If you ever take a trip to Japan and drop by an arcade, you're likely to see Taiko no Tatsujin in some form, which loosely translates into the Taiko Master. A taiko is a traditional Japanese drum with origins dating as far back as the sixth century BCE, and also serves as a great game concept, which is where Bandai Namco's arcade series Taiko no Tatsujin comes in. The arcade cabinet consists of a large drum, two drumsticks, and a screen, and in Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum Session on PS4, the core concept carries over.
On the screen, the player is instructed by red and blue symbols telling them to hit the center or the rim of the drum. Small symbols indicate the player must hit the beat with one stick, while large symbols tell the player to hit with both sticks at once. Though the series itself has never been released in Europe, gamers in our part of the world may still know the game from its appearance in Yakuza 5 or its Gamecube equivalent Donkey Konga, which was developed by the same team. It's a simple concept that's easy to understand, and most importantly it's a whole lot of fun, especially when the player's presented with some familiar tunes that fit the virtual instrument wonderfully.
The series has never been introduced on the European market, while gamers stateside haven't played any games in the series since Taiko: Drum Master for PlayStation 2 in 2004. That's something Bandai Namco apparently wants to change, as all of a sudden, we have two games in the series released on the same day for PS4 and Switch respectively. The games are quite different in both content and gameplay, which means they require two separate reviews, and so here we are reviewing the PS4 version, Drum Session.
One of the main differences between the two releases is that the PS4 version will only be available digitally here in Europe. The lack of a physical release also means that the custom-made drum controller for the game is not available either (at least not through regular retailers), although those who desperately want a taiko controller for the PS4 can still import one from Japan. Still, the fact is that a lot of the series' appeal and fun is lost without said controller. To mash buttons on a DualShock like crazy doesn't feel quite the same, even though it still requires the player to feel the rhythm, and there can be no doubt that the absence of a taiko also leaves a certain void in the player's heart. This is quite apparent when performing drum rolls on the DualShock, which is a pain to master no matter what sort of button setup you choose to use.
That being said, the party factor is still alive here for those who enjoy music and rhythm games and all things Japanese. The simple core concept of red and blue symbols indicating whether to smash X or Y is kept, and yet this simple concept proves quite challenging when entering the higher difficulty levels. If two players face off they can choose different difficulty levels, which is nothing but amazing whenever you invite some of your friends who aren't as familiar as you with the latest J-pop and anime theme song trends.
Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum Session is as Japanese as it gets, as the cutesy mascot Don-chan guides you through the game with his squeaky voice, and of the 72 tracks available you will find 20 J-pop songs and 10 anime theme songs. Bandai Namco promised the full Japanese taiko experience for the international audience, and they weren't kidding. Cultural exchange is a good thing, but it also makes the concept difficult to sell to the those unfamiliar with the latest Japanese music. Dubbing internationally known Disney songs like Let It Go from Frozen and Try Everything from Zootopia won't make them any less sceptic either.
Whether the song selection is something the player will enjoy is alpha and omega here, but there are several strong tunes to help the case. We have sunk several hours into playing gems like Zenzenzense from the anime hit movie Your Name and the opening theme songs from Attack on Titan, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and One Piece. These are catchy songs with a clearly defined beat which should easily awaken your inner Ringo Starr, Roger Taylor, or Lars Ulrich (if any of these gentlemen played the taiko, that is). In addition to anime and J-pop you will also find songs from Vocaloid, classical music, and video game music. The last category could be broader, though, and it's a real shame that one of the game's best tunes - Ryu's Theme from Street Fighter V - is cut from the Western version of the game for some reason.
No matter our musical preferences, we're certain that most will agree that the song selection contains too many pop songs. These might be all the rage in their native country, but they're not exactly optimised for drum rolls and taiko sounds. Their slow pace makes them a fit for learning the game's mechanics, but after that, they're tossed aside for better songs, like the original tunes found under the Namco Original category. These songs are made especially for the series and are all the better for it. Here you'll find songs inspired by traditional Japanese taiko music, tunes with some crazy beat changes throughout, and some prog rock for all the Dream Theater fans out there.
Once you get into the beat it's easy to understand why Taiko no Tatsujin is such a fun concept. To beat wildly on a virtual drum has more entertainment value than you would think, and it's even more fun to test your own abilities to the max. "Just one more song" is a phrase we've used more than once playing this game, and if there are friends in the house the party's real after only a couple of tracks. The fun even carries on when you're ready to tackle the more challenging levels on a higher difficulty setting.
Beyond the arcade main mode, however, the game doesn't have that much to offer. You could always attempt the game's online mode though, where you will face off against ghost data from players all over the world and where the difficulty setting will be set based on your current online level. This is a fun enough mode to play for a song or two if none of your friends are around, but it's not quite the same.
Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum Session is fun but in order to ensure the greatest amount of fun you might want to consider importing the custom drum controller. The price might sting when tax and shipping are included, making this a no-go option for most players, and as a consequence, the European release of the game feels somewhat amputated, which is a shame considering the game's easily understood concept. The PS4 version could also use some mini-games, additional modes, and a more refined song collection, but make no mistake: this is still a ton of fun.