At E3 this year I got to try out the demo of Elebits. At the end, I turned around to hand the controller to the next person in line (who happened to be GoldenEye designer Martin Hollis, but that's neither here nor there), who asked me what I thought of it. "It's alright," I said, "but the final version better have more to it than just zapping tiny creatures and flinging objects about."
A few months later at the Montreal International Game Summit, Reggie Fils-Aime told me (and a few hundred other people) that it did. "That's a game that's got something special to it," he said in his keynote. "A lot of people are going to be surprised by that one." Excellent, I thought. It does have more to it than just zapping tiny creatures and flinging objects about.
It turns out I would have preferred it didn't.
Elebits - Konami's Wii debut - plonks you in a world entirely powered by tiny creatures with a silly name. Except, oh no! They've all gone and hidden after a huge lightning storm! With that, it's up to ten year-old protagonist Kai to sort things out by grabbing his dad's "capture gun" and sucking the power right out of the hidden Elebits. "Okay," you're saying, "but what's my motivation?" Well, it turns out that Kai's parents research Elebits, and as a result you hate them!
It's all controlled in a sort of first-person shooter style, using the nunchuck analogue stick to move and strafe in the accepted fashion while aiming and turning with the Wiimote. Turning can be a bit sluggish, because the viewpoint only shifts when the pointer's at the edge of the screen (some "expert" controls would've been nice), but then Elebits really isn't a game that demands speedy, dextrous control.
Instead, for the majority of the game, you find yourself standing still, zapping all the Elebits you can see on-screen and then using the capture gun to manipulate objects the other might be hiding under. What's more, collecting Elebits eventually starts to power up electrical items dotted around the room (computers, rice cookers, telephones), allowing you to turn them on and capture special, yellow Elebits, which increase the power of your capture gun. Once you're on a roll, you can progress from throwing pieces of toast all the way up to houses.
And that's basically it.
Alright, it's not really. That's about it for the basic gameplay concept, but there are other things to bear in mind. First of all, using the Wiimote capture gun to manipulate objects is incredibly satisfying. You can pick them up, but also twist and wobble them, and of course you can fling them about if the need takes you. It can be difficult to move objects into and out of the screen (unless you hold the Wiimote naturally with plenty of room to move it backwards and forwards), but it's clear after a couple of levels that the biggest smiles are to be found in making a ridiculous mess.
The problem being that, after the first couple of levels, the game does its very best to stop you doing that. Instead, it progressively adds layers of complication. You're asked not to break any objects. Then you're asked not to make too much noise. Then you're asked, inevitably, to avoid making a mess at all. Doing so will summon evil black Elebits, who can break your capture gun and end the level. The result is that Elebits shifts from an enjoyably chaotic mess-'em-up into a game of quietly and gingerly reorganising rooms so they're free of Elebits.
Thank goodness, then, for the edit mode, where you can make the ungodly mess of your dreams and then, excellently, send it off to people on your friends list using WiiConnect24. You're limited to editing levels you've unlocked during the story mode, but you can still create wonderfully complex levels full of physics-baiting towers, built out of breakable objects just begging to be knocked over in search of Elebits.
Multiplayer mode (only available offline) is a little less elegant. It's meant to be competitive, and the twist is that only one player can control the camera, with a bodged solution that has it randomly switch between players every 60 seconds. Going up against all the interesting multiplayer games already out on the Wii, it doesn't get very far, and the most fun you're going to have with your mates will be building new levels.
That's certainly been my experience in the couple of weeks I've spent on this, during which I've struggled with how I feel about it. There are glimmers of comparison to Katamari Damacy lurking in the way the game scales, and I was a bit worried - thinking back to the E3 demo - that I might just be treating it dismissively. Was Katamari, in demo form, not just a silly game about rolling rubbish up in a ball?
Well, no it wasn't. Katamari had bags and bags of charm from the off, and while the Elebits themselves are cute, nothing else about the game is memorable (for the right reasons anyway - you might struggle to dislodge the odious cut-scenes). And where Katamari opened up the possibilities without messing up its simple controls, Elebits starts off complex, and then only makes things worse with each new restriction.
All of which rather betrays Reggie's belief that it was "something special". There's nothing special here. Elebits is a fairly competent FPS tidy-'em-up with a great edit mode, but that's all.