Octodad: Dadliest Catch review
Eight arms to hold you.
I've got to mow the lawn. This is not, in theory, the toughest challenge I've ever faced. I just need to get the lawnmower out of the shed, and push it over some rather obviously highlighted tufts of grass. It's less easy, however, when you're an octopus in a suit, masquerading as a suburban dad.
Marshalling your undulating, boneless tentacles to open the shed door is a trial in itself, let alone extracting the mower and directing it safely along the ground without smacking your sweetly oblivious wife in the face with it. That's the joke, and gameplay, of Octodad: Dadliest Catch in one simple nutshell: ordinary tasks made hilarious by virtue of your barely-controllable tentacles.
It's a conceit that puts the game in the same bracket as other interactive slapstick comedies such as QWOP, Incredipede and Surgeon Simulator, but Octodad is never as punishingly difficult as those games. It takes some practice, but Octodad's seemingly random flailings can actually be directed with a reasonable degree of accuracy most of the time.
Control is intuitive enough, particularly if you're using a controller rather than keyboard and mouse. You can move Octodad's right "arm" horizontally as well as up and down, while a button press makes it grab nearby items - handily identified with a glowing green sheen. Walking is trickier, with each "leg" needing to be dragged into position before the other one will move. By changing the length of his stride, you can make him shuffle daintily or break into a lolloping, rubbery sprint.
He's never graceful, but that doesn't really matter: the havoc created by your wobbling movements is all part of the fun, as the game conspires to place Octodad in situations where delicacy is required or in environments filled with precariously balanced objects. The only limitation comes from Octodad's desire to keep his cephalopod nature secret from everyone around him. Whenever you're around other people, dotted sightlines will show you when your actions are drawing attention. Behave too bizarrely and suspicions will start to rise. Let them get too high, and your rather inept cover is blown in a shower of shameful ink.
Complicating matters further is an obsessed sushi chef who stalks Octodad at every turn, desperate to reveal his secret to the world. He tends to pop up at the end of each chapter, triggering an action-packed pursuit or boss fight.
In the earliest of the game's scenarios, the balance between comedy and gameplay is nicely judged. Arguably the game's strongest section takes place in a supermarket, where events play out more like an adventure game. You have a shopping list of items to find, and must navigate broken freezer cabinets, banana-skin strewn floors and a rival shopper intent on grabbing the last box of cereal to get them all. If you get tired of finding groceries you can always enjoy the many indie game in-jokes hidden in the scenery - a special offer on The Stanley Pair O' Bowls is particularly brilliant - or just take a spin on a children's motorised rocket ship and watch Octodad's elastic body twang itself into pretzel shapes as he hangs on for dear life.
Such stages provide an invigorating slapstick sandbox, allowing you to wreak havoc in mundane places, and are an absolute joy to explore. Many years ago, I interviewed John Kricfalusi, creator of Ren & Stimpy, and he lamented the fact that - at the time - too many TV cartoons were lifeless to watch. "You ever watch an old cartoon and just laugh because they move funny?" he said. Octodad most certainly "moves funny" and there's tangible pleasure in just stretching and slurping him around the environment, knocking objects flying thanks to the largely impeccable physics.
He's a wonderfully appealing character too, conveying pathos and whimsy with just a blink of his enormous eyes and a twitch of his wibbling "moustache". It's not just broad physical humour either. The script underpins the comedy, with a story that acknowledges the lunacy of its premise yet still builds to a genuinely heartwarming tale of acceptance and loyalty against all odds.
Sadly, in expanding its early student opus into a fully fledged commercial product, developer Young Horses eventually wobbles almost as much as its unlikely hero. Once you move past the common domestic scenarios, the gameplay takes a hard turn turn towards stealth, with multiple chapters where you must steer Octodad past alert enemies without being spotted. Sometimes this means navigating narrow elevated beams, and too often it adds instant death into the mix as well. Camera angles are not always helpful, obscuring Octodad's limbs and making it hard to tell which leg needs to move where. When such issues mean another failure and checkpoint restart, the amusement inherent in the controls quickly sours into frustration.
"Few games manage to be funny, yet Octodad is frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious, thanks both to the random mayhem and the deft script."
The game doesn't stick around long enough for such problems to taint the experience, though. No doubt aware of the limitations of both its story and gameplay, Octodad is over in less than two hours. Long-term appeal comes from replaying the stages in search of hidden ties - of which I could find only one on my first play-through - as well as the dozens of funny interactions, Easter eggs and bonus gags that you will have missed. The lengthy achievements list will tip you off to just how many of those you managed to blunder past.
Also worthy of note is the Steam Workshop implementation, which will allow for the creation and import of user-created Octodad challenges, as well as the chance to muck about with the game's physics in various ways - including zero gravity. For those seeking the hardest, and funniest, way to play the game, there's also co-operative play for up to four players. With each person controlling one limb, Octodad is reinvented as an insane party game not unlike the amazing and award-winning Space Team.
Few games manage to be funny, yet played solo or with friends, Octodad is frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious, thanks both to the random mayhem and the deft script. It's also a surprisingly sweet game with a genuine depth to its main character. We've all felt awkward and out of place at some point, or have some aspect of ourselves we keep hidden away for fear those we love will reject us. To its credit, and for all its cartoon silliness, Octodad doesn't treat that concept lightly.
It's a shame Octodad leans so heavily on traditional gameplay tropes like boss fights and stealth sections in its second half, especially when the opening sections suggest something quirkier and more inventive - but taken as a whole, it's still a minor triumph.