Developer: KOEI Canada
Release Date: October 13, 2008
There is a whole genre of gaming that can best be described as "obscure and random Japanese stuff." From this pile of weirdness and bright colors, we are beset by games uniquely Eastern in their presentation and gameplay, utterly alien to American gamers used to muted grey and brown palettes and guns and gore galore. Once in a while, a real gem pops up from this rather hodgepodge collection of titles, and we get crossover hits like Katamari Damacy. Prey the Stars was hoping to find similar success, but ultimately, it ends up being a weird game that has a decent multiplayer component.
If you were to look for a corollary to Prey the Stars, then the closest thing would be Pac-Man, though that doesn't really do the game justice. Each level is composed of up to four dog-like alien creatures running around a simple, grid-based map and trying to eat as much as possible before time runs out. Of course, simply chomping everything in sight would be too easy, and the game quickly ramps up the complexity by introducing a whole host of factors designed to prevent you from filling your belly.
First up, much like Katamari, the objects placed on the board are of various sizes, and you can only eat the smallest items when you start out. Your height disadvantage can be rendered moot by eating special POW items that appear from time to time, which in turn allow your creature to grow and devour larger things. However, bigger items take longer to eat, so you have to balance your desire to spend a longer amount of time chomping on the big ticket items with your impulse to chow down quickly on the smaller items, reaping small points in large bundles.
Prey the Stars could get very boring if it were just about pressing the same button over and over again to score points, so the developers threw in a whole host of wrinkles to keep matches spicy. First up, you are given a bite meter that determines how effective you are at slurping up objects. Stop the meter in the green and you eat faster, but if you miss and hit the red, you'll be slowed way down. Furthermore, when you eat enough items in perfect rhythm, you enter "GabuGabu" time, which allows you to eat more quickly and without concern for hitting the meter.
In addition to this trick, some items are imbued with an elemental state and you'll have to lick them instead of bite them in order to get them down quickly. It may seem like a pain, but if you manage to eat three of the same elemental item in a row, you are granted a special power that you can use to mess up your foes; on some occasions, you are even transformed into some sort of alien super-monster that's able to rampage across the board and gulp down anything you touch, even opponents.
Finally, many objects contain spirits within them, and when these pixies fly out, you can suck them back in for more points and an even higher score. Indeed, the constant need to balance biting, sucking and licking may sound like the ingredients of some sort of adult-only game you'd find only at "specialty stores," but in Prey the Stars, they all come together to keep things from getting too stale.
Unfortunately, even with the gimmicks, the gameplay does eventually get boring, as the core mechanics of eating, getting bigger and eating some more never change and don't offer a whole lot of excitement. In single-player, the entire experience can be boiled down to essentially trying for a personal high score while some brain-dead bots occasionally get in the way. Once in a while, things get a little more exciting, such as when you are given round-specific objectives like "Eat X number of a certain item," or "Finish at least 50 points ahead of your opponents," but even these bonus features get recycled over and over, causing the game to lose a lot of steam over the course of its 13 chapters.
Multiplayer fixes a lot of the tedium issues, but there still isn't a lot here to keep gamers coming back for the long haul. The presence of other human players makes each stage more exciting and definitely amps up the need for a solid strategy and quick reflexes, but the lack of variety causes the fun to sputter and die after only a few rounds. Sure, the specific items you're eating may change, but the fact remains that you're playing the exact same game over and over again. What starts out as a fun distraction quickly grows boring, and it won't be long after you pick up Prey the Stars that you put it back down and forget it's even there.
It's too bad for the developers that Prey the Stars ended up as such a mediocre game because it's obvious that they put forth a lot of effort to make something unique. The title features four different playable characters, each with its own specific stats so you have an incentive to come back for more, but using different characters to go through the same missions still feels humdrum. The game also introduces a number of stat-affecting skins, but their bonuses are so mild and their myriad of enhancements is so confusing that they almost aren't worth the trouble. It's like the designers wanted to give you a reason to keep playing but focused on treating the symptoms rather than the disease itself.
This is the sort of game that will likely gather a small and rabid fan base while going largely ignored by the general gaming public, and that's probably the way it really ought to be. Obviously no publisher wants to hear about how their game isn't for everyone and that sales aren't going to be amazing, but it would be easy to see a cadre of followers developing for this game much the way the Persona and Disgaea franchises have caught on in certain corners of the gaming populace. Those who love to obsess over stats and level strategies will likely adore this title, replaying levels over and over again with every available character in the name of maxing out their attributes and going online to stick it to their friends.
For the rest of the audience, though, Prey the Stars will likely prove to be too repetitive, too weird and too Japanese to find a particularly robust following. It's a cute, quirky little game that is solid in every respect but doesn't particularly wow you in any sense. If you've been looking for a game about space-dogs coming to Earth and eating everything they can get their maw around, then we may have a winner.