Before he became a game designer full-time, Simon Oliver made interactive exhibits for museums. I think a little of that kind of thing may have rubbed off on Okabu. I'm not trying to taint his latest project by suggesting it's anything like a piece of educational software, but it has a sweet-natured environmental message and a rigorous logic to its challenges. Whatever your age, it wants to make you think. You play as a cloud, you'll spend a lot of time wondering how water's going to interact with other elements, and the whole thing, with its neat little fields, its puzzles about harvests and its creeping threat of industrialisation, comes across like an agrarian Super Mario World. Put that on the back of the box.
There won't be a box of course. Okabu is the first straight-up console title from Oliver's tiny HandCircus outfit - the micro-studio that made its name with the Rolando platformers for iOS - and it's appearing on PSN later this year. Like his previous offerings, Okabu's colourful and cheery, and it's been built by a handful of people (just five this time): a fact that makes its sprawling levels, its ingenious, race-tuned mini-games, and its playful, detail-rich hub worlds quietly astonishing.
As with Rolando, the visuals are being handled by the illustrator Mikko Walamies, but there's no danger that anyone's going to mistake Okabu for LocoRoco. Instead, this is a game where the comfortable chunkiness of the art complements a varied design and some inventive mechanics.
You play as Kumulo and Nimbe - there's something Oliver probably picked up in a museum for starters - two cloud whales who have come down from the sky to help out a gang of rustic cuties known as the Yorubo. The Yorubo are being menaced by the Doza, who like building factories and smokestacks and cranes and pumping stations and, actually, just about everything else that I wouldn't particularly care to live without. That doesn't matter, though: the Doza may be on track to discover penicillin first, but they're still bad news for their neighbors, and the cloud whales are here to fight them off.
Kumulo and Nimbe gad swiftly over the surface of Okabu's maps. They can suck up water - or oil - and either rain it down on the ground beneath them or spit it out as if wielding a fire hose, while the player guides the spray around with a chunky reticule. These abilities are enough to tackle plenty of the game's challenges - you can lay down paths of oil and connect flaming gas jets to bombs in order to blow open doorways, for instance, and you can finish off a lot of Doza machinery by simply blasting it with water - but for much of Okabu, the clouds' powers are augmented by the Yorubo heroes they can carry around on their backs.