Friday, 6 May 2011

(And I Feel Fine) [Review: The Wonderful End of the World]

When I bought The Potato Sack, I didn't know a thing about the Portal 2 ARG. I got it because it contained some games I was interested in, and some which friends had recommended, and I only owned one of them already at that point (Audiosurf, naturally). One of the titles I knew least about at that point was The Wonderful End of the World, and I'll be honest, I didn't give it much thought; the description and screenshots in the Steam store weren't exactly informative about just what this game actually was. Yet it's turned out to be the one I've spent the most time with since I got the Sack (except Audiosurf, naturally).

Katamari is one of the great game concepts: roll a ball around, stuff sticks to it, ball gets bigger, pick up bigger stuff. In some regards the concept is better than the game itself, but that's okay; it's one of those beautiful cases where the concept is strong enough to lift the game above its flaws. Apropos of what, exactly, do I bring up Katamari? Well, no beating around the bush: The Wonderful End is a shameless clone of Namco's Blu-Tack simulator.

I mean, not exactly. Instead of being the Prince of the Cosmos tasked by your father to make more stars to fix the night sky after he vomited on it, you're a goddess controlling an energy-force puppet to save stuff from the impending Apocalypse, or... something... whatever. The setup is as barmy as Katamari's, anyway, and even less relevant. See, as well as the core gameplay mechanic, The Wonderful End borrows Katamari's gleefully demented dayglo tone - which is fair enough, really, as making a deep and serious game based around rolling piles of junk up into a ball is surely more hassle than it's worth.

Like the title, the game is a bit self-consciously quirky, the controls are jumpy, the collision detection is bad enough to cost you the level on occasion and in general the game just reeks of lacking time, money, resources and playtesting. It is also - and this is the crucial point, the area in which The Wonderful End truly distinguishes itself from Katamari - on PC. This cannot be overstated. Finding a copy of an early Katamari title in your local Gamestation now ranks, on the scale of Things Which Are Really Really Unlikely To Happen, somewhere between "Discovering that someone's balled up the Shroud of Turin and shoved it through your letterbox" and "Finding a copy of Ico in your local Gamestation." To have this game to hand on your personal computer is glorious, because it's exactly the kind of thing which is perfect for little five minute blasts to break up something else. The game's technical limitations can be deeply frustrating, but I still keep coming back to it.

So, differences? Whereas Katamari is centred around accreting mass, The Wonderful End is more concerned with quantity than quality. A bottle of beer, a garden chair or a fire engine, it doesn't matter; they all add the same amount of heft to your balls. This shifts the gameplay dynamic subtly, meaning it's often better to focus on large collections of small bits rather than chasing larger, free-standing objects. It's not a change which is going to make a whole lot of difference, most of the time, but it's pretty cool that the devs at least tried to do something different with the play they were riffing on.

The other thing The Wonderful End does to assert its independence is to possess an especially snappy sense of style. It's probably best known for the level set inside a kind of metatextual arcade area, which sees you swalling up Pong, Pacman and Tetris (and keep an eye out for Frogger); better still, how about a black and white level made almost exclusively out of words? Or the mall level which starts you off as a veritable giant - within a miniature display case? Neat flourishes abound on even the mundane levels.

Ultimately, The Wonderful End is the second best game in its extremely narrow genre, but for what it is, that's enough. I've never been so into such a shameless copy of a superior game. Don't judge The Wonderful End harshly for not being as good as Katamari; really, what IS as good as Katamari these days? Instead, love it for being as close to a beige-box Katamari as we're ever likely to see.

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