Katamari Damacy began as a happy ball of creativity, an innovative concept revolving solely around the simple act of rolling. Eight years after it first arrived, the novelty has dissipated, the industry nary raising an eyebrow at the series any longer. Time, and a lack of forward movement, has normalised the Prince and King of All Cosmos' antics; the element of surprise is gone. Strange as it is to say about a series that involves deities gathering up any objects, persons or continents in a mammoth ball to impress their worshippers, Katamari Damacy is pretty standard fare these days.
With series creator Keita Takahashi long gone, now content to design playgrounds and work on time travelling MMOs, we arrive at PS Vita's Touch My Katamari. As with each entry into the franchise, it's filled with bizarre humour, quirky visuals, snappy writing and huge sticky balls of fun. Touch My Katamari should be exciting and interesting, but despite gripping onto the qualities of the series it feels stagnant, unimaginative, unoriginal. It's all been done before in previous editions, and better.
Changing the central conceit is out of the question. The King of All Cosmos' gentle – and not so gentle – chiding of the Prince to prove his greatness by taking on challenges from their followers continues to form the main impetus. The goal is still to push along an oversized ball, sweeping over objects to pick them up, beginning with the smallest items and gradually moving to scoop up bigger treats to create the most gigantic, chaotic cluster possible. As always, this hook is entertaining; it's easy to understand, the gradually quickening momentum of the ever-expanding ball keeps the pace steady and the continual presence of larger elements provides incentive to keep growing so that everything can be collected.
The problems really lie in the scenarios, which are extremely similar in scope and design to ones found in Katamari games past. The majority of levels ask you to reach a certain size within a strict time limit, often pleading for you to focus upon items of a particular property: strong or expensive things, for example. A few have more interesting objectives, such as avoiding all bear- and cow-related objects for as long as possible before choosing a preferred species, or gobbling up as many food stuffs as your katamari can hold without exceeding a calorie counter. Overall, though, there's nothing massively different to previous titles and few fresh ideas, which extends to the very similar environments. This makes Touch My Katamari feel like a re-run, far less exhilarating than its concept deserves. Issues with draw distance add to its problems, objects occasionally noticeably popping in far later than they should.
Vita's touch controls do allow for the injection of a couple of new approaches, but they stumble in practice. The katamari can be moved directly, holding forwards on the screen with two fingers, twisting to change directions, tapping in various places to stop the ball still, flip 180 degrees and dash. It's responsive, but with all actions based around the katamari the inputs can get confused — it's more cumbersome than it should be. It's far easier to use Vita's analogue sticks and shoulder buttons.
It's further complicated by the addition of an entirely new feature: the ability to morph your katamari so that it's wide and squat or tall and skinny. On either the screen or rear touch pad, two digits can be held together in the position of the ball and then stretched out into the shape that you want. It can be returned to normal with a simple tap. Shape-shifting can be a pain on the touch screen thanks to all the other actions assigned to it, but with a little practice it's easy to control.
Though the function is interesting and the biggest change to the series in years, it's totally underused and not actually essential at any point. You might see a narrow gap that you couldn't sneak through ordinarily, but you can complete the level without going there. It's great fun to swap to the stretch into horizontal form to brush over a broader area, but it's never necessary. Morphing is the best idea in Touch My Katamari, and something that could genuinely have brought desperately warranted new aspects to the series, but it goes completely squandered.
Candy is the reward for good performances. Reaching the requested size is the minimum requirement; make the effort to snatch up more of the item category specified and your rank will improve, as will the number of sweets proffered by whichever demanding human set the mission. Discovering Prince's missing cousins or other hidden frivolities give extra sugar bonuses, and you can also use tickets to multiply the offered amount. Candy can be used to purchase extra game modes – infinite time on levels, for instance – or clothes for the now-visually terrifying King, his face now disturbingly closer to reality. Unlocking these things helps to extend Touch My Katamari beyond its initial four hours of play time.
Stood by itself, or put into the hands of a new player, Touch My Katamari might feel pretty great, but for experienced high rollers it misses the mark by nestling too close to the series' past. Though it attempts a new thing or two, it's not enough. Touch My Katamari's still fun at its core, but more clearly than ever it indicates that the series is dearly in need of another twist or a refreshed design.