LocoRoco arrived with impossibly high expectations.
This ridiculously cute new game for the PlayStation Portable debuted as a demo in April, and since then, the gaming press has tripped over itself to anoint it the successor to Katamari Damacy or Guitar Hero.
Now the game's finally here, and at first glance, it more than lives up to the hype. The visuals are like a cartoon version of a lava lamp. A blob of goo slides across levels that you tilt, using the PSP's left and right shoulder buttons. As it consumes plants in its path, the blob grows bigger.
You do have limited control over the LocoRoco itself. If your blob gets too big to fit through a small opening, you can splatter it into smaller droplets that flow like liquid. Afterward, you can combine the individual droplets back into a giant mound that has the physical properties of Jell-O. You can also make the blob jump by pressing both shoulder buttons simultaneously.
These little gelatin creatures pack plenty of personality. It's hard not to fall in love with them, feeling regret if one is killed and jubilation when others reach the finish line safely. This amiable race was living a peaceful existence until it was attacked by a violent group called the Moja, whose members bear an unfortunate resemblance to the blackface actors of old minstrel shows.
The music is by far the game's best feature. Although at first listen the songs sound like indistinguishable J-Pop, they were actually recorded in an invented LocoRoco language. It's an inspired idea -- analogous to J.R.R. Tolkien's linguistic creations in Lord of the Rings -- and neatly solves the problem of translating the game from Japanese into English.
While the lyrical content remains obscure -- at least until some rabid fan creates a LocoRoco Rosetta Stone -- the songs are more evocative than most of what you hear on the radio. Whether the tunes are carefree or mournful, they express genuine emotion. Similarly, the squeals of terror emitted by the LocoRoco when they're in danger will make you cringe in sympathy.
The only problem with LocoRoco is that the action tends to be monotonous.
There are five worlds, each made up of eight levels. By the time you come to the end of the first world, you'll be impressed by how much mileage the game's designers got out of a seemingly simplistic game mechanic. Even the hoary ice world feels remarkably fresh, thanks to the jiggly physics -- it's laugh-out-loud funny to watch your blob zip through roller-coaster loop-the-loops as it skids across the slippery surface.
But the second world offers more of the same; the only difference is the color scheme. And once you figure out how to make your LocoRoco jump and break into smaller blobs, you've pretty much mastered the game.
Each level is a little too easy to finish the first time through -- provided you don't get obsessive about hunting down all the hidden secrets. Don't bother; for the most part, it's not worth the effort. All you'll get is pieces for a "LocoRoco House" mini-game that allows you to build play areas for your blobs, who aren't nearly as interesting when you can't control them.
As it turns out, LocoRoco works best as a demo. While it's ideal for wooing girlfriends and other nongamers, in larger doses, the novelty wears off.