The question isn't whether or not Katamari Forever is a good current-gen update to a series of titles that have become a staple of cult gaming. The question is whether or not Katamari games are good games, period. Katamari Forever definitely brings all the signature style and clever perversity of Katamari gameplay to the PS3. Although the new title may take advantage of some current-gen features, it's not a game that requires any of them. If you've played a Katamari title in the past and can't figure out what all the fuss is about, you may as well move along to something else you know better suits your taste. If you love, even merely like, Katamari, read on.
Part of the problem in making an ersatz sequel in the Katamari franchise is that some fans have never seen following up Katamari Damacy for PS2. Completely novel for its time, Damacy elicited either a frisson of passion from gamers or a confused shrug. I'm loath to call Katamari a game for solely for Japanese and Japanophiles. A good game, however niche, is a good game and should not be judged on the merits of the popular culture from which it originates. The Hollywood remakes of "Ring" and "Dark Water" were, after all, not labeled horror movies for Japanophiles; they were supernatural thrillers filmed to appeal to anyone who likes a good creep-out movie.
However, it is true that Katamari appeals most to Japanophiles, people with an affinity for Japanese pop culture. This is not to say that if you find Japanese pop to be boring as an old brick, you can't try Katamari Forever; perhaps you'll find the title's unique gameplay style particularly engaging, quirky cultural schtick aside. Katamari Forever is, however, best suited to anyone who has previously loved Katamari and is on the lookout for more levels, more challenges, more characters, more perks, more story — such that it is — and more of the same gameplay that made Katamari Damacy such a hit in certain circles. For better or worse, I'm a gamer who picks up a Katamari title and can't put it down again for five hours, try as I might.
Certainly the basic gameplay mechanic is novel enough. You begin with what is essentially a sticky rubber toy ball, the katamari, and you roll it around interesting stages collecting a variety of objects, little bits of everyday flotsam, until your katamari is big enough, heavy enough, to start rolling up some truly interesting things, like cattle and patio tables complete with umbrella. A finished katamari of sufficient size, completed within the time limit, is then taken by the king of your little fairy tale kingdom and made into celestial objects. It's very cute, very simple, very appealing and very addictive.
Most often, points are awarded for the size of your star. There are also specific goals in certain stages: preferring lots of sweets in one environment; lots of playthings in a different stage; and lots of animals, or fireflies, or what have you in yet another environment. In some stages, there is particular specificity. For example, roll up a large enough ball of items so that you can aim your weighty ball at the biggest bear in the stage and stick that sucker to your katamari. The bigger the bear, the greater the reward and the higher the points. Some stages require different terminal actions, like returning to your starting point after collecting as much of a particular thing as possible. In this way, Katamari Forever is also a lightweight strategy game. In my first go at collecting a bear, I hustled up a speed-roll, then having collected a minimal number of small objects, I ran straight into the tiniest, most worthless bear in the whole environment, ending the stage. Of course my score with that roll was abysmal, and my king gave me a good Katamari-style tongue lashing for my weak effort.
Katamari Forever is very much about scoring points, and there are even online leaderboards to follow if you're that competitive by nature. At heart, Katamari games are pure arcade games. As in other games of the series, there are a finite number of stages and goals in Katamari Forever, but it's not a game you're intended to finish. Sure you'll wear it out after a while, but you'll have repeated the same stages dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times. You'll finally consider yourself done, having achieved as close to perfect 100 scores on as many stages as you can bear re-rolling. Yet that's the entire point of Katamari Forever: replay. Not completion.
There is no shortage of new stages within the two new cosmoses — one based on the cursed, sleeping king; the other built around the effort to construct a robot king as stand-in for the somnolent monarch — but if you insist on rushing through the fresh content, you can finish the whole game in a few hours. Finishing, however, is Katamari Forever's design philosophy. In fact, in your stage-end interactions with the king, if you present miserable, tiny katamari worth low scores, you're consistently encouraged or admonished to re-roll the stage. The bulk of Katamari Forever's replay value is in re-rolling stages over and over again, trying for higher scores or doing a better job meeting specific stage goals. Clearly, if you don't find the gameplay addictive, even in its own peculiar way meditative, then you won't get much out of Katamari Forever. There's no point in playing this game if you're going to go at it like a solo shooter campaign, blasting through each stage and then onto the next, eyes constantly on the singular prize of watching the credits roll. Katamari is best considered a pastime, not a short-term narrative.
That said, Katamari does have a narrative element, one that the game could do entirely without, but it's included for a complete experience. As mentioned, it's a fairy tale, and it makes no real sense. Of course, neither does rolling a sticky ball around apartments and zoo parks (the animals stage is a particular treat). The only downside to the narrative presentation is a lot of on-screen text to read; you may find yourself repeatedly mashing the X button to get onto the gameplay. Occasionally this is a problem at the beginning of a stage because in your earnestness to play, you may miss important instructions on the stage's goal. The unlockable movies, which are actually full, episodic animated series, are more enjoyable. These you can easily skip when they pop up at certain progression markers, returning to watch them later via the appropriate option in at the game menu screen.
Katamari Forever is not without its issues, but these are the same issues that have already put some people off Katamari, well, forever. If you can get past or enjoy the simple visual style, the Japanese musical score ranging from vaguely traditional to almost techno, you must also become accustomed to a sometimes frustrating camera that doesn't move quite as fast as you'll want. You can reorient your position behind the katamari ball, but this works poorly in some spots. The other issue is the frequent awkward feel of a rather straightforward control scheme. It's hard to tap this latter issue as a real problem, though, because it's part of Katamari gameplay. As your katamari ball becomes larger and heavier, picking up bigger, more oddly shaped objects, it's that much slower and unwieldy. Mounting control frustration halfway through a stage, especially the more complicated latter stages, is indeed part of the gameplay. It's an intentional challenge, something to overcome so you may progress to the next stage or earn a higher score.
The default visual style in this particular edition of Katamari is often a little bland in comparison to previous versions of the game, although it's not much different, really. By progressing in the game and meeting goals, you unlock the ability to change rendering styles before you begin each stage. There's the classic style familiar to all Katamari fans. Also, there's wood and comic, both of which are aptly described by their labels — each one is somewhat interesting. Likewise, you can earn the right to change default music tracks for each stage. If you're into capturing your banner gaming moments for perpetuity — and who isn't, really? — you can take snapshots of in-game scenes. Once shot, you can save the photos to your PS3 hard drive, making them available as components of slideshows, wallpaper or however you'd use any other photo copied to the PS3's internal storage.
Katamari Forever features both a competitive and co-op mode for two players. There's no online multiplayer, just those leaderboards, and trying to cram more than two players into a local multiplayer session in the Katamari cosmos would create a nasty mess. The two-player maximum is a limitation, but it's a wise design decision, and at least there's co-op in the game, a mode to which heavy replay titles like Katamari Forever are well suited but too often exclude.
Having previously tried and enjoyed Katamari in earlier incarnations, you'll probably be more than satisfied with this PS3 version. If you've played to death the foregoing editions, you'll find plenty of new stages here, but keep in mind that this is a content expansion along with minor enhancements and superficial feature additions, not at all retooling or refinement of the Katamari gameplay. I certainly found the game as engaging and appealing as the hallowed, near-inviolate PS2 original. I put so many hours into Katamari Forever over a rainy weekend that for the sake of my dignity, I won't tell you exactly how long I played. But it was a lot. And I enjoyed nearly every minute of it.
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