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Trailer Review: Okabu

By / Posted on 18 January 2011

OkabuJust over two years ago, when the iPhone was first dipping its toes in the waters of mobile gaming, a fresh young development studio came along and released an original title that would be known as the definitive game of Apple’s new device. The studio was Hand Circus. The game was Rolando. It was featured in Apple television commercials and billboards, it was praised by critics the first reason to view iDevices as a viable gaming platform, it put iApp publisher ngmoco:) on the map. While originally likened to Sony’s LocoRoco series for featuring brightly-colored round characters who rolled around a platforming world, critics soon came to prefer Rolando for it’s increased sense of personality and more direct control thanks to the ability (nay, requirement) to actually touch and tilt the screen, unlike Sony’s PSP franchise.

Naturally, a sequel soon followed in the form of Rolando 2: The Quest for the Golden Orchid. It boasted a significantly deeper story, new play modes and, most notably, a new 3D graphics engine which caused many to liken the visual style to Sony’s newest poster child franchise, LittleBigPlanet. Rolando 2 was bigger, better, and for all intents and purposes should have been an unmitigated success story for the App Store and Hand Circus alike. Publisher ngmoco:), however, had realized by this point that the way to make money was off of free apps with in-game purchases. In games like TouchPets, Eliminate and We Rule players would keep paying real money to play the same game with better upgrades along the way. Unable to figure out a pay-as-you-play model for a traditional platformer, ngmoco:) cancelled the Rolando series outright.

With an acclaimed record, a talented staff, and no publisher, Hand Circus suddenly found themselves adrift in the sea of independent game developers. Realizing that their previous games had all been likened to popular Sony franchises, it only made sense to bring their next game concept to Sony themselves, as an exclusive for the Playstation Network. And so, Okabu was born:

Alright, a wide open world with cel-shaded graphics reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker or Viewtiful Joe, wherein you control anthropomorphic clouds to clean up the environment, solve puzzles and battle an insurgent enemy. More than anything, the gameplay demonstrated here calls to mind the late Gamecube classic Chibi-Robo, one of my all-time favorites about a tiny robot who cleaned a suburban home, interacted with the toys and people within, and battled an alien threat. Clearly, now that Hand Circus has properly aligned themselves with Sony they’ve decided instead to mimic Nintendo. Genius.

The gameplay here is certainly exciting, with all the right tantalizing possibilities for a trailer, leaving the audience immediately wanting more. Hand Circus seem to feel at home with the adorable-peaceful-creatures-suddenly-invaded-by-a-spooky-army-of-darkness theme, and that’s alright with me as it is a universal concept that is easy for any gamer or game observer to relate to instantly. Also noteworthy is the fact that there are often two clouds floating about, which means the ever popular cooperative multiplayer possibilities, though it is as yet unknown whether this will be local, online, or both (PSN games in the past have supported any or all of those options). The abilities of the clouds themselves seem to be somewhat limited, which is why they carry villagers with specific skills, as seen when they command a bull to attack a wall, throw a plunger to pull down a bridge, or play a flute to command animals to follow. This should lead to a great number of engaging environmental puzzles, especially when two players are involved needing multiple abilities in rapid succession. Hand Circus promises that the game will have “a huge number of puzzles, playthings, adorable creatures and devious machines spread across an epic co-op campaign” in what they refer to as a “hyper-tactile toybox” of a world.

The trailer is absolutely full of promising material, and as the first console title by the award-winning mobile developer, expectations are high. Okabu is scheduled for a vague “2011″ release. We look forward to more news on this thrilling new title soon!

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.