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Wattam is a touching, whimsical playground from the creator of Katamari

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An emotional journey about ice cream and poop

It’s difficult to explain what Wattam is and also make it sound interesting. The latest release from Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi, Wattam is a whimsical adventure about... well, it’s kind of hard to say. There are puzzles, and there’s a story, but mostly, Wattam is about playing around with 100 anthropomorphized creatures and objects, and seeing what happens when you mix them together. It’s about letting your inner child loose and experimenting. It’s playful in the extreme. But instead of feeling aimless, the result is freeing in a way that’s increasingly rare in video games. And it’s all wrapped up in a surprisingly touching world and story. It’s a game about playing with virtual toys, but by the end, Wattam might make you tear up a little.

Wattam takes place in a bizzaro version of Earth, one that was under attack by a mysterious, evil force and ultimately turned barren. You start out as a character called the mayor — a green cube with a hat and mustache — and, as you solve puzzles, more and more objects will return to the land. Wattam’s world is divided into four main islands, each based on a specific season, and the ultimate goal is to bring back all 100 objects. And those objects include just about everything: a toilet, ice cream cone, or piece of sushi, each with arms, legs, a face, and a personality.

The big twist in Wattam is that you can control each and every one of these characters, swapping through them at will. Some have special abilities or attributes. The mayor, for instance, will explode if he takes off his hat. (Don’t worry, he doesn’t get hurt.) A desk fan can create a gust of wind, while a giant tree can eat other characters to turn them into pieces of fruit. Aside from that, each character has a few standard controls, including the ability to climb, jump, and hold hands with other characters. It’s all fairly simple, though things get a bit wonky when it comes to the camera. Instead of rotating the camera with the right stick, as has become an industry standard, you instead do it using the left and right triggers, while the right stick lets you swap between characters. It’s a clumsy system that took me some time to get used to.

All of these characters and objects are cute and charming on their own, but the magic of Wattam comes from how they interact with each other. Take the trees that eat other characters and create fruit as an example. There’s also a character that’s a walking mouth who can eat the fruit and turn it into poop. And that poop has a surprising amount of uses, like tricking a cone into thinking it has ice cream on top of it. These kinds of interactions are then used to solve puzzles, which typically involve finding a way to satisfy a crying character. You might need to make a tree grow, for instance, which involves finding a seed, planting it, and then gathering up a few characters in a circle to dance around it, My Neighbor Totoro-style. Or you might need to help a piece of sushi find its children, which are tiny pieces of salmon roe. Or maybe you need to stack up the right number of characters to match the height of a demanding bowling pin.

The puzzles are uniformly strange, but they’re also playful, letting you experiment with ideas until you find the solution. Things start out relatively simple, but as you uncover more characters and open up new areas, the interactions become more complex — and fun. Pretty much every element of Wattam is designed with whimsy in mind, like how each character has its own unique musical theme or the way the camera mode involves finding a literal camera. Watching a group of disparate objects form a circle, and then spin around until they can’t stop laughing, never really gets old. And since the game rarely spells out what you can do, figuring these interactions out is an act of discovery.

This kind of good-natured play is par for the course for Takahashi, whose previous work includes Katamari, a game about rolling objects into a giant ball, and Noby Noby Boy, a game about stretching out a giant worm. What’s unexpected about Wattam is how emotional the story gets. You might not believe that after playing for an hour or two, given the simple dialogue and copious poop jokes. But that starts to change as you start to learn more about the world and how it came to be, thanks in large part to melancholic storybook sequences. Wattam becomes something much more profound. It even ends by forcing you to make a tough, nuanced moral decision. If you’re going to play Wattam, you most definitely need to see it through to the conclusion.

It’s been well over a decade since Katamari debuted, and since then, there have been few games that capture the same lighthearted-yet-touching vibe. Even Takahashi’s subsequent work has largely failed to reach the same standard set by his iconic debut. It’s a tricky thing to balance, making a game that feels free and open but doesn’t frustrate players with a lack of direction. Wattam not only nails it much like Katamari did, but it also evokes a very similar set of feelings. It’s the rare game full of both laughter and sadness — and probably the only one that also features talking eyeballs and toilets.

Wattam will be available on December 17th on the PlayStation 4 and PC.