Release date: December 17, 2019
Rating: E 10+ (Everyone 10+)
Platform: Microsoft Windows, Playstation 4
What’s It All About?
Wattam is a tricky one to nail down, toeing the line between an “action” game, a puzzler, a sandbox, and a few other things. Even official storefronts only list its categories as the nebulous “Indie” and “Casual”. The surer description is that Wattam is the latest game from designer Keita Takahashi, the mind that gave us Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy. That alone sets this game up as a delightful, low-stakes romp in a setting both surreal and nostalgically familiar.
Lead designer Takahashi originally came from a design background focused not on video games, but on sculpture and domestic objects. (Seriously, go read the Boss Fight Book on Katamari Damacy. He’s a unique egg.) Even today, his self-founded company actively designs playgrounds for children, and it shows here. Everything in Wattam is vibrant, colorful, and clear, which feels like a breath of fresh, happy air.
The soundtrack does everything it can to match that, with unique little leitmotifs that play as you control each object. You spend the game hopping between about a hundred “friends”, from a stone to a snowman to the literal number three. Each has a cheeky little backstory and individualized music that plays while you control them, from the coconut’s chirpy xylophone to the poot-toot of a walking pile of poop.
It’s almost painfully charming.
There’s also no fail state, with the worst thing for you to lose being time. Wattam will never slap you on the wrist for failing to meet a time limit or falling off the map. It just sets you gently back in place and lets you peacefully explore at your own pace. There’s something to be said for a true sandbox with few directed ways to play; outside of “story” objectives, you’re free to chase an onion across a meadow, climb a tree, or become that tree and turn a rock into that onion.
It’s all so innocent, from the mixture of simple phrases and pictographs in its speech-bubble dialogue to your starting character pulling family-friendly cartoon bombs from his top hat. Who doesn’t love a flight of whimsy?
Something that surprised me – possibly due to expectations from Katamari – was that Wattam feels like it’s targeted at children. This isn’t inherently bad if you know what you’re getting into. But what you’re getting into is a game so overt that it feels like it’s talking down at any player old enough to have graduated from Sesame Street. The thing is, an audience still of Sesame Street age could potentially have problems operating a keyboard or a Playstation controller, which leaves Wattam feeling a bit confused for an audience given its picture-book story and straightforward gameplay.
This also results in things feeling a bit simple in general. Again, this can be good in a turn-off-your-brain-and-toddle-around way, and there’s definitely some catharsis to be had from Wattam. But that results in a game that’s fairly shallow; most of the game’s challenges are either simple size- or shape-matching, or will otherwise explicitly tell you the “solution” to a “puzzle” in the same breath as presenting that “puzzle” in the first place. This makes almost the entire experience a matter of following simple directions, being led around by the nose throughout.
Wattam is also notably short; as of completing the game, I’d logged slightly under three hours of play time. Granted, it’s priced at $20, and it’s already been on sale for half that in the month since its release. But with so little value in replaying the campaign and the sandbox feeling a mite flighty, that may be a hard sale for some.
The heart of my problem with Wattam is that it makes a better idea than a game. You’re introduced to a few unique objects early on, but after that each is functionally interchangeable with the next. As a result, most objectives are some cutesy variation on “walk object X to point Y”, which is hardly the most engaging use of your afternoon. This also killed my sense of progression; Wattam felt at one point like it was in danger of overstaying its welcome, which isn’t flattering given its short runtime.
There is some joy in self-directed play, like stacking a flower on top of a pencil on top of an octopus. But ultimately this just a smidge more interesting than mashing two household objects together. That isn’t too far off from what you’re actually doing, come to think of it.
It also feels woefully under-polished. Objects amble about when left unattended, so speech bubbles are sometimes completely obscured during the short and frequent “cutscenes”. The play space is frequently over-crowded, so I would trip over three “friends” on a five-second walk, latching onto each in turn Breath-of-the-Wild-style. And “interact” is permanently bound to the same button that will send certain core characters self-destructing into the stratosphere. All too often, I had to sit for a solid fifteen seconds watching characters tumble about because I pressed that key a hair too late.
Ending on possibly a nitpick, I only discovered the presence of a multiplayer option from its storefront page, after completing the game. There’s no reference to the functionality at all in the game itself, which feels like a bizarre choice. Perhaps Wattam would have been more interesting with a friend to bounce playful ideas off of. I don’t exactly feel inclined to go back and find out now, though.
I adore Wattam for its concept and aesthetic, I really do. But at the end of the day, it’s hamstrung by being not nearly as much fun to play as it is to look at. It’s wholesome and vibrant and I wish that more games shared its upbeat attitude, but its anemic gameplay and overly simplistic directions are such crippling blows to the experience. Adjust your expectations upward if you don’t mind toyboxes; adjust them downward if that sounds tedious.