Okabu is lovely. Seeing Okabu in motion is being given a warm hug by your TV. It’s so lovely that I suspect if I took out my PS3 hard drive and shoved it in a blender, the result would be a nice glass of cool orange juice (although considering the plethora of Yakuza 4 save games on that hard drive, I imagine it’d be quite pulpy.)
“Lovely” doesn’t quite translate into “a good game”, but… oh, we’ll get to that.
At its heart – and that’s a glowing, loving heart, mark you – Okabu is an action-puzzler with a light environmental theme. As a pair of cloud whales named Kumulo and Nimbe, players help the peaceful Yoruba tribe fend off the Doza (the Yoruba’s technologically-advanced cousins) who’re polluting the world and building all sorts of nasty, smoggy machines. In short: solve 20 brightly-coloured levels of light puzzles.
And I don’t mean to harp on about this but it really is just… lovely. The graphics are bright and colourful, with a cartoony look that reminds me for some reason of pop-up books. To my untrained ears the music sounds African in nature, and it’s good enough that I’d actually listen to it outside of the game if I could. The aesthetics and audio, then, are top notch.
So, the game itself. You control one of the two cloud whales at a time, with the option to swap to the other (who follows you, invincible) with a button press. Being clouds, their primary ability is to suck up liquids in the vicinity – water or oil, usually – and then either rain them down on sections of the map, or spray them out.
There are also four other characters unlocked through play who can ride on the back of the whales, with two available in each level. These characters add extra abilities: the first has a plunger/harpoon gun that can be used to flick switches or drag objects around; another has a piccolo than can lead animals or other characters around the map. The whales themselves fly, so getting around the map is rarely difficult. There’s full drop-in drop-out co-op, too, with a second player able to take control of the other whale at absolutely any time.
Objectives tend to be to simply get to the level’s exit, although sub-objectives are often required to open it. A village might demand you help them with their harvest, requiring you to drag their seed-dispensing machine around fields before raining down on the crops to grow them, before they’ll open the exit. Another exit door might be locked with pressure pads that need you to get a few of the Yoruba over there – and as they can’t fly, that means helping them negotiate any obstacles along the way.
Written down like this it sounds rather enjoyable, but the primary problem is that there aren’t really any actual puzzles. A bit of a problem for a puzzle game, that; for the most part you’re simply going through the motions rather than thinking about them, and the controls are a little too twitchy to make that an enjoyable process.
Let’s take an example. Say we need to get some Yoruba over to a pressure pad, but there’s a river in the way. What to do? Well, we use our harpoon/plunger to drag a lilypad over to the riverbank, and then use our piccolo player to lead one of them onto it. We then drag the lilypad to the other side of the bank, lead him off it, and then repeat for the other one. No thought required; we just needed to find the lilypads, and repeat the exercise a few times.
Need a door blown up? Find the bomb dispenser, find the fire, and then find the oil (to create a flaming path to the bomb). Need to move a crate? Find one of the devices that can move it. There’s no thought required – just simple rote action, a degree of repetition that quickly gets tedious, and occasionally wonky controls that can make some things a bit of a chore. Hey, you try moving a bomb block that you’re dragging around with a plunger and a piece of elastic when robots are shooting homing missiles at you.
Yes, there are homing missiles, but rather than being a concrete and credible threat the Doza blocking your path are really more of a mild hindrance. If you’re shot (and you will be) then you’re stunned for a moment, and your rider (or anyone else “killed” in the blast) is returned to the nearest purple-fruited tree. You simply head on back there and pick them up – which, admittedly, can get a bit annoying if you’re trying to do something while under heavy fire, although there are usually simple ways of taking out most enemies anyway.
There are also a stack of minigames that get a bit dull rather quickly, and various “medals” to be earned on each level, ranging from collecting hidden items to completing the stage within a time limit – although unless you’re a hardcore completionist there’s really little reason to bother.
It feels a little like a playpen, in truth. There are all sorts of switches to flick, blocks to drag, pulleys to pull, and robots to smash, although it doesn’t really go far enough with this feeling. You’ve seen what almost everything does by the halfway point, and there aren’t enough interesting things to interact with. There’s never a sense of wanting to go back to a past level to just try something out.
There is one rather large mitigating factor, though: the game is aimed at kids.
Look, please stop shouting “WELL OBVIOUSLY, YOU IDIOT!” HandCircus’ previous game was the equally bright and colourful Rolando, which was perfectly suitable for adults. Okabu really isn’t, but I suspect it’d work well as family game.
I can’t really speak with authority on the subject, but I suspect I’d have loved this were I eight years old (and not just because the graphics would’ve blown my tiny little mind, considering what I was playing at the time). The controls, although simple, might be a bit much for the younger crowd, and I suspect the game would be too “childish” for pre-teens, but those in-between might well get a kick out of Okabu. The drop-in drop-out co-op means that it’s ideal for playing with a child and helping them deal with any trickier bits, and the bright colours and light puzzle solving would hopefully keep them entertained and let them have a think. Those with a non-gaming partner, too, might get a few hours of entertainment. I do worry, however, that the level of repetition will get to both kids and non-gamers before long.
So there you go: a puzzle-action game that, despite overflowing charm, falls flat when it comes to both puzzles and action – until you look at it from the perspective of a younger version of yourself. I can’t really recommend Okabu to anyone who plays a lot of games or who fancies a real brain-teaser, but those wanting to introduce a younger non-gamer to your favourite pastime may have a way of doing so.