Review: A big game from a little company, set in a universe where size matters
In an industry that's dominated by major corporations and never-ending strings of blockbuster sequels, it's great to run into a fun, imaginative game from a smaller company. The latest release from Dejobaan Games, The Wonderful End of the World certainly fits this description. It looks good, plays well, and has a great soundtrack. And it gives you the chance to play a walking collection of houses. Or buses. Or any other object that you can scoop up and make a part of your ever-growing ?body.?
The premise is a simple one, and one that console gamers that have played Katamari Damacy will be familiar with. The world is about to end, and it's up to the player to grab and save as much stuff as possible before it's all lost. That's it?there is no plot that progresses from one level to the next. Instead, each level is a wildly different, wildly decorated environment that presents lots and lots of collectible stuff ranging from the appropriate to the absurd. A backyard area has lawn chairs and shrubs and a lawn mower?all stuff you might find in an average back yard. The neighbor's yard, however, features a group of what look to be orangutans and chimpanzees seated at dining room tables. The centerpiece of the same yard involves Lassie presiding in a Stonehenge made of old cars. Other levels are just as fun and take their inspiration from things like Candyland, a coffee house, and your local mall. There's even a great level that's based on classic arcade games, including Pong, Centipede, and Tron, just to name a few.
A big chunk of the Wonderful fun lies in exploring all those locations, but the challenge comes from the attempt to accumulate all that stuff as quickly as possible?and the player's size is the key. When a level starts, you're just a little bugger, able to grab things like coffee cups and books (and pixels, in the Pong area). Walk over any of these and they become part of the conglomeration of clutter that is your body: a walking pile of trees, lamp posts, baseball bats and whatever else you happened to collect. And as all this stuff sticks to you, you gain bulk and the ability to gather larger and larger objects, until skyscrapers and ships are sucked into your gravitational field. This ?junk puppet? is one of the game's major technical achievements. The heap of objects appears to have arms and legs made up of recently-collected stuff. And as you grow, the game does a nice job of keeping the camera in scale with you. At first it's nearly at ground-level as you collect flowers and butterflies, and it grows out to a bird's-eye-view as you tower over whole neighborhoods. Occasionally, though, it's possible to get stuck in an area because you grew just enough to make it tough to exit but not enough to absorb the object blocking your way.
Part of the challenge is learning what you can and can't absorb at any given time. Since you've got to rack up as many collections as possible in a set time, you can't afford to waste precious seconds bouncing off objects that aren't your size yet. You've got to keep moving and keep collecting so that you grow large enough to start grabbing people, cars, buses, and rack up a score that counts in the billions.
While Wonderful End of the World probably falls into what's often called the ?casual game? category, that doesn't mean that it isn't challenging. It gives you eleven different main levels to run, and at the end of each, it hands out letter grades, all the way up to A+. If you get at least an A on every level?A- isn't good enough?the game unlocks a bonus level. This is easier said than done?after plenty of trying, I'm still working to earn that twelfth level. Although the main missions will take you only a few hours to clear if you're persistent, there's replay value in the game modes unlocked once all eleven standard levels are cleared (any passing grade will do here). For one, you get a reverse-timed mode where the clock counts up and scores you on how long it takes you to clear all the items from a level. And you also get a free exploration mode that allows you to go through the whole level and see all there is to see without the pressure of a clock or score.
If there's a down side to Wonderful End of the World, it's the fact that the gameplay stays essentially the same from one level to the next. Once you've figured out how to maneuver, the challenge lies in finding the best path through a level, the one where you can keep grabbing and growing without wasting any time. This makes each level a challenge in its own right, but it means that you're basically doing the same thing throughout. Still, it's always a pleasure to finally grow to Godzilla size at the end of a level and start rolling up the objects by the dozen.
On the tech side of things, The Wonderful End of the World is a very stable game and installs a whole lot smoother than some of the big-name games of the last couple of years. The only issues I noted during testing was a little bit of camera craziness now and again. As I negotiated some tight corners, my vision might get blocked for a few seconds, but nothing bad enough to keep me from getting where I was going. I also noticed some slowdown occasionally as I grew to monumental size and the game was showing my huge chunks of the city.