Katamari Forever Review
I remember reviewing Katamari Damacy way back when, during a time when I was inundated with low-profile, small-budget productions that never ceased to disappoint. I opened the package from the publisher and I distinctly recall saying to myself, “oh great, another no-name, nothing game.” But a few hours later, I was gleefully rolling around, picking up tons of random stuff and wondering how any developer could conceive of such a concept. Ever since, I’ve been a huge fan of the franchise and I’ve played and currently own all three installments to date…and now, I’ve got the fourth. I was initially thrown by the cel-shading visuals and I’m still thinking I might’ve preferred normal graphics, but that’s a personal thing. For the most part, Katamari Forever is just about everything the fans want, plus a little more. There’s a slight issue concerning the control and camera, which I will explain later, but for the most part, the fans are gonna be plenty satisfied.
As I just mentioned, the visuals represent a departure for the series as they’re cel-shaded for the very first time. This is an interesting way to approach things, especially when some levels are only black and white (and gain color over time), while others start with the normal assembly of shading and various hues. See, levels in the Robot King area are all colored but levels within the real King’s section start off black and white ‘cuz he’s suffering from amnesia. I guess that when you roll up a particular item, he recalls it and the color returns. But anyway, I think this tends to cut down on the level of intricate detail I was expecting, although it arguably ramps up the creative appeal. Furthermore, I’ve always found it impressive that it’s difficult to spot any major glitches like clipping, even when all the items are clumped together, and the frame rate – even during the special “Race” levels – never wavers. It just seems that this cel-shaded look is a little too washed-out and bland at certain times, and while this really is more of a personal preference, I think others may agree.
The sound has always been a highlight of this series, and it once again shines in the latest entry. Beyond the entirely original and always quirky soundtrack, there are the comical sound effects that continually reinforce and enhance the playful atmosphere. Most every item you snag elicits a singular sound; everything from bicycles to squeaky balls to elephants to buoys out in the water; they all come together to comprise the vast majority of effects in the game. As for that loopy soundtrack, it’s almost impossible to describe, but let’s put it this way: if you’re at all familiar with the music in past installments, you’ll know what to expect. For any newcomers to the series, prepare to be a little surprised and perhaps even a touch confused; there are funky J-Pop tunes mixed in with unique studio arrangements that never fail to suit the game’s lighthearted mood. Even if it’s not your favorite kind of music, you have to admit that it does its job well in regards to the overall presentation.
The gameplay is almost exactly as it has always been: you use both analog sticks to move the “katamari,” which is an ultra-sticky ball that will grab anything in its path, provided it’s big enough. You’ll start off picking up things like clothespins and berries and work your way through stuffed animals, candles, park benches, traffic cops, streetlights, sailboats, skyscrapers, clouds, stars; it can just keep going and going and going, and that’s half the fun. Push both analogs forward to roll forward, pull both back to roll backwards, push both right to…yeah, you get it. Then there are a few special moves: click the R3 and L3 buttons together to quickly flip to the other side of the katamari (an invaluable ability), move both analogs back and forth quickly to charge up and dash forward quickly, and new to this entry is a motion-sensing jump. Lifting the controller straight up will allow you to actually jump upwards, which is something you’ve never been able to do before.
It’s an interesting addition and theoretically should open up all sorts of new options when rolling around out on those silly playgrounds, but it never seemed to serve a major purpose. There are levels where it’s almost necessary, but it just feels like more of a gimmick rather than a logical and crucial next-gen expansion to the basic controls. Even so, it works just fine, as do the rest of the controls. My only problem is that I seem to be moving a bit slower at times than I remember; rolling backward is especially slow (although it may always have been), and when the katamari is very large, it’s almost like rolling through molasses. This would make plenty of sense and again, I don’t think it’s that much different from previous franchise titles, but it’s a little erratic. There are times when you can seemingly go faster for no apparent reason, and times when you can barely move, although I attribute this to the dual-analog control style that may not always be 100% reliable and responsive. And then there’s the camera…
Namco has always done a great job handling the camera in these games; when pinned into a corner and your katamari is bigger than its immediate surroundings, the screen could feasibly go ballistic. But this doesn’t really happen and even when you roll behind an obstacle, a little circle comes into the middle of the screen to highlight your movements back there, so you never lose track of the Prince and his sticky ball. This continues to work effectively but I have experienced more instances of camera instability this time around, which is a little disappointing. It’s nowhere near loose or erratic enough to cripple the gameplay but it just seems like I battle the camera a touch more often than I used to. This completes all my complaints: the minor control and speed inconsistencies, the slightly more problematic camera, and that’s just about it. Everything else is fun, from top to bottom. There’s always a great balance, you’ll almost never get bored, and the devs definitely got more inventive.
Objectives vary greatly, which adds fantastic spice. Some levels will just have you get the katamari as big as possible in a certain amount of time (still my personal favorite), while others will have you try to build a katamari that’s a particular size without the benefit of the size counter on the screen. There are tough ones that have you roll up everything except one or two items that you should try to avoid until the katamari is as big as possible, and special levels that are new to the series. For example, one of the first unique objectives will have you dipping your katamari in water and rolling over a parched landscape; as you roll, the katamari sprinkles the ground and vegetation springs to life. More original goals come at you as you play, and you’ve got two sets of levels from the real King and the Robot King, which I already talked about. You’ll find new treasures to collect, roll up some cousins who are just hanging around (you can use them if you like; it won’t change anything), and you’ll want to replay certain levels again and again to get the best score possible.
This can be tough because both kings ask a lot of you. Anything over 80 is a pretty damn good score in this game, and in the first Race level, I basically rolled up the entire area before time expired and I got a 100…but outside of one of the first levels, it’s the only 100 I’ve got. Oh, and let’s not forget about the King’s heart: if you find it in a level, it will give your katamari a special magnetic pull for a little while, which means you can really rack up the items fast. And lastly, in terms of content, this may indeed be the single biggest Katamari ever, as Namco claimed it would be. The last entry, Beautiful Katamari was actually the shortest in my eyes and I was hoping that wouldn’t happen again, especially with the price up to $50 for Forever (these titles have always been cheaper than regular new releases; the first retailed for only $20 on the PS2). Thankfully, there’s plenty to do and if you can decipher the little cut-scenes, you’re either a genius or seriously demented. This off-the-wall zaniness is just part of the Katamari world.
I suppose perhaps the most annoying trait is when the king pops up to say something while you’re rolling and the clock doesn’t stop; yet you still have to stop for a second or two to get rid of the message. This has never changed and it’s my biggest pet peeve. But in the end, Katamari Forever won’t let down the fans and if you’ve never played one of these games, now’s the time. I realize there are plenty of top-notch titles on the way but you’ll never see or play another game like this; that much, I promise. And you’d be surprised at how addictive it can be, despite the little drawbacks here and there. It’s not quite as technically sound as it could’ve been in my eyes, but it’s still awesome. And that’s that.
9/21/2009 Ben Dutka