I'm in between Xbox's at the moment (I've had seven, and thanks for caring, Microsoft), so you can imagine my alarm upon watching the stream of great “Summer of Arcade” titles float by- Bastion in particular -and not being able to give them a spin. Not to be outdone, Sony has held its own DLG promotion this October, titled, “Only on PSN,” featuring games like Rochard, Infamous: Festival of Blood, and the impressive Sideway: New York. The event itself has been pretty respectable, accompanied by good Playstation Plus incentives and some rare PS2 games for download (Odin Sphere is a sleeper classic, play it!), however, it's a good thing that the majority of games have shied away from the PSN's traditional “quirk, and the praise will come” sensibility that catapulted games like Flower, Echochrome, and The Last Guy into critical darling status.
Okabu is a game that courts that status like it's going out of style. It feels like a focus group's attempt to recreate the successes of those aforementioned games that were just so weird they worked. The problem here is that playing Okabu doesn't feel as quirky or imaginative as its premise would suggest. It's not without merit, in fact there are some things it does very well, but Okabu's appeal is very much dependent upon its audience, and core gamers definitely aren't among that number.
Okabu casts you as Kumulo and Nimbe, two cloud whales (just go with it) from the teeming skies above Earth, who are brought down from their atmospheric climes when the sinister Doza Corps start polluting the environment. The clouds have become poisoned, and the people of Earth are living in fear and restricted boundaries after everything succumbs to Doza's toxic sludge. Together with Nimbe (for some old fashioned couch co-op), Kumulo sets about soliciting himself as the local “green” constabulary and cleaning things up.
Okabu takes place in a hub world that houses individual levels, a'la Donkey Kong Country. As you progress from section to section you witness this overworld slowly rid itself of the grungy patina brought on by Doza's minions. Levels are based around environmental puzzles, and the camera is positioned at a semi-isometric angle that allows you to enjoy the level's geometry and colorful design. The cloud whales have the ability to absorb different liquids or small objects, such as water, oil, or nuts, which can then be dropped or shot at objects. You'll use water to make plants grow, put out fires, or fry the circuitry of Doza-bots. Each series of levels introduces new substances and obstacles, but they all revolve around the same principle: absorb and dispense. It's a Mr. Clean Sponge Simulator.
While that mechanic never evolves in a meaningful way, Okabu teams you up with NPCs who ride atop your cloud whale to share their abilities. One character has a grappling plunger that can be used to pull doors open or shake fruit off of trees, while another uses music to bewitch animals to do your bidding. This adds some variety to the scenarios, but the puzzles themselves never increase in difficulty. The game uses characters to flat out tell you what to do for any new situation, and beyond that, all challenges are immediately transparent. Even the game's young player base will have little trouble completing levels because the repetition and hand-holding are baked into Okabu's very design.
Okabu's look is pleasant. Character designs are bright and clean, levels are generously constructed, and the art design echoes the child friendly cel-shading of Animal Crossing and Costume Quest. While there can be some slowdown, and music that glitches in and out infrequently, Okabu's visuals are perfectly serviceable. It's aesthetics are just as basic as its environmental message: unremarkable but not unwelcome.
I'll be blunt, Okabu is boring. It's no skin off a cloud whale's nose to say so, as it naturally doesn't dovetail right into my tastes. It diligently pursues being a youngster friendly adventure game, and I think it achieves that goal, but not through its gameplay. Now, I'm hesitant to recommend anything to kids just because I didn't find it good but thought they might. Pokemon is the only exception to that rule. Okabu is not a game I would recommend to kids looking for an interesting and fun diversion. The levels are long, the mechanics are simplistic and driven into the ground, and there are more technically solvent games out there.
What kept me playing, however, was that the game never talks down to its audience. Okabu makes a very clear point about environmental stewardship, but it does so without judgment, preachiness, or mania. Characters speak with that classic “Hor Dordle Ordle Dor” Banjo-Kazooie cadence, but the script itself is engaging and well written. As an adventure game for kids who are just learning to read (or learn their way around the joysticks) Okabu gets my full endorsement.
This isn't a game for me, nor is it a game for most kids I think, but it isn't hard to see what Sony saw in Okabu. As a game, it's not much fun, and as an aesthetic piece of entertainment, it's neither here nor there. However, it continues a proud, understated tradition for the PSN: make non-violent games that champion color, intelligence, and goodwill amidst the sea of edgy-ness that our beloved medium is wont to overproduce. Now if only the game design had matched the script, we'd have another Flower on our hands.