Have you ever wanted to float among the clouds? What if the clouds were actually on the ground and spent all of their time solving puzzles and destroying robots to fight pollution? That's more or less the premise of Okabu, from developer HandCircus. The company enjoyed some success with its hit iOS game Rolando, which offered an early example of clever gaming on the fledgling iPhone. Now HandCircus has set its sights on the PlayStation 3, bringing plenty of charm, vibrant visuals, and puzzling adventure gameplay that's fun, if easy, and at times problematic.
You play as Kumulo and Nimbe, two cloudwhales (you know, whales made of clouds) that have fallen from the skies above Okabu, thanks to heavy pollution that halted their journey. They have landed in a Yorubo village, and it turns out the Yorubo people are pretty sick of the smog, too. A rival clan, the Doza, is getting industrial and destroying forests and wildlife in the name of progress. Their dozabots are invading the village and their toxic waste is corrupting the water. With such an emphasis on cleaning up pollution and destroying mechanical monstrosities that ruin the peaceful nature of the world, there's certainly an environmental message here. However, it's not in your face enough to feel preachy.
The gameplay mechanics start simply and grow in complexity as the game moves forward. You always have both cloudwhales at your disposal, with each player taking control of one in two-player local co-op. When playing alone, you can switch between them with a press of the triangle button; the cloudwhale you're not controlling will follow closely behind you and out of danger, but it is useless until you take over. The clouds can collect water from available pools, which allow you to either rain moisture directly below or spray water out like a water gun. This serves a lot of uses like growing plants, putting out fires, and destroying unarmored dozabots, which have electrical components that don't take kindly to liquid. You can absorb oil the same way, mostly for the purpose of spreading fire to set off explosives.
It isn't long before you start meeting friendly citizens of Okabu who can ride the cloudwhales, and that's when things really open up. Captain Monkfish, for example, has a harpoon gun plunger with a line on it that can be used to grab all sorts of objects, such as fish, bombs, or doors. Later, the game introduces you to Picolo, who uses music to charm living creatures into following him and performing tasks. You might need him to coax a bull into bashing through a gate or encourage a villager to stand on a switch. Two more heroes are revealed later (one who can control certain doza machinery and one whose pet monkey can climb through small spaces). Almost all of your time is spent utilizing and combining their different skills to get through enemies and obstacles. Things never get very difficult, though, making this a game to avoid if you want a challenge.
You can't die; being hit by an enemy only knocks off your rider and makes you drop some cloudberry collectables you may have grabbed in the level. This forces you to go back to the nearest sanctuary tree (something like a checkpoint) to grab your rider again. Aside from being generally annoying, this costs you precious time, which is needed if you want to complete a stage quickly and get a medal for finishing under the challenge time. Each level has four medals to collect, which are earned for beating a level quickly, destroying all dozabots, collecting a certain number of cloudberries, and finding all three hidden eggs in each level. These can be ignored entirely if you only want to progress through the story, but going back for the ones you missed adds a little replay value.
As clouds, Kumulo and Nimbe easily hover around the environment. You can't rise higher into the sky in any way, but the cloudwhales float over most small obstacles smoothly and without issue. All abilities are handled with the circle button, which is both simple and effective. With abilities that require a little aim, like the plunger, you can hold down the button to bring up a targeting reticle. You don't have any control of the camera, which is usually fine; it typically does a good job of following the action. However, there are a few spots where your view is obscured by the environment. You share this camera angle in multiplayer; thus, you can't venture too far from each other, which is the only downside to the co-op. It would be more enjoyable if you could split up and take care of different tasks.
Unwieldy physics and problematic level design sometimes hold Okabu back. There are a lot of moments when objects don't react the way you want or expect them to because they get caught in the environment or are otherwise affected by it. This wouldn't be so bad, especially considering the relative ease of the game, if it weren't possible to completely mess up a scenario in such a way as to require you to restart the level and lose all of your progress. During our playthrough, we encountered a moment late in a level where we had to drive a vehicle over a gap using a ramp. We didn't hit the ramp with enough speed and the vehicle ended up permanently stuck upright in the gap, forcing us to start over. The game tries to make sure things like this don't happen (vehicles usually right themselves if tipped over, for example), but apparently, not all bases are covered. There is at least one instance where you can accidentally fall into an area you aren't supposed to be in yet, only to find yourself trapped because the switch to open the door is on the other side of a wall. It's a shame because a little more attention to detail could have eliminated a lot of frustration. There is also some unfortunate slowdown, especially in later levels where more is going on in each area. The game is fairly slow paced, making this less of an issue than it could be, but it's still off-putting.
But when it works as intended, Okabu is a fun adventure. It's visually charming, the music is catchy (though it can get repetitive), and the gameplay has a simple but addictive quality to it. There are 20 main levels spread across four distinct environments, which will take you several hours to get through, especially if you strive to collect all of the medals. There are also four minigames that you unlock as you play--one for each of the four heroes and built around their respective abilities. These games are an OK diversion, but you probably won't come back to them often. Simple gameplay, light difficulty, and a colorful style make Okabu a laid-back adventure that's as breezy as the clouds it stars.