Katamari Damacy Exclusive Hands-On
We take an exclusive look at Namco's upcoming action game that nearly defies description.
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In the last three decades, video game developers have looked to just about everything around them for inspiration as they have gone about their business of creating games. Everything from the most complicated geopolitical situation to something as mundane as a dog's life have all served as the basis for games on the market. But as games have matured, their concepts have become much more straightforward and a lot less quirky than they used to be. However, Namco has seen fit to boldly bring one of its quirkier Japanese offerings to the States to ask, "What if space aliens had to rekindle the stars by collecting junk from the earth?"
Such deep thoughts also beg this follow-up question: "What if the game mechanics mirrored that of dung beetles, only with less emphasis on the poo?" What game would pose such a question to the masses? Namco's Katamari Damacy, of course. The quirky game was released in Japan earlier this year, and it will soon be rolling its way to the US. Since the game caught our eye at last year's Tokyo Game Show, we had to be the first ones to get our hands on the US version of it.
For those unfamiliar with Katamari Damacy, the game puts you in the role of no less than the Prince of the Cosmos. While that may sound glamorous, it's actually not. The game focuses on the downside to royal life, because your days will revolve around cleaning up your dad's mess. It seems that your father, the King of the Cosmos, managed to smash all of the stars in the sky, thus creating a bit of a mess. As a result, you're tasked with making new stars. How does one go about making new stars, you ask? Apparently, by collecting all kinds of junk on Earth and growing your "katamari damacy," which translates roughly to "clump of souls."
While this may sound more than a little odd, the game manages to sell the whole premise thanks to its combination of stylized graphics, bizarrely catchy music, and goofy localization. Speaking of the game's localization, Katamari Damacy's unapologetically spacey translation is hilarious and manages to come close to nailing the off-the-wall charm of the Japanese version's text and dialogue, which unfolds as you get your soul-clump collecting on.
For those who are rusty on how one goes about collecting a clump of souls, here's a refresher course on the game's mechanics. Katamari Damacy uses a third-person view and puts you in control of the prince, a surprisingly boxy and green fellow who bears little resemblance to dear, old Dad. To make the prince's clump of potential star material, you have to push a seemingly innocuous ball in front of you throughout a level. The ball's magnetic properties will let you collect objects you run across to increase its size exponentially.
The catch is that you'll only be able to pick up tiny objects, such as thumbtacks or erasers, at first. Your limits will revolve around your ball's size, so you'll only be able to pick up items that are smaller than your current ball. Objects that are bigger than your ball will serve as immovable hindrances that will prevent you from rolling over them, and they will cause you to lose some of the goods on your clump.
Once you get your clump-collecting groove going, though, the game heads off into appropriately wacky territory. As a result, you'll find yourself collecting larger and increasingly more bizarre objects. How bizarre? Well, do bear in mind that the game comes from Japan. So plan on collecting fence posts, road cones, bicycles, cats, humans, giraffes, trees, frogs, crabs, cats, cymbal-clapping monkeys (always nice to see), dogs, gigantic cruise ships, sea monsters, and even weirder stuff. The living creatures cut loose with some hilarious antics when you pick them up, which adds to the game's surreal feel. Believe us, by the time you get to a Godzilla-like monster, you're just going to shrug, build up your ball to the appropriate size, and roll that sucker over--because it's just going to feel right.
The game gets a layer of structure added to the wacky proceedings by time limit and size requirements in each level. Basically, you'll be given a target size for your katamari and a time limit for each level that is provided by dear, old Dad. If you manage to reach or surpass your size requirements for each level, you'll be able to move on to the next one. Every so often, you'll get to a bonus level that will change up the requirements slightly, such as asking you to collect as many crabs as you can within a set time limit while still keeping things good and weird.
At the end of each level, you'll be congratulated by your Pops, who will make a star out of your collected junk ball. The game will also offer up some stat-tracking on the junk you've collected to show you the top three types of stuff you gathered. In addition to the single-player game, you'll find a two-player battle mode that will challenge you to create the biggest katamari possible before your opponent does likewise. In a smart extension of the concept, you'll even be able to roll over your foe so that he or she can be added to your ball's size--if you play your cards right.
Control in the game is simple and easy to pick up. You'll use the two analog sticks on the PlayStation 2 controller to move your ball around. The mechanics are probably closest to steering a tank, with each stick independently controlling your movement forward or back on the right or left side of your ball. As a result, you'll turn around by pushing one stick forward and the other back. You also have access to a few quick-change moves, like a speedy dash or a hop to the other side of the ball to quickly change direction. These moves obviously come in handy during the later levels in the game.
The graphics in the game are an impressive, oh-so-stylized collection of visuals that are about as surreal as you'd expect from a game that sends you rolling around to collect all manner of objects. Everything has a stylized, boxy look to it that totally fits in with the rest of the presentation. The levels are bizarrely laid-out areas with all manner of junk strewn about. Depending on the size of your ball, the junk can even serve as a makeshift maze until you get it up to larger sizes.
Speaking of your ball, the visuals for it as it collects junk are bizarre and truly inspired. The mad hodgepodge of stuff is all clearly visible in its growing clump of objects, which can come to be a truly magnificent orb of weirdness. The only blemish to the visuals is an occasionally problematic camera that can sometimes make it difficult to follow the action. Thankfully, you can get it under control before it becomes too much of a problem (most of the time). Frame rate isn't much of a concern--despite the bizarre visuals--because the game moves along at a solid clip, which ensures smooth weirdness.
The music in the game is a surreal mix of Japanese and English jazzy lounge tunes that actually manage to complement the action in a very bizarre way. The sound effects in the game are pretty spare but pack a punch where it counts. Namely, you'll hear bizarre cries from the critters you'll snag, in addition to hearing the sounds of your katamari rolling. The crazy mix of audio, which must be heard to be believed, winds up being one of the game's strongest elements.
It may be hard to do justice to Katamari Damacy by using words, because the game's unique concept, while more than a little bizarre, has an undeniable charm that shines through once you pick up the controller. The quirky visuals, bizarre but catchy soundtrack, and fun gameplay all add up to present an engaging package that gamers who are looking for something unique this fall will want to check out.