Version tested: PlayStation 3
A puzzle on Okabu's third level sums everything up. One of its big-eyed Yorubo villagers asks you to help return her pet Bushybeast to its pen. It likes fish, she adds, and immediately the cognitive gears start turning: perhaps we could stick a fish on the end of our plunger and lead it into the pen, like a donkey with a carrot?
And indeed you can. It's immediately obvious, because a big drawing of said action appears on-screen a few seconds after the villager says her piece. This will be repeated countless times over Okabu's opening hours: a puzzle is set, and the game immediately makes clear how to solve it through drawings, highlights, text hints and big bouncing arrows.
Are children now so utterly dumb they can't be relied upon to solve even the most elementary of puzzles? The fact the drawings then move to the top of the screen and stay there says everything. Wouldn't want the little tykes ramming a controller up their nose while thinking too hard.
It takes a while to come to the realisation that Okabu isn't very good, because its aesthetic design is, at times, remarkable. It has to be said that it's also partially ripped off: HandCircus's previous games, Rolando 1 & 2, were excessively 'inspired by' Loco Roco, and for Okabu there's that and a good-sized dash of Patchwork Heroes as well. It is, at least, less derivative than the studio's previous work: this 3D world is populated and arranged with meticulous care, and the characters and objects have a cartoon solidity all their own.
This is only enhanced by the incidental animations: the rising and falling plunger of Captain Monkfish, the little wind trails behind the cloud whales, the fury in the eyes of a goat as it lowers its head and charges. This is all accentuated by a brilliant set of tunes that inject real verve into the world, an infectious mix of pop big band and nonsense chanting (again, highly reminiscent of Sony's Japan Studio, but heigh ho) that gives everything a jolly bounce.
You and a friend control a pair of cloud whales in increasingly large arenas filled with basic physics puzzles, friendly characters and enemies - though the game can also be played solo by switching between them. The whales have a few basic abilities, like sucking up water and other liquids and dropping or spitting it elsewhere, but the real meat lies in the four riders that are gradually accumulated.
Initially these are Captain Monkfish, a chap with a plunger on a rope, and Picolo, a farmer who charms friendly characters with his flute and leads them, Pied Piper-like. You will see the basic elements of Okabu's puzzles many, many times: pull doors open with a plunger, lead NPCs to certain level elements to do their thing, smash up armoured enemies with a farmyard animal. Okabu isn't a challenging game, it's a frustrating one. You later acquire a chap who can control the enemy's machines, which seems like a great idea, but then you drive one and realise the controls are terrible.
The enemies are no fun whatsoever to fight: defeating them by any of several methods always involves getting in close proximity, where they fire homing rockets that will relentlessly track down your whale and make your rider vanish. When this happens, you have to travel back a ways to pick him back up - and this is despite a respawn tree clearly intended to nullify such situations.
In fact, if Okabu has one defining characteristic, it is backtracking. Almost every level is a dull trudge where the mental side has been removed by those overzealous instructions, and it's very clear exactly what you have to do, but you'll still spend five minutes going back and forth doing it with mechanics that never feel tight enough to justify the repetition. In later levels you'll be required to do exactly the same thing two or three times before a gate opens or a contraption is conquered. It's baffling.
This would be bad enough, but the game often betrays its own logic: one level needs you to shine light on solar panels that are hidden behind walls. Noticing this in advance, I trained the light where it needed to be and then floated over to pull the walls aside. Nothing happened. I had to return to the light source, move it off the solar panels and back on them before it registered. As soon as a world shows itself to be functionally incoherent in this manner, my interest wanes.
Some bits of levels are simply missing a physical presence: the first world ends with your having to move exploding blocks onto conveyor belts, theoretically using a bull to turn the belts on and move the boxes. But the gates that should stop you pulling the boxes up with the plunger man don't actually exist beyond the visual representation: I just floated through them with the boxes and left the bull to twiddle its horns.
And as for the writing... I was raised on Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake, Asterix and the like: books full of fizzing wordplay and imagery, exactly the kind of thing kids adore. Pick any line from Okabu, any line in the entire game, and I guarantee it will be dull. Flat, lifeless, devoid of rhythm. It's a game that forces a great deal of dialogue down your throat in every level, but none of it is fun or funny - merely functional. In a world that has clearly had a great deal of care and polish applied to certain areas, it's a glaring weakness.
Okabu is also being marketed as 'environmentally conscious', to which I say: get serious. Apparently the Yorubo are more in touch with nature than the evil lot (who would've thought?) and there are a few recycling signs around, but that's it. Mick and Mack: Global Gladiators had more to say than this does, and if just having water and greenery versus big bad machinery qualifies something as environmentally conscious then I'm Al Gore. Games like Fate of the World are environmentally conscious. For Okabu, it's a line in a press release.
The previews for Okabu (including Christian's) were amazingly positive and, given the fact I'm an old curmudgeon, I decided to rope in a pair of nephews, six and eight years old, to give it a go. They thought it was literally the best game ever for five minutes, zooming their whales all over the place and giggling when I showed them how to run a goat into an enemy. Then, all too soon: "Uncle Dicky this is booooring, can we play Mario?" I asked they persist for science, and after another few minutes the arms were folded and they refused to play any longer.
From the mouths of babes there is no greater damnation than 'boring', and they're right. Okabu looks amazing, with real care in its visual layouts and a bouncy, irresistible soundtrack. But it's no fun to play. The challenges aren't interesting, the rhythm of each level is constantly upset by countless backtracking, the logic underlying puzzles is inconsistent, and though the world is big, there's far too much repetition.
Okabu's first impression is dazzling because it gets the audio and visual design absolutely right, but it has neither the depth nor imagination to sustain this. And when the simple act of playing isn't fun, you're just going through the motions.
4 / 10