By Nathan Grayson on February 2nd, 2014 at 11:00 am.
Octodad: Dadliest Catch has been a long time in coming. We first spent a whopping zero (s)quid on the original freeware version back in 2010, And Octodad 2, as it was known back in ye olde pre-Double-Fine-Adventure days, took Kickstarter by (relative) storm in 2011. So here we are in 2014, and the second coming of the heart-stealing, identity-thieving octo-man/myth/legend is upon us. But is his flailing, frequently failing return worth the wait? Can what basically amounts to a single joke sustain an entire game for hours? Or does this version of Octodad slip on a banana peel, ruin its immaculate suit, and disappoint not only its own adorable children, but also all the adorable children in the world? Here’s wot I think.
I want to love my Octodad. I really do. Lord knows he’s better at the whole parenting thing than my non-Octo-dad. He’s silly yet stern when it’s called for, and he doesn’t let anything get in the way of him and the needs of his family. Not boxes, not scientists, not aquarium exhibits, not colossal sea-themed jungle gyms, not mad scientists, and definitely not banana peels. Never banana peels. Not even the opening credits to his own game! He just keeps on tripping, slipping, and, um, breakdancing until all obstacles are naught but gum on his foot cups.
He’s a determined hero, but also a timid one. He fears that his Average Human Family will realize what he really is despite the overwhelming subtlety of his disguise and… yeah, he’s clearly an octopus. That is the whole joke. But does it land? Again and again and again for the duration of a whole game? Er, yes and no. It’s a complicated question in a tongue-in-cheek/cephalopodic beak thing game like this.
But let’s back up a bit, slip on a banana peel, and – rather frustratingly – land right back at the beginning. Octodad’s control scheme is entirely physics-based. You switch between two basic modes at the press of a button, one of which lets you drag/fling Octodad’s “legs” forward while the other allows for tactile-ish manipulation of Octodad’s touchiest, feeliest tentacles. Regardless, he moves like a windmill falling down a mountain (and also both are made of jelly). It’s unwieldy, inefficient, and frequently a source of hilarious rage, but that’s the whole point. In Octodad, pain is pleasure. I had my fair share of rib-rattling belly laughs, but they often came alongside some small amount of bitterness, and occasionally even a hint of melancholy.
This stems in part from the plight of Octodad’s character. He’s a cipher for that insecure whisper (or mumble or scream) inside all of us that says we can’t be everything those we love want us to be. And in conveying that, Octodad is both witty and touching, punctuating barrages of absurdism with some surprisingly emotional blubs and glubs. By and large it’s a game that tickles funny bones for solid (if not quite incredible) chuckles, but it knows when to start tugging heartstrings as well. It doesn’t always balance the two sides of its tone perfectly, but in its best moments it reminded me of a decent-ish Pixar movie.
It begins extremely promisingly. From an adorable marriage to typical morning replete with coffee-making and lawn-mowing to deceptively hazardous grocery shopping, I got a brilliantly mundane look at the terrifying struggle that is Octodad’s day-to-day life. Small things are key in these sorts of scenes, and Octodad nails them. Various family portraits, hyper-detailed, item-ridden environments, a plethora of cute dialogue exchanges – it all adds a certain believability to this world of relentless insanity. It’s the dadness in this game’s madness. The roots in the family tree. More than anything else, these early sequences keep Octodad grounded.
And these places are absolute delights to explore. Everything from grocery store food products to aquarium exhibits are laden with sly jokes and references, even if I could see some being a little esoteric for those who aren’t super immersed in recent videogame culture. Moments of pure physical glee abound, with some objects and puzzles launching Octodad sky-high – gangly limbs splayed out like helicopter blades made of spaghetti – and others producing oh-so-satisfying results when bopped, thrown, or run into. It’s videogame slapstick humor at its finest – a miles-long domino chain of mirthful catastrophe.
I just wish it maintained that feeling for its duration. Octodad, for all its eight-armed charm, can’t quite hold itself together. Purposefully mundane shenanigans do eventually start to wear out their welcome. Ultimately, objectives for the game’s first half generally boil down to (clumsily) collecting various items, (clumsily) performing actual chores, and (clumsily) navigating increasingly complex environments, all while trying to avoid egregiously bumping into people, dropping items, or anything else that might make your whole human act seem a little fishy. It doesn’t take long, however, for those basic pursuits to grow repetitive and a bit tedious, especially when finicky fixed camera angles take the world for a blender-like spin. The game’s first half is rarely particularly challenging, but comedic frustration does have a tendency to evolve into hair-pulling and swear-slinging over lengthier periods of time.
But then the plot ratchets up the drama, and the whole game goes down a dark road. Without spoiling anything, scenarios begin to require levels of precision that’d give even regular old Dadodads fits. Fairly unforgiving stealth and some almost-platformy moments, especially, seemed to expect that I’d somehow become so comfortable in my slimy skin that you’d think I was born in it. And don’t even get me started on boss fights, which are thankfully few but urrrrrrrrrrrrrrggggggggggh (which, when translated from Octodad’s adorable blub language, means “urrrrrrrrrrrrrrggggggggggh”).
Octodad never completely stops being silly, but it becomes increasingly difficult to step back and laugh at the situation when failure greets your every flailing footfall. I don’t think piloting Octodad through zany mundanity could’ve sustained a whole game, but a sudden demand for exacting precision isn’t the change of pace the game needed. Doubtless, I got much better at controlling my eternally paternal alter ego over time, but I never felt like the purposefully imprecise controls offered enough, er, control to make stealth, platforming, and the like particularly enjoyable. Literally doing chores in Octodad’s opening was more fun than performing more “videogame-y” tasks toward its conclusion.
So, in the grand scheme of things, I only had a marginally decent time with Octodad – and one laced with infuriating moments, to boot. That makes me very Octosad, as I had extremely high hopes. But there is a saving grace to all of this, a second lease on life for a central mechanic that maybe had less life in it than developer Young Horses originally thought. Co-op allows one player to control Octodad’s arms while another controls his legs, and it quickly devolves into either an impractically silly war of wills or an oddly graceful dance of dual-brained derring do. It won’t be your next big co-op fix, but it is worth its weight in moments of crowd-pleasing absurdity and exasperated giggle-sighs. I could see myself breaking it out to amuse myself and others every once in a while. It’s not the most traditional “party” game, but then that’s to be expected. It’s deceptive, like our hallowed Octofather himself.
I also imagine that this one will show its true legs on services like YouTube and Twitch, where people will use the game’s tentacle tangle of goofy systems as a tool for Surgeon-Sim-2013-style comedy. Octodad, I think, is a game about people and togetherness that’s at its best when it’s fostering human interactions. Bringing people together – whether in person or over the Internet – to make them laugh, cry, or want to strangle each other with eight million suction-cup-laden arms. Steam Workshop support further cements the notion that Octodad could grow into far more than the extra-flexible skeleton of a game Young Horses only just put out.
For now, however, that’s all we’ve got to go on. A newly released game. Octodad certainly isn’t bad as a standalone experience. It just wears out its rather gimmicky welcome quickly, despite the clear amount of love and detail packed into each of its environments. And then the game’s final act rolls around, and more “game-y” sections do massive damage to the fun factor. When those segments took the wheel, it felt to me like Octodad was desperately trying to be something it wasn’t. The game accidentally became a perfect metaphor for itself. It’s often charming and it really does mean well, but it has a bad habit of tripping over its own
two four feet when it really counts. I want to love my Octodad. I really do. But I don’t think he really understands me, and – worse – I don’t think he really understands himself.