Beautiful Katamari is the latest iteration from Namco Bandai in a series that began with the surprising, addicting and charming Katamari Damacy. Unfortunately none of those pleasant adjectives do a good job describing the next-gen treatment of the series. Pardon me while I take a phrase out of the Big Reviewers Guide for Describing Mediocre Games, but it's not that Beautfiul Katamari is a bad game; it's just that it's not a very good game.
The fundamental gameplay will be instantly familiar to fans of the series, but a lot of the charm of previous versions just feels absent. In the original Katamari Damacy somehow the very basic and repetitive act of rolling up increasingly large items into a big ball was infused with enough character and variety that it rarely became tedious. This newest version of the game has moments that approach the sublime fun of earlier Katamari games, but it is inconsistent and marred by the absence of genuine variety, some technical issues and a sense that this game is so busy trying to be a Katamari game that it never actually is one.
It might seem logical to conclude that the Xbox 360's ability to offer gamers a world with substantially more items to roll into our sticky spheroid would by nature produce a better game, and indeed Beautiful Katamari's levels often seem packed to capacity with random detritus strewn haphazardly in every conceivable nook and cranny. Unfortunately the landfill nature of the environments through which you roll actually makes the game more difficult, as it feels like you're constantly slamming into some random, often unseen object which is too big to pick up and halts any sense of progress. The dash, which is already hard enough to pull off with the 360 controller, seems irrelevant with what seems a random and illogical layout of unevenly sized objects. Further, the new game is far less forgiving about allowing players to simply roll over large objects, and even seasoned Katamari players will be forgiven for swearing at the television when precious seconds are wasted trying to get unstuck.
Further, the game lacks much of the variety which marked We Heart Katamari, with what seems to be a series of virtually identical levels and objectives. It is a huge leap in the wrong direction for a series which had previously offered a wide variety of environments and subtle changes to the standard roll up everything in sight for three-to-ten minutes model. Where We Heart Katamari had memorable locations such as schools, the bottom of a lake, a zoo, a campfire ground and a ski village where players did everything from roll a fireball over combustible items, to collect fireflies, to build a snowman, Beautiful Katamari offers the same level and same objective over and over again in a handful of levels that describe a thoroughly boring and woefully short story mode. When the level selection screen is far more compelling and varied than the levels themselves, something is seriously wrong.
But wait, there's more!
Missing also is the almost hallucinatory vignettes telling the backstory of the game, instead replaced by a brief intro and exit. The only thing that really seems to have been added is more inane commentary from the King of the Cosmos when you're trying to actually play the game, who pops up to chatter nonsense with frustrating frequency made all the worse because his comments further clutter an already confusing screen. In one level in particular his comments are so frequent and so long winded that I eventually exited the level unwilling to repeatedly press the A button any more to page through his seemingly endless text.
The game's not all bad. The visuals are crisp in HD when the framerate isn't suffering its occasional stutter. The music is appropriately weird and catchy. The co-op and competitive modes do make a comeback and there is an online battle mode available through Xbox Live. And, when it comes right down to it, the basic gameplay is a nice distraction even if it isn't as addicting as in the past, and yet I can summon very little enthusiasm in discussing what's good in the game because the whole package lacks any consistency.
Beautiful Katamari is a pale example of better games that came before. It is not bereft of fun, but the glimpses of the game I had come to love were so often sharply counter-pointed by the game's frequent and frustrating mediocrity that it made it that much less fun to play. It is adequate at its best and annoying at its worst, filled with clutter in place of meaningful variety, and is a perfect example of how employing the power of next-gen consoles without the design sophistication of the better last-gen games does not a good game make.