Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Developer: Namco Bandai Games
Release Date: October 16, 2007
To start this review, let's just look at a quote from Keita Takahashi, the creator of the original Katamari Damacy, in an interview with GameSpot UK. "Why are you sick of Katamari Damacy?", they asked, to get the three-word response, "Wouldn't you be?" It's a very good question to ask and one that sadly becomes all too relevant with the series' fourth release, Beautiful Katamari for the X360, which manages to fit too little into too big of a price tag, in spite of being a solid fourth release that will inevitably pile up sales receipts. Are we sick of it yet? I sure don't think so, and what is there is freshening; just look out for sticker shock, since this game costs three times as much as the first one did at release. If you have never played a Katamari game, scroll to the bottom of this review, add two-and-a-half points to the score, and go get it. Now. Then keep reading the review to find out why it deserves the extra point boost if you're new to the series.
For those who've never played a Katamari game or have recently lost memory of the series in a Halo 3-induced haze, the formula is quite simple. You are the five-centimeter-tall son of the mighty, narcissistic and mean but presumably well-intentioned King of All Cosmos, whose vacations, drunken benders and fandom have led to a rather immense need for the creation of stars to fill the sky, more stars for the fan boys and islands to replace a tsunami-wiped region over three previous releases. This time, he's partied a little too hard and created a giant black hole, which has sucked up most of the planets and several other things from the cosmos. Somehow, Earth is perfectly fine being right next to the black hole and without a Sun, but, well, someone should probably go fix all of this anyhow. The King, being the generous, kind figure he is, makes you do it, giving you a special ball called a Katamari. The Katamari is sticky and makes anything that it's holding onto sticky, allowing you to pick up anything smaller than it is. Repeat enough times, and you go from picking up paperclips to picking up a geriatric, walker-toting Godzilla.
Is this weird enough yet? Well, throw in a quirky, catchy and extremely memorable soundtrack, the truly weird speech of the King (he tends to ramble on and on quite hilariously, and includes the occasional reference to be appreciated by certain individuals), the sound effects of people screaming as you pick them up by the hundreds, odd stage layouts (i.e., actual gorillas facing a local championship team in three-on-three basketball) and a very distinctive physics engine, and you get something that is unreal, artistic, addictive and just plain loveable. It is a game that anyone from age eight to 80 can potentially enjoy.
"But what about this version," you ask? Well, that's where things are interesting. There have been three previous releases. Katamari Damacy set the form, and the PSP release of Me and My Katamari followed it pretty faithfully, albeit with a different theme and a few quirky scenarios, while the third release, We <3 Katamari, toyed with and parodied the formula using a mix of theme switch-outs and unusual scenarios. Beautiful Katamari toes the line a little bit toward the older ones, with a few pretty intriguing scenarios to mix things up, such as getting a hot katamari as fast as you can. Then again, formulaic scenarios work fairly well with the wide variety of objects to pick up, scenarios in which they are placed and sheer scale of the game. It's a range that will remind quite a few people of the upcoming Spore, albeit with a lot more grabbing and lifting involved.
Mostly, what is different in this release isn't in the levels, but the functionality that has been added and clearly thought out and integrated into the Katamari worldview. To wit, the game's upgrades to High Definition and porting to Xbox Live serve as the primary differentiators between this release and every release previous in the series. Let's put aside the HD update for now and look at what was done with Xbox Live for this release. To put it lightly, the answer is "quite a lot" — enough to justify turning this game from a bi-console release to an X360 exclusive. The game's online multiplayer features competitive play only, but it does a bang-up job with it, offering the traditional "house," "street" and "World" rolling levels, with people racing to collect the most of a given object. If you're doing really well, you can pick up your opponent's Katamari to slow them down. Downloadable stages for 200 points per stage is neat, though the timing of the first few stages' release right as the game comes out makes Bandai Namco seem just a wee bit greedy.
Xbox Live's functionality, however, really shines with the records system, which is freely available to any player. Not only can you compete with every Katamari-maker who has played the game on the 360, but you can also see a cool selection of statistics, such as what the most and least popular presents are or, in a pure moment of pseudo-zen, the collective size of every last Katamari rolled by 360 players. We've all had a billion hours of Halo 3 played. OK, that's neat, but as of press time, there have been almost 30 million kilometers of katamari rolled together into one giant cow. If that's not an awesome sample of the power of statistics, We don't know what is.
So, then, you might ask, where does Beautiful Katamari fail enough to not be an instant buy, when there's this much awesome in it? Well, for one, it is not as long as the previous Katamari games. To be more specific, there are, effectively, three stages with some variants in the entire game. Early on in the game, the King of All Cosmos even jokes about how you end up in pretty much the exact same candy shop three times in a row, and things don't improve too much, in spite of your starting off at different points in the stages. No amount of graphical beautification could justify so much repetition, and to be honest, the graphics that were improved for the 360 version won't be noticed much during gameplay. Yes, High Definition is nice, but you will not notice too much of a difference between the 360 and PS2 versions until you look at the painted visage of the King of All Cosmos or consider the (thankful!) utter, utter lack of slowdown and admittedly improved loading times.
The fact that the downloadable content includes all-new stages only makes this sense of a rip-off worse, making the already-doubled $60 price go up even higher if you really want to experience the full game. Sound effects aren't improved, in spite of a mostly new soundtrack. The best tracks from the previous releases weren't added to this offering; in their stead, some of the less impressive tunes made the cut, so while the overall soundtrack is still in a class all its own, it hasn't truly improved.
Finally, the game's formula really is starting to wear a little thin. Takahashi himself realized this and has moved on to his new project, Nobi Nobi Boy, and most fans will quickly learn the same if they've done this enough times before. New comments and sounds can only go so far to refresh the same formula, and it's a formula that's difficult to significantly change without completely ruining it. Beautiful Katamari will be a sheer joy for those who haven't experienced this series before, but for those who have surfed the King's waves before, it just won't have the same magic.
Beautiful Katamari holds out as a well-crafted cash-in of the Katamari formula, seeking to bring it to a new, potentially larger, audience. Unfortunately, "cash-in" still applies, and in spite of some great additions, it's still the same old Katamari. If you haven't experienced Katamari before, go get this quickly and enjoy it, and We say this unequivocally in spite of the flaws the game may have. If you have, however, enjoyed previous ones, just wait a year or so until you're really hankering for some roll-ups of the non-fruit variety and the price has dropped several notches. Namco overpriced and underdelivered to the existing fans, but the cake is still beautiful and sweet for those new to the formula, and when the price drops some, it will be all the sweeter for those who have enjoyed it before. Trust Us; it is not a lie.
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