On Tuesday, Sept. 13, we had the opportunity to participate in a round-table discussion of the upcoming game Okabu, a title being released by Rolando developer HandCircus. Founder Simon Oliver answered questions from journalists on the upcoming project, revealing new details about the environmentally-themed game releasing exclusively for the PlayStation 3.
Sony has quietly been assembling one of the strongest lineups of independent games on their PSN service, and they’ve been doing it without receiving the criticism that has been leveled at Microsoft from their indie game developers (most notably the recent complaints from Team Meat). One of the secrets to their success has been the Pub Fund, a publishing partnership that sees Sony paying for development costs in exchange for exclusivity. This solution grants indie studios access to resources that they may not be able to generate on their own. But it also does something more: since Sony will only see a return on their investment if the games sell well, if gives them a reason to heavily promote the games. This is why players could find the first world of Okabu on display at E3 in Sony’s booth, right alongside all those AAA titles like Resistance 3.
HandCircus’ Okabu is one of the latest games to come out of this development partnership. The team initially found success developing the Rolando series for the iOS platform and used the reputation they built there to propel them into the console space. Okabu is the first game that the five-person, London-based studio has developed for consoles, but the desire was always there. Oliver cited the 16-bit era as one of his favorites, and a love affair with Super Mario World and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past as titles that encouraged him to want to develop for consoles. Oliver also listed Red Dead Redemption as an influence, but despite the disparities between the games, the theme that stuck with Oliver was the same between the three: exploration and a sense of freedom.
Though Oliver never cited it, the game looks very similar in style to the Animal Crossing releases, with a similar overhead camera style and bright graphics. Okabu seems poised to capture a similar sense of playfulness. The cute, colorful graphics help disguise a message that’s more profound than it initially appears. Okabu is a game about rolling back environmental destruction. Conceptually, the game emerged from the creator’s love of BBC environmental programming like Planet Earth and Blue Planet. The team was inspired to create the game following a documentary they saw on the Okavango Delta in Botswana. The area seasonally floods, and when the water comes, so does life. These themes of restoring life to an environment after it’s been destroyed are central to the Okabu experience.
But Okabu doesn’t cast you against nature. Instead, the action-adventure game puts you in the role of Kumulo and Nimbe, two Cloud-whales who descend from the sky to put a stop to the pollution that is sickening their species. They discover that a tribe known as the Doza are using crude industrial equipment and spewing chemicals into the sky. They’re also enslaving the nearby Yorubo, a primitive tribe who can’t stand up to the Doza on their own. Allied with three Yorubo and a defector, the Cloud-whales set out to take down the Doza.
Oliver bills the game as a toy box in which players will use lots of objects to creatively work their way through puzzles. The game can be played alone or with a friend riding shotgun on your couch. Each of the game’s four worlds feature five levels for players to work their way through, and each of the four characters have their own special abilities as they ride around on their Cloud-whales. Captain Monkfish is my favorites so far. The seemingly pirate-inspired Captain can use his plunger harpoon to pull open doors and tow items around the environment. There’s also Picolo, who uses music to control animals and creatures, including bulls. Each character will also have their own unique minigames, complete with online leaderboard support.
When played solo, the player can switch on the fly between characters as they work through levels. Who you control is predetermined by the level that you’re playing, but each world offers different objectives that players will have to work through. The first areas will serve as tutorials, but after that, you’re left on your own as you work through the various puzzles that you’ll uncover. Players will find all sorts of objects in the game world to manipulate with different results, such as a magnifying glass they can use to start fires. You’ll have to clean up toxic waste and tear down dams. No small tasks, for sure.
According to Oliver, the color pallet was drawn from the colors frequently used by the people of the Botswana area to paint their buildings. If you’ve played Rolando on the iOS platform, you’ll recognize the art style immediately. The world of Okabu is bright and cheery. Characters are imaginative and somewhat silly, coming in all shapes, sizes and colors, and they nearly always have a pleasant expression on their faces. The Cloud-whales are particularly adorable, despite the serious themes the title dips into. Perhaps this was purposeful – Oliver was quick to point out that they’re not trying to preach any particular lifestyles at anyone.
Okabu is almost on us. Though they don’t have an exact release date set, they are “very, very close” to the final product and I was told that code has been sent Sony’s way. Okabu looks to join Minority’s Papo and Yo as yet another imaginative, creative game that uses a vibrant, unique art style to convey deep and meaningful themes. I’m very excited, given the pedigree of the studio behind the game and Sony’s Pub Fund support, to get my hands on the final product. Keep an eye out for Okabu – it should be out by the end of the year, and it sounds promising.