We really hope Katamari Forever is the last Katamari game. We really do. Don't get us wrong, we love the Katamari series, from the criminally-unreleased-in-PAL-territories Katamari Damacy to the ok-now-is-almost-enough-guys Beautiful Katamari on Xbox 360. But, here we are with another Katamari, now back on a Sony console with the PlayStation 3, intended as a tribute for the series as a whole. A series which is only five years old, but which has essentially had a game every year. A tribute would be a nice place to finish it. But, we get ahead of ourselves, Prince. So, does it make us want to roll katamaris forever, or is it just more of the same?
The story of Katamari Forever simulatenously makes more and less sense than past games. The King of All Cosmos, in yet another display of vanity and awesomeness, attempts to show his son, the Prince, how to perform a perfect jump, which unfortunately takes him into orbit and causes a meteor to collide with his head. In a kind of dark turn, the King loses all his memories and falls into a coma, so the Prince and his cousins decide to build a (manically-depressive) RoboKing to do his work while he's out of action. Unfortunately, the robot apple doesn't fall too far from the tree, as RoboKing goes on a rampage destroying all the stars in the sky. So, the Prince is tasked with two jobs - rolling katamaris on Earth to replace the stars which RoboKing destroyed, and rolling katamaris inside the King's mind to restore his memory.
All of this story is actually delightfully insane, like a demented children's fable. Both the amnesiac King and the perpetually-negative RoboKing have some great lines, referencing everything from Super Mario Sunshine to Venom from Spider-Man. Interspersed with the story, however, are two sub-plots involving the Queen of All Cosmos doing ladylike things, and a quartet of 'Jumbomen' Power Ranger-types acting randomly. Maybe you'll find these cutscenes funny, but for us it felt these parts were when Katamari Forever was just trying way too hard to be 'hilariously random'. There's a place for 'random comedy' as we've dubbed it, but there's a fine line between it being spontaneous and just nonsensical.
For those who've never experienced Katamari before, here's the deal. You control the centimetres-high Prince as he rolls a lumpy sticky ball called a 'katamari'. Generally your objective is to roll up as much as you can with the katamari within a time limit. The katamari can pick up anything it rolls over that is smaller than itself, so you have to strategise which objects you go after first, as larger objects will usually knock you back and you'll have to come back later for them. You use both analogue sticks to essentially control the Prince's hands as you roll the katamari. Pushing both forward rolls it forward, pushing one down and one up moves the Prince around the katamari. It's fumbly to begin with, but you get used to it.
The main addition to the gameplay, is the Prince's jump. We've had to wait five games for a jump button, and now we have one. Well, technically you're supposed to be using the Prince's jump through the SIXAXIS, by flipping your controller up, but we found this method to be pretty terrible and unreliable. Luckily, the jump command is also mapped to the right trigger. So how is the Prince's jump? It's alright. It's helpful for getting back to higher ground if you've accidentally fallen off a ledge, something which used to be an annoyance in older games, and you can also use it to pick up flying objects, but it's not a major gameplay revolution. It's just something that's there to ease up navigation and get the game flowing better. However, the camera has not been improved upon at all, and still gets caught in odd places and continues to infuriate.
As implied by the story, Katamari Forever's story mode is divided into two sections. You can visit 'RoboKing's Cosmos' in order to roll up some katamaris and replace some stars, or you can delve into the King's mind in the 'King's Cosmos'. Apparently, the King's Cosmos levels are recycled levels from older games, while the RoboKing's Cosmos levels are all-new, but we struggled to tell which was which. It may seem like there's an infinite number of locations you could do in a Katamari game, but you'll find yourself rolling around a few too many similar towns or villages. When your katamari eventually grows to continental size, which it does about three or four times as you approach the end of the game, the layout of the Earth's surface is pretty much the same (as you'd expect). Of course it's still awesome rolling up entire countries with your katamari, but at the same time there's a fair bit of retread.
That said, they pretty much try every trick in the book to add variety to these levels in Katamari Forever. While a lot of RoboKing's levels consist of rolling everything in sight, the King's levels provide a different approach, as he seeks to regain his memory. He may ask you to roll up a 'just right' katamari, which means you'll have to keep rolling until you estimate it to be the exact diameter he wants. Other times he may give you a budget of half a million yen, which you must stay within while collecting as much as possible, as the worth of every object you roll up is calculated. The RoboKing also has a couple of interesting levels, such as one where he gives you a katamari that can soak up water, and rejuvenates plant life as it rolls along. For someone who's played through the series, these levels are welcome diversions and do breathe a bit of new life into the formula.
There are also new power-ups, in the form of the King's heart and RoboKing's broken heart. One of these power-ups lets you instantly suck in all objects smaller than you within a certain radius, while the other stays active for much longer, but seems to have a smaller sucking radius. They're nice to have, and the sucking effect does not suck and is actually pretty cool. After finishing the game (around five to eight hours long), you can also unlock different ways to play the game such as 'Classic' or 'Katamari Drive' modes, which adds to its longevity, and while there are online rankings, there is no online multiplayer (there is local multiplayer but it's the same as it has been in past games).
As always with Katamari games, there's a wealth of content to unlock. As you roll through the levels, you can pick up 'presents' from the King which unlock new outfits for Prince, and you can also pick up the Prince's cousins, who you can play as. Just cosmetic changes, and nothing new seeing as they've been included since the first game. You can also unlock all of the music and movies from the game to watch at will, as well as four 8-bit games. Only one of these is new, as two are from Beautiful Katamari and one is from We Love Katamari, although they are all admittedly pretty fun.
Katamari Forever on PS3 retains the same ultra-basic art style that the series has had since its PlayStation 2 days, so to try and spice it up it's added four new visual filters. The first, 'new', filter which you'll spend most of the game seeing as it's the default setting, is cel-shaded and makes the game seem as if it's playing out on a piece of paper. It's actually a very nice effect. The other three filters are wood grain, comic and standard, although you first have to unlock them and can then only change the filter once you've finished a level and are replaying it. One nice effect is in the King's levels, since they take place inside his mind start off in black-and-white, and as you roll gradually becomes colourful. The graphics run at 1080p, and generally at 60 frames per second, although there is still inexplicable slowdown in parts. The game does have a great soundtrack, with a new variation on the main theme called 'Katamari on the Wings', and a bunch of remixes of tracks from past games.
To answer the question we posed at the start of the review directly for once, yes, Katamari Forever is more of the same. It's almost like the developers knew they were running out of fresh ideas for the series, so they've come up with the 'tribute' idea to recycle half the levels while adding various 'spins' on the formula. When it boils down to it though, you're still just rolling things up level after level. Which is no bad thing. Katamari is still an extremely addictive game to play, and for newcomers to the series this is definitely a game worth checking out for its bizarre nature and humour. If you've played a Katamari or two before, be aware that you'll probably be seeing a lot of the same-old stuff this time around, but the new mission-based levels may prove to be different enough to entice you. If this is Katamari's end (and who are we kidding, it probably isn't), it's a nice one. Reasonably sized. You know, could be bigger, but we can't complain. And now to make a star! Shalom!