Reviewed: November 23, 2011
Released: October 18, 2011
What in the name of all that is pixelated is a “cloud whale”? Care to find out? Too bad, because even after you play Okabu you still won’t know! If you’ve picked up Okabu for the PS3 be ready to pal around with Kumulo and Nimbe (great names, right? I mean they couldn’t possibly be more creative?) and their little environmentally friendly companions. Also be prepared for an experience as heavy handed as any episode of Captain Planet and about as interesting as that kid with the Heart ring. |
Okabu works you slowly into a routine of puzzle solving with a series of different tools. You begin with the talents of your cloud whales which amount to sucking up liquids and spitting them or “raining” them. So great, you’ve achieved the abilities of a five year old and you apply them with about as much skill. Water plants, spit water on robots to short circuit them. Your power is underwhelming. Later you pick up Captain Monkfish (you’re welcome) who wields a plunger on a rope, a guy with a flute, some other guy with a remote control and a girl with a bunch of arrows.
This is your tool box, and I will give HandCircus credit that you can get a surprising variety of tasks done with these few options, which is good because the game is essentially a slightly more 3D version of Lost Vikings -- just without the power of Viking facial hair or competency of Blizzard -- so you’re going to use all your skills to move blocks, blow up barriers, open doors, throw switches, kill enemies and so on ad nauseam.
The ad nauseam is important because what this game lacks is an element of fun. Sure, you’re surfing around as a couple of sweet clouds, but the puzzles go from simple two-step solves to multi-staged slogs which resemble nothing so much as a demented bureaucrat’s idea of entertainment. They aren’t difficult, but they do involve you running back and forth doing one task at a time. You complete one step just to set up the next one, which makes you double back again for something else.
I have to imagine this is what being 80 is like. Sit down in a chair to watch some TV, forget I left my hearing aids in the kitchen. Get up, grab them. Then sit back down, only the remote is by the TV. Get up, grab that. Then sit back down, except I just remembered I left my bacon sandwich on the counter. Get up, grab that. Then sit back down only to realize the batteries are dead in the remote. FML, I’m going to bed. Now where did I put that door…
That being said, maybe you like running back and forth, or maybe you are 80 and forget how long you’ve been hitting the same button. Even allowing for that, there’s still something that stands out as just poor game design. Early on in the game you’re led through some environmentally minded tasks (tow garbage to a recycle center, sponge off oil spots, extinguish fires), as part of moving the game forward. After you’ve done these about once, that’s all the impact they have on the game. Sure, they’ll recur in later levels, but they are no longer required. If you want to, you can clean stuff up but nothing comes of it. No points for doing it, no stats tracked and nothing unlocked because of it. So you’re playing a game with an environmental bent, are fighting the typical dirty, industrial polluters, and have absolutely no reason to actually clean anything up.
That just about covers the raw mechanics. The controls are equally simple, and honestly too floaty and unresponsive. When flying around it makes a certain amount of sense since you are actually floating off the ground, but everything moves the same way. So the vehicles you take control of and animals and people you lead around tend to act more like pucks on an air hockey table rather than things actually touching the ground. Also, and what’s actually more annoying, you have no camera control. It’s not too much of a problem fortunately, but I can’t tell you the number of times I wanted to shift my view just a little off where my characters were centered on the screen.
This game has all the elegance of a set of LEGO's with none of the charm or interlocking capabilities. The characters are unrelentingly boxy, soulless and more than a little disturbing. Not because the animation is restricted to stiff arm movements, eye blinks and mouth flapping, but also because all the bad guys are in wheel chairs. Sure, they fire missiles, but that doesn’t make you any less of a monster for beating up the handicapped.
LEGO’s are a good analogy too because all the characters feel like they are separate from the levels they’re running around in. It feels like you have toys you’re flying, walking or, let’s be honest, as a kid you were throwing them through the play set you got for Christmas. This is bad on two levels. First, because it does a lot to destroy the immersion and connection you feel to the story. With no connection to the plot, it makes it a lot easier to treat the environment as your plaything and completely ignore the message trying to be crammed down your throat.
Second, and this is much more of a problem, your characters float independent of the background. So you flip around in a circle and the map performs the same movement a split second behind you. That doesn’t sound too bad right? Except the first time I sat down to play this after about a half hour it made me motion sick. The last thing you want as a developer is a bunch of 8 year olds vomiting because of your game, though I suppose it could come in handy as a fake sick day tool.
Far and away the audio is the best aspect of Okabu. In case the screenshots haven’t given it away, this isn’t some random Japanese weirdness but instead an English take on Africa. Unfortunately, my Google-fu wasn’t able to come up with any meaning for Okabu, so it makes you wonder if HandCircus were being that obtuse deliberately.
Either way the jams on this game fit the African vibe completely. They are a mixed bag of percussion and voice which make you want to nod your head and clap along. You might think that they went to some bands out of South Africa or Zimbabwe to pull the soundtrack together, but I guess that idea didn’t resonate with the dev team or maybe it was just too expensive. This is one of the few instances where a soundtrack could be marketed completely independently of the game and be successful.
Aside from the built in play time limiter (about an hour before you feel like worshiping at the porcelain throne), there is plenty of content for the price. Plus if you’re really that competitive or just that bored there are online leader boards and challenge timers so you can replay the levels and try to beat the high score.
If you really feel like inflicting some permanent damage on an unsuspecting 5 year old then by all means pick this title up. Otherwise, just put in LittleBigPlanet and be considered the cool adult in the room.