. The music - an already much-loved aspect of the Professor Layton games - is even better here (well, it's to be expected from a game that focuses on rhythm).
The animated cutscenes, meanwhile, are breathtaking in terms of both quality and clarity and progressing from screen to screen is much quicker and less repetitive than it is in the Layton games. Even when Raphael meets his token British partner - the lovely Marie, whose violin has a symbol that Raphael feels is linked to his dad's whereabouts - her accent is far less irritating than Luke's.
Granted, we're comparing oranges and tangerines here: the only Layton games in the UK to date have been on the DS and we've no doubt the first 3DS game, Professor Layton And The Mask Of Miracle, will raise its game significantly. For now though, in terms of overall presentation, Rhythm Thief blows Professor Layton clean out of the water.
Bag Of Rhythm
Of course, all this is just the side salad - it's the real meat of both games that's very different. While the Layton series is all about puzzling, Rhythm Thief is all about music. Sure, it has a couple of puzzles tucked away in there, but none of them are going to cause your brain too much trouble. Instead, it features 50 or so rhythm mini-games that appear at certain times throughout the story, each of which comes with its very own toe-tapping beat.