Look, some days you’ve just got to play a really mad indie game about octopodes and fatherhood, right?
Octodad: Dadliest Catch (Android, iOS, PC, PS4 (reviewed), PS Vita, Switch, Xbox One, Wii U)
Released Jan 2014 | Developed / Published: Young Horses
Genre: Adventure | HLTB: 3 hours
Meet Octodad. He’s an octopus who, for some reason, chooses to live among humans. He’s not just living among them though, but as one; donning a dapper three-piece suit and with a couple of tentacles in place of a mustache, Octodad walks (or more accurately, slides, slithers, and wobbles) through the human world and, as the song goes, nobody suspects a thing. In fact, such is his mastery of disguise (or perhaps a testament to the sheer blinding stupidity of humanity) he even manages to fall in love, get married and become a doting father to two young children.
At least one human knows Octodad’s secret however. The evil chef Fujimoto is desperate to capture our hapless protagonist and turn him into sushi and so he plagues Octodad as he attempts to go about his day – and what a day! It starts so innocuously, with our cephalopod hero completing chores and gathering groceries, but eventually he is coerced into a family trip to an aquarium, which understandably terrifies our hero. In the midst of it all there’s a sweet story as Octodad tries to be a loving father and husband while he tries to protect his identity.
You might be unsurprised to learn that with a conceit like this, it’s a game which very much leans into humour and absurdity. The entire joke of the game – that nobody knows Octodad is an octopus – is quietly funny and I think I prefer that to it trying to be laugh-out-loud funny. In general the comedy in the narrative is underplayed, and it does like to use a decent dramatic streak to give some feeling of direction to the levels; instead, a lot of the game’s comedy is physical and comes from the gameplay.
The gameplay, as perhaps you might expect, is built around the challenge of controlling an octopus trying to fit into human society. You use the shoulder triggers on your controller to control Octodad’s legs and the bumpers to control his arms. This is significantly harder than it sounds as his limbs move semi-independently, and aiming them is very tricky. You may remember games like QWOP in which moving was the challenge, and in the grand tradition of those games, Octodad’s main mechanic is frustration, It’s difficult to say whether or not I like this; the movement being very tricky doesn’t feel accessible, and I have little patience for games where basic movement is the main gameplay challenge. I absolutely found it was a game that I could only play in brief bursts lest I got too pissed off.
That said, Octodad is charming and quirky, and sometimes that shines through and keeps me invested. Technically the gameplay has a fail state of attracting too much notice from bystanders and breaking your cover, but it’s quite a light sense of challenge, and it never felt like I was that close to failure. Once you grit your teeth and get over the movement frustration you kind of realise that the game isn’t terribly hard, which is gratifying because often games like these can be awful and unforgiving.
That charm is evident in other areas as well. I like the touch of Octodad’s burbling and bubbling not getting even vaguely translated; sometimes it’s played for laughs like a “blub of avoidance” or a “pleasantly surprised burble”, and sometimes it’s literally just a “blub burble blow”. The visuals are pleasingly chunky and brightly coloured, with the kind of round-eyed, big-faced character models you might expect from a budget Dreamworks or Pixar-type film. It’s also filled with a little bit of referential humour which is very lightly done. That’s definitely how I prefer my references; things like seeing a pack of Totalbiscuits or getting a DVD starring Commander Video from the bit.trip games are nice and unobtrusive nods which draw out a little smile to distract you from the annoyance of moving.
I admit to being a bit of a sucker for Octodad’s theme song. It’s nice and chirpy, with a pleasant light surf rock vibe that just somehow fits. Much of the rest of the rest of the soundtrack, particularly those levels focused around Octodad’s home and life, have a similar bright and chipper feel to them; pieces like The Backyard wouldn’t be out of place in a 50’s cartoon with their upbeat yet relaxed melody. That’s not to say the game doesn’t have more serious pieces, and the tense atmospheres of Swimming and Stealth, which feature a riff around the same motif, are very tightly constructed. As an outlier, I admit to having a little love of Chapel Dance, which throws a chiptune-based alarm rave into the mix.
It’s worth noting that Octodad is a very brief game, but that’s probably for the best, and means it doesn’t outstay its welcome. I found that I played in short bursts as a necessity in order to keep that sense of frustration from becoming overwhelming, which is perhaps telling. Some people do like to consider value per hour and given this game retails at £11.99 and lasts maybe a couple of hours, you might find that a tough sell.
It feels tricky and even a little disingenuous to try and review Octodad like a traditional game. Like many comedy games, it relies on its humour to keep you playing over anything else, and if it fails to connect with you it would be easy to justify dropping the game to yourself. On top of that, games which force you to wrestle with movement controls are usually consigned to the scrap heap, but typically that’s an accidental facet of a bad game, as opposed to being the core concept. As it is the fundamental thing upon which Octodad’s gameplay is founded it can make the difficult movement feel less like a problem; after all, it’s the problem which we are intended to overcome as players, and it is certainly justified in a unique (if not quite sensible) way. Ultimately, I found Octodad frustrating but it just kept bringing me back, which has to be a good sign in some way.
4/7 – GOOD. Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.