Wattam review – friendship circle

From the creator of Katamari Damacy comes one of the most surreal video games ever made, but one with an important message for everyone.

We’ve always firmly believed that including a score is an essential part of any game review. As far as we’re concerned, the fact that some people only look at the score, and don’t read the text, is their problem, not the review’s. And apart from anything else, deciding on a score is all part of the fun of writing a review in the first place.

We have broken our rule a few times, usually for non-games like Nintendo Labo, but we’re sorely tempted to do so here simply because we don’t want to upset the developer. Not in the cash-in-a-brown-paper-envelope sense (we’re sure he couldn’t afford that) but because we think Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi is a great guy and we don’t want people to just see a low score and assume the game has no merit at all.

For the sake of fairness, we’ll relent and try and summarise Wattam’s artistic qualities in the form of a single digit, but we do so with a heavy heart. The recently remastered Katamari Damacy holds a special place in our hearts and we really enjoyed meeting Takahashi at E3 last year. But despite his clearly noble intentions Wattam does not represent the successful return to gaming we were hoping for.

The name Wattam is a combination of the Japanese and Tamil words for circle, the full relevance of which becomes clear by the end of the game. Surprisingly, there is a relatively coherent story at the heart of the game, that deals with serious subject matter, but at the start all you know is that you’re controlling a Mr. Men-like mayor who’s sitting all alone in a destroyed world (really just a small square plain) wondering why he’s alone. Also, why there’s a regenerating bomb under his hat that launches him and anyone nearby into the air.

For some reason everyone he meets finds it hilarious to be hoisted by his petard, but despite at first seeming like it’s going to be the primary gameplay mechanic, blowing yourself up is little more than a diversion. The main goal of the game is to bring everyone back together, repopulating a series of small domains, each representing a different season, with objects that range from toilets and bottle caps to sentient sushi snacks. You can control any of them at any time, a small number of which have unique abilities but most of which can’t use the mayor’s hat properly.

In this sense you can see the echoes of Katamari Damacy, as these everyday objects are exactly the sort of things you used to roll up in that game. And while it’s less obvious, there’s still an obsession with scale and showing that the grandeur of the world is made up of many much more mundane people and items. Takahashi also explores the importance of trivial objects when associated with important memories, especially those relating to home and family.

In addition to these familiar themes, there’s also a strong anti-violence message throughout the game, verbalised by a reoccurring bowling ball and pin, and by a late game appearance by the game’s main villain. There’s something approaching a boss battle about two-thirds into the game but really, Wattam is trying to show you the importance of sharing and friendship and how overcoming jealously and loneliness need not be as difficult as it seems.

Those are the storytelling themes of the game and in their way they’re got across very clearly and effectively, but when it comes to evaluating Wattam as an enjoyable gameplay experience it has considerably less to offer. One unexpected problem is that so much of it is on the rails. There’s a lot of what are essentially cut scenes and while you can mess around and do whatever you want between each mini-goal, progressing the story, and triggering the introduction of new objects, always happens in the same linear order.

The initial structure also repeats itself in a very similar fashion on each of the island worlds, as you use a giant nose to sniff out an acorn, then plant a tree that can eat other objects to transform them into something else (fruit in the first instance, although the giant mouth works in a similar manner and transforms objects into little coloured poos, that are then turned into golden poos if caught by the toilet). There are unique missions on each world, but they usually only revolve around playing as one particular object and going to get another one.

There are two major problems with Wattam and the most intractable is that, unlike Katamari Damacy, there’s nothing about the gameplay that is intrinsically fun. Most of the time it barely feels like there is any gameplay at all and once you’ve exploded the mayor a few times, or eaten another person, you very quickly run out of interesting things to do.

The other issue is just how badly the game runs. The frame rate is constantly on the edge of disaster, there are weird loading pauses all the time, and lots and lots of bugs. But even if it ran perfectly the controls are terrible, with the shoulder buttons used to rotate the camera and the right stick used to change characters – which after 20 years of controlling 3D games feels utterly wrong and very counterintuitive. Oh, and if you value your sanity don’t even think of turning on the co-op mode.

We’d love to say that Wattam is as wonderful and charming as it’s clearly trying to be, but it’s not. We appreciate what Takahashi is trying to do, and we’ve loved his previous games, but this is nowhere near as interesting or fun. According to him he made the game because he wanted to show how different kinds of people can get along and make the world a better place. Considering the currently miserable state of the planet that’s a tall order and Wattam is woefully underequipped to help turn the tide.

Wattam review summary

In Short: As charmingly idiosyncratic as you’d expect from the creator of Katamari Damacy, but although the harmonious message is clear the game itself is a frustrating chore.

Pros: Wonderfully surreal concept and presentation, with a great jazz soundtrack. Surprisingly serious storytelling, that gets its point across well.

Cons: Very few gameplay mechanics and none of them are much fun. Disappointingly repetitive and linear structure, with too much left out of your control. A technical shambles.

Score: 5/10

Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed) and PC
Price: £15.99
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Developer: Funomena
Release Date: 17th December 2019
Age Rating: 3

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