Octodad: Dadliest Catch places you in the role of a cephalopod who crams himself into a blue suit and struggles to lead a human life without anyone discovering his identity. He’s got a wife and two young kids and a nice suburban home with a white picket fence. Humans – real humans – seem to recognize his emotive blubs as unique speech. He, as they say, has a good thing going…as long as nobody finds him out.
The warped realities of a charming cartoon universe cut him some slack, though that’s not to say things are easy for Octodad. Most games strive to make controlling the action as transparent as possible, but Dadliest Catch is an interesting and ridiculous counterpoint to that presumption. Trying to keep the reins on an octopus passing for human is all you think about when you play it, and the way the controls balance precision with unhinged clumsiness is admirable. You point where you want to go with the left stick and alternately pump the left and right triggers. Each trigger raises the appropriate “leg” and propels you forward. Easier said than done; your tentacles have a stickiness and comic elasticity that turns your every move into barely contained bursts of energy. Simply moving from one end of a room to the other is near-always an absurdly hobbled left-foot-right-foot action that is surprisingly easy to pick up, though exaggerated physics and a wonky camera can spoil the dumb fun on occasion.
Octodad is at its best when its controls depict parenthood and its message on the importance of family. One early stretch begins with Octodad arising from his bed and taking care of some morning chores: making coffee, pouring his daughter some milk, mowing the lawn, chopping some wood. Each is a seemingly banal task made manic as you laughably attempt to coordinate your body and help your loved ones out. A trip to an aquarium later on lets you spend one-on-one time with each endearing member of your family while playing air hockey and investigating a World of Kelp exhibit; it’s the finest stretch of the entire game.
Being able to let loose and enjoy the appealing scenery in those low-risk scenarios was where I had the most fun. Once the game begins to emphasize the antagonist – a sushi chef who’s wise to Octodad’s con and seeks to expose him – the game shifts to a stealth game sensibility and introduces enemies who will find Octodad suspicious on sight. The intentionally loose controls aren’t very conducive to timing your movements around them, but not in the fun and quirky sense that defines the first two thirds of the adventure. Quickly springing out of sight when you are seen can be tricky too, since your meter rapidly fills as long as enemies have sight on you. The going never gets tough, but the game’s final stretch piles on enough of these trial-and-error moments to drag the whole thing down a little. It’s also where the odd case of physics getting you stuck in geometry becomes annoying. This feeling culminates in a final sequence that barely embodies the game’s playful tone at all. Avoiding attacks feels lousy, and the large amount of debris in the area seemed to really confuse the game’s targeting system at the time you need it most. No one mechanic ever breaks down dramatically, but it’s still a shame that the most enjoyable parts of the game are left by the wayside just as it’s finishing up.
Wrangling your way through with a controller is mostly a pleasure, and the achievement you unlock for launching the game with one connected suggests that it’s the way to go. You can play with a mouse and keyboard as well, though I found this control scheme far less than ideal. Instead of intuitively combining all of your movements into a chaotic flow, you need to press the spacebar to switch between your hands and legs. You also need to awkwardly push your mouse forward with every step, which broke the flow of my movements something awful. It’s possible to adjust, though imagining the more demanding scenes with that scheme made me uneasy.
Octodad: Dadliest Catch doesn’t always play to its strengths – mechanically or conceptually – but it’s still an enjoyable and unusual game whose charms ultimately won me over. Silly walking through its fun but flawed adventure is a fine way to spend an afternoon despite a less focused third act. If you’re in the mood for something refreshing and different from the usual kill-em-dead directives in games, I’d recommend you play it.