Saturday, April 26, 2014

REVIEW - Octodad : Dadliest Catch.

Octodad: Dadliest Catch started as a joke, and is now one of the more feel-good Indie developer stories from the launch of the PS4.

Once upon a time, a group of eighteen students at DePaul University in Chicago made Octodad - a game about an octopus in the guise of a man, with a loving human wife, daughter and son, flailing about comically as he tries to complete mundane domestic tasks without the benefit of bones or a traditional control scheme.

They released it for free, it got some good press, and eight of those students went on to form a studio called Young Horses.  Young Horses took what they'd started with Octodad and began massaging it into a more consumer-friendly offering, catching the eye of Sony in the process, who approached them and asked them to put Dadliest Catch - which Young Horses now considered a sequel to Octodad - on the PS4.   They thought that Sony was joking, so Sony put them on the mainstage at their big E3 2013 PS4-reveal press conference to prove their commitment.

E3 2013

Dadliest Catch launched on PCs in January to mixed-but-positive reviews.  A much broader and more ambitious game than the original, I heard some of the mechanics and gauntlets towards the end of the game were just no fun, but that Young Horses had smoothed things out for the PS4 release.

I'll be honest, I didn't have high hopes for Octodad.  I watched gameplay, marked it as "certainly different," but didn't really believe Shu Yoshida when he would gush about how great it is.  It seemed like something different for difference's sake, and the glut of indies on Sony's consoles can become tiring, but man... Octodad really works. Whatever problems the PC release suffered seem to have been alleviated or removed or designed around, 'cause Octodad: Dadliest Catch is just a really good time with a controller in your hand.

It feels like a summer's day.

Its asking price of $15 may seem a bit steep for something as, dare I say, gimmicky as this, but it's not its single, wholly original idea that makes the game so successful.  It's goofy fun.  It's got funny writing and fine voice work. It's cheerful and bright and very sweet.

The game begins with a brief tutorial of the titular secret octopus's controls on the day of his wedding to the beautiful Scarlet, at the notably tentacle-friendly Church of Cthulhu.

Holding down the left trigger causes him to raise his left leg high into the air, and while it's up there you can swing the analog stick around to move it.  Releasing L2 drops the leg, and the suckers on his appendage will adhere well to whatever it drops on.  Holding down R2, similarly, raises his right leg to be flailed about until you get it where you want it - release to drop.

You've just taken two steps.  There's nothing else like it, and despite its profound weirdness, it becomes second nature after not-too-long.  Soon you're crossing great distances at speed with huge, looping strides of your stretchy limbs and long presses of the triggers, or tiptoeing daintily along a treacherous stretch of footing with tiny little taps of the triggers.

When both feet are grounded, you control his right arm with the analog sticks - one raising and lowering it, one moving it back and forth through space - R1 grabs and releases items.

God help me, it works.  It's not easy or intuitive or ever quite comfortable - but being a walking slapstick engine, whacking into this and accidentally wrapping yourself around that - that's the point, isn't it?

Augh!  Banana peel!

As Octodad moves around any environment, there's a suspicion meter on the bottom of the screen that fills in concert to his ridiculous pratfalls when he's in anyone's line of sight.  As he swings his floppy legs forward to walk down the aisle towards his bride-to-be, knocking over beautiful podiums as he goes, the gathered well-wishers' surprise registers in the filling bar.  Fill the bar too far, and it's over - your secret's out!  That sounds like it may prove a frustrating roadblock to your enjoyment, but I think I only filled the bar twice in my entire time with the game.

Instead, the suspicion bar simply serves as a reminder to focus on trying to be the best human you can pretend to be.  And then, when you get to the end of the aisle and carefully... carefully put the ring on Scarlet's hand... it's very sweet.

The option to make Octodad transparent when the game thinks it'll be handy can be toggled on and off.

After that, Octodad settles down to family life.  He stumbles across his kids' toys in the living room with half-closed eyes in the morning, wiggling his limbs to shake coffee into the maker to get a morning buzz going, and pours his daughter a glass of milk.  He speaks in gurgles that they seem to understand, and always does the very best he can for them.

They have no idea how hard it is, to keep the charade going as you - without the necessary bones to make movement on land less of a hassle - finally get your tentacle in place to open the 'fridge for Stacy's milk, but Octodad makes it work, for his family.

He does, after all, have a good thing going.

And then Scarlet explains that, next, she needs you to weed the garden and mow the lawn and cook hamburgers for everyone and it's like you have no idea how hard this is for me!  But then, you do it.  For them - and ultimately, for you too.

You go shopping and get more milk,

"Indie AAA Milk."  I get it. 

you sigh and go along with it when they drag you to your most-hated destination, the aquarium, and continue being a dad for your family.  You play with your son in the kelp exhibit, win like a dozen prizes for Scarlet in the Amazon Arcade and - sweetly, always sweetly - give your daughter the courage to see her way through the scary bioluminescent deep-sea exhibit.

This part is sooo cute.

Octodad is surprisingly easy to recommend.  Its simple formula - you are an octopus, and successfully moving and doing things on land is really hard for an octopus - is entirely successful, and beautifully supported by its wholesome, heartwarming tone.  It permits one to feel the sort of joy at success that video games provided when you were a kid - when you finally drag the mower across that last patch of long grass, when you un-tangle your flailing limbs from four colossal electrical cords, when you slip that ring on Scarlet's finger...

Young Horses have said it was born of a desire to create a truly original game idea, and they entirely succeeded.  Octodad really works, in every way it wants to.

Something so fun, funny, original and earnest doesn't come along often enough.

Nobody suspects a thing.

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