I’m sad. There are few worse tasks as a critic than to write a negative review of something I want to like. From when I first set sight on Okabu, Hand Circus’ precious adventure-puzzler, I wanted to love it. A cel-shaded, Miyazaki-meets-Lego art style; a hopping, alternative world-beats soundtrack; the cutest cast of characters I’ve seen since The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. I mean, you control two whales made from clouds on a quest to clean the world of pollution. Sounds like a winning recipe to me.
Okabu has vision to spare, so what’s not to love? Let me ask you this: how valuable is your time to you? That’s a question I asked myself a lot as I tried to frolic through Okabu’s rainbow world, only to be yanked back like a dog leashed to a post thanks to overbearing structure and old-fashioned design.
The game presents a gorgeously rendered world populated by adorable characters and built with interesting mechanics, but never allows you the opportunity to explore or experiment. The game pulls you through linear levels, challenges and puzzles, which is fine — there’s nothing wrong with linear games — but dictates every little action you take with obsessive scrutiny.
I understand that the game is aimed at kids, but kids aren’t dumb, especially when it comes to playing video games (something a recent study suggests they have a bit of experience with). Every objective is introduced by seizing control of the camera and lingering for several seconds on shots of the problem and its solution. The game never trusts that you’ve learned a concept after doing it once or twice or twenty times and can solve a puzzle on your own.
Arrows and dotted outlines littler screen, so you’re never unsure of where to go or what to do. We solved the problem of directing the player a long time ago with maps and waypoints. (Not that Okabu needs either — environments are small, segmented and mostly linear.) Okabu’s methods of guiding the player feel less aimed at kids and more at the elderly who’ve never held a controller before. Kids like exploring and figuring things out. Isn’t that how we got into games in the first place?
But more beleaguering than Okabu’s hand-holding is its odd take on difficulty. As far as I could tell, Okabu is fail-proof, which I’m actually a fan of. In the game, the two whales are aided by four helper characters who ride them and can use special abilities. One has a plunger that acts as a grappling hook, one can control certain robots and vehicles — you get the idea. So instead of costing the player a life and sending them back to a checkpoint after being hit by a homing missile (side note: how do missiles hurt clouds?), instead the helper character riding along is knocked off and sent back to their own checkpoint – special trees that you can use to respawn helpers (which also include other NPCs and creatures you use to push buttons and remove obstacles).
But utilizing these four helper characters is the core element to solving most of the game’s puzzles, so inevitably, you have to go back to that checkpoint to pick them up again anyway. So… what’s the point? Yeah, the game is forgiving, but it punishes you by costing you time by forcing you to backtrack to a checkpoint anyway. As far as I can tell this ties into the game’s time attack challenges, but if that’s the case then couldn’t being hit just dock you X number of seconds on the clock? Why does such an aggressively casual-friendly game that holds your hand the whole way through punish the casual player? It makes no sense!
That’s to say nothing of the time I lost to bugs and design oversights. On more than a couple of occasions the game’s physics wigged out and prevented me from completing a puzzle; twice a crane stopped working as intended; once I tried to push one of the little cloud whales through a strong headwind and got stuck in the “being blown away” state, preventing me from going on without him and forcing me to restart the level; and I can’t count the number of times the floaty controls of the “fandozer” vehicle screwed me up. Once I (very easily) managed to get myself into an area of the game before I was supposed to and got stuck there permanently, again being forced to restart the level. There was a lot of that — restarting a level because something went wrong. I can’t help but think a traditional checkpoint system would have once again been valuable here, if only to save time.
I’m doing a lot of complaining and that’s because there is, genuinely, a lot to complain about. I couldn’t play Okabu for more than an hour without becoming bored by its pacing or frustrated with its quirks. But there are things to love about Okabu, too. For one, the green-friendly story never preaches. While a lot of the gameplay involves cleaning up oil spills and recycling junk, most of the dialogue just comes down to some genuinely clever one-liners and brief exchanges between the world’s cuddly denizens. The puzzles, in spite of the hand-holding, are well-designed. They even would have been pretty engaging if the game had ever allowed me to figure them out for myself. And the music… well… it’s some of the best I’ve heard in a game in a long time.
With its rainbow-colored foundation of charm and beauty, Okabu could have been great. Unfortunately, its rigid pacing, overbearing guidance and general lack of polish hold it just under the waterline set by its more competent peers and forefathers. Here’s hoping a sequel could muster a little bit of faith in its player and give us the indie darling that I know Okabu had the potential to be.
Now on to more important matters: where can I get my hands on that soundtrack?
Originally written for Digital Hippos