Saturday, January 10, 2009

style over substance

You should know that Loco Roco is not a particularly long experience, and there's really not much to it. Controls are simple, and the meat of the gameplay hearkens back to the collect-a-thon platformers of yesteryear. If this game had boring music or drab graphics or maybe even a sub-par control scheme it wouldn't be worth a look, in all honesty. Luckily for it, none of those things are true and in the end it is a stylistic triumph, and a reminder that with enough charm and charisma even a simple game can feel bold and new.

As in any platformer, you move your character from left to right, and you jump a lot between, um, platforms. What separates Loco Roco from the standard fare is the passivity of the protagonist - as a colored circle with no limbs, any movement aside from some light hopping now and then is quite beyond your capabilities. What you are in control of is the environment in which you roll. The earth can be tilted from side to side, and can be bumped to fling your Loco Rocos up in the air. This tilting mechanic actually results in deeper immersion, ever-important to games nowadays - especially if you're not used to playing this sort of thing, you'll find yourself tilting and twisting the PSP every which way despite the fact that it serves no practical purpose. It's funny to watch.

Immersion aside, most of Loco Roco's charm lies in its art and character design, which are adorable. The big, colorful backgrounds catch the eye without being distracting, and characters both friend and foe are simple without being bland and awful. The Loco Rocos make all sorts of little faces and sounds as they roll around, often reacting to the obstacles and enemies around them - it's genuinely distressing when you lose one of the little guys. With just these simple tools at their disposal, they evoke an emotional response that you sometimes just can't feel for hulking space marines.

Music is also exemplary, with excellent voice work throughout - it compares most directly to the soundtrack of Katamari Damacy, though not always as bizarre. I guess it's easiest if you just listen to some of the standouts.

As implied at the beginning of the post, this isn't really one pointed at the "hardcore" set, though upon release it was marketed heavily enough to make you think it was supposed to be a system seller (see also: LittleBigPlanet). It's not hard to blow through unless perhaps you're trying to get 100% of everything in every level, and there's little by way of incentive to do that. Loco Roco could charitably be described as a gateway game, an entry point for the casual player discouraged by and frightened of the Zeldas and Halos of which more seasoned gamers are so fond. It (and its similarly style-heavy cousin Patapon) are square pegs on the PSP, a system normally content to be the Sylvester Stallone to the PS2's Schwarzenegger - you see this sort of design philosophy more often on the DS. Still, it's a worthwhile purchase if you own the software-starved portable, and its sequel promises a little more substance.

Loco Roco is the rare game with enough charm to cover for its shortcomings. You'll appreciate all of the stylistic details from when you first pick it up to when you put it back down - just be aware that there are only about four and a half very gentle hours between the two events.