Indie Wonderland: Octodad: Dadliest Catch

A few hours in

“But wait!” you might say, still reeling from the closing sentence on the previous page. “Isn’t Octodad a married family man? What kind of adventures could he possibly be having?”

The answer, dear inquisitive reader, is dad adventures.

Oontz oontz grocer-oontz.

In short order, my last few Octodad hours were spent helping around the house, doing yard work, going grocery shopping, and taking my family to the aquarium. That last decision might have been a little less than voluntary, but hey.

Of course, even dad adventures can get wild from time to time. But that might be more suited to another article.

Is this screenshot mostly an intentional callback to my other Octodad review? Yes.

I’ve pulled weeds, baked burgers, nabbed cereal, and climbed a tower of soda boxes. I’ve stood in line to redeem an aquarium ticket, ever-mindful of not looking like I was trying to cut ahead. I learned about kelp with Tommy, I led Stacy through the darkness of the deep ocean, and I showered Scarlet with gifts in a concerted effort to avoid her questions about my true nature. And because that’s pretty hard to segue into a good review follow-up, have this screenshot of Air Hockey Matt, whom I defeated in a single toss.

Seriously, though, I did. He cries after you beat him.

Oh, and I also had to avoid that homicidal chef guy once or twice. It wasn’t a big deal, really.

I still can’t help but respect his hat.

Overall, my experience with Octodad: Dadliest Catch has been mostly very positive. It’s quirky fun, light-hearted except in the places it needs to be serious, and overall smile-inducing. It manages to use the ridiculous notion of ‘this is an octopus pretending to be a human being’ to tell a well-written story about the dangers of deceit and the importance of acceptance, side-to-side with silly reference jokes and fish puns. It’s almost always both narratively and mechanically true to its central conceit, and uses Octodad’s unique physiology for some interesting level and puzzle design. There are a few segments where this thematic resonance falls apart a little, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

But for now, have this bucket!

It probably won’t surprise anyone to hear that Octodad: Dadliest Catch’s principal strength is in its comedic potential. For starters, the central ‘octopus’ conceit is still played to great effect: I don’t know if the visual gag of a whole bunch of people not batting an eyelid as Octodad squiggles and flops his way through life will ever stop being funny, but I sincerely doubt so.

“This is how humans climb ladders, right?”

Most of the other main characters display their own personal brand of humor as well. Stacy’s childlike mix of energetic outbursts and unconditional affection for cuddly things (and her dad) — which, incidentally, is so reminiscent of Despicable Me’s Agnes that I can’t help but wonder if either may have been somewhat influenced by the other –, Tommy’s fanboyish love for and ability to relate all things to Sports Johnson, Chef Guy’s… being Chef Guy, I guess. Even Scarlet, who mostly plays the part of straight woman / comic foil for the kids, has her moments.

Finally, Octodad is packed with indie game reference humor. I could probably fill a whole article with only the chuckle-worthy puns, but suffice it to say here they are many. And often, quite clever.

Whether or not this is one of those clever examples is left as an exercise to the reader.

The writing and storytelling in Octodad: Dadliest Catch is generally very strong. And, breaking my own rule here for the umpteenth time to make the obvious comparison, different enough from the first Octodad that both games feel narratively and thematically different.

The original Octodad was (to me) a game about family life and fatherhood, viewed through the lens of intentional absurdity. Remember how most of Octodad’s gameplay there centered around household family interactions: helping your wife, playing with your son, tucking in your daughter. Octodad: Dadliest Catch, on the other hand…

…I’ve actually broken my own zero-exposure reviewing rules with Octodad: Dadliest Catch a little, in that I’ve seen and read a couple of thematic analyses of it before I sat down to play. I bring this up now to highlight the breadth of story interpretations Octodad: Dadliest Catch seemingly allows.

I’ve seen many people write about Octodad: Dadliest Catch as a game about alienation. They talk about the sense of being an outsider, about imposter syndrome, on the need for acceptance, and even on Octodad as an analogy for invisible illnesses. They are valid readings of the game’s themes, all, and I can certainly see how people would put little bits of their own lives into interpreting and experiencing a game like this. Octodad certainly allows for multiple explanations easily, and I’m resisting the urge to make a ‘flexibility’ joke here.

As someone who has little to no experience with debilitating mental illness and imposter syndrome, I never really picked up on these aforementioned themes during play. What I do have experience with, however, is keeping secrets. And for me, Octodad: Dadliest Catch was primarily a game about that: the stress of carrying secrets around, the constant, ever-present fear of being found out, and the desire of wanting to come clean conflicting with the fear of what would happen — what could happen — if you do. My Octodad experience was less that of the eternal outsider, and more that of the habitual stressor, of the kind of man who routinely images in detail the many things that could go right or wrong. But again, I stress that neither interpretation is in any way more or less valid than the other. Who knows? You might have an entirely different read of it.

The strong narrative writing in Octodad: Dadliest Catch is supported by strong character writing. I’ve touched on the main characters before, but it bears pointing out that most of the one-note side characters are done really well too. The biologists, the ship crew, the aquarium receptionist, Shark Joe…

Man, Joe. He’s *crazy*.

Audiovisually, Octodad: Dadliest Catch is quite strong. Environments are lush and colourful, with a lot of visual and thematic variation. Sound design is good as well, both in the music and in the quality of the voice-acting. And neither of these elements are easy to make jokes about, so we’ll just let them slide after this. Consider the high quality noted here.

As with the original Octodad, the gameplay in Octodad: Dadliest Catch cleverly reinforces the central octopus theme. Which is to say that yes, Octodad is maddeningly difficult to control at times, almost all the time, and there will often be an enormous gap between the simple, almost-trivial action you want to perform, and the limb-flailing madness way your commands are interpreted. But that’s the point. Octodad is a game that primarily deals with how difficult it is for an octopus to masquerade as a human being, after all. And the sweeping, squiggling, flip-flopping mess that movement inevitably turns into captures perfectly the struggle that Octodad goes through every single day. Particularly in situations where the controls actively hinder your goal of non-detection (like, say, trying to politely stand in line) this thematic resonance is powerfully effective.

Plus, and I stress to reinforce this every time, it’s intrinsically hilarious.

“Damn you, ropes! You’ve foiled my human ‘waiting in line’ for the last time!”

Octodad: Dadliest Catch takes the Octodad gameplay into a few new and interesting directions, too. Next to climbing, carrying stuff around and trying not to knock stuff over, Octodad’s boneless physiology is now used as the basis as the basis for some interesting non-standard puzzle design. For instance: an item you want is inside a crane machine, but the crane won’t go low enough to get it? No problem for this malleable man.

Note that people who see you do this *will* call you out on this. Mostly because they think you’re a cheater, but still.

Octodad: Dadliest Catch primarily uses a hub-based level structure, with every level playing host to a number of puzzles you can more or less solve in whatever order you want. Whatever objective you are currently closest to is shown in an on-screen reminder as well, but for the most part, you’re never really locked into any puzzle. There are a few areas that are more linear, particularly near the end… but even there, there tends to be some creativity on display with regards to alternate paths and puzzle solutions.

I’m hiding in a cart full of stuffed animals, and the best part is that this is *actually working*.

As for the actual objectives: they’re pretty much the stuff I mentioned earlier. Dad chores. Pick some weeds, get soda from the store, spend time with your kids. They’re ‘simple’, in that a normal human with bone-reinforced limbs wouldn’t have much trouble with them, but they fit the narrative well. They’re also ‘simple’ in that they usually only involve going to a place and grabbing/moving a thing, but then that’s pretty much the extent of Octodad’s controls anyway.

Next to the main objectives, there’s also the optional tie collecting. Every level hub contains three ties: placed in out-of-reach locations, hidden inside objects, or awarded for performing certain actions. It’s in this aspect of the game that Octodad really ramps up the challenge, and trying to figure out how to get to particular ties was almost always an exercise in applied boneless thinking. Which is not to say I actually got all of them, of course.

I spent like fourteen minutes throwing various balls at this shed in an attempt to knock the tie on top of it off. It didn’t work.

While most of Octodad: Dadliest Catch’s gameplay is fairly solid, however, some elements oppose the intended experience instead of reinforcing it. For instance, some of the puzzles are based around ‘precision’ platforming (like Tommy’s kelp tower finale) that task you to combine speed and careful movement on pain of having to start over. Here, the difficult controls actually hamper enjoyment. In fact, most time-based puzzles, like the leaking piranha tank, are only really frustrating. I understand wanting to convey a sense of dramatic danger, but it’s artificial here: failure has no consequences beyond putting you back at the last checkpoint. It seems odd to include punishing precision gameplay in a game like this, especially when most of these timed puzzles seem pretty divorced from the game’s strongest narrative themes anyway.

On a semi-related note, the new biologist ‘enemy’ — who can identify Octodad on sight, meaning you’ll have to try and stay away from them — is alright mechanically (though not without some flaws either), but rather odd narratively. While their presence in the aquarium level does mechanically reinforce the idea of that place being a terrifying place for Octodad, it’s just that… for me, a major point of Octodad has always been the direct sight gag, the obvious octopus-in-a-suit that nobody acknowledges and nobody sees for what he is. But these biologists actually do. When it was just the crazy Chef going on about Octodad’s true nature, in-universe I could play it off as a joke, as him being crazy. But these are trained professionals, and they can spot Octodad just fine. And if the aquarium they work at is in the same city… just how has Octodad gone under the radar for so long? It kind of breaks the illusion a tad to know that, apparently, various non-crazy people could drop Octodad’s whole shtick if he just picks a poor day to go shopping. It certainly puts the lie a little to the theme song’s ‘nobody suspects a thing’.

Finally, there’s a few invisible walls.

This one nominally has a guy blocking the way, but it’s still nonsense.

These elements are mostly blemishes on an otherwise great game, but they necessitate being pointed out. I do also have the feeling that they’ve been gaining prominence as the game nears its end, which bodes a little ill for the final sections. I’m going to finish the game before finishing this write-up, to see how things play out.

Final thoughts

So, the final segment of Octodad? Multiple time-pressure precision platforming sections that reset most or all of your progress after a single mistake. I’m honestly surprised this was chosen as the game’s mechanical climax. Why not use something that plays to its strengths a little more?

“Every goddamn *time* with this guy.”

Luckily, the narrative conclusion of Octodad: Dadliest Catch more than makes up for it, ending the story on possibly the only high note it could have — should have — ended. No screenshots for that, I’m afraid, but imagine what elements would go into a heart-warming ending for a story like this. Yeah, it’s pretty much that.

All in all, Octodad: Dadliest Catch is another strong game, easily on par with the strengths of the original while improving on its flaws. It presents an interesting story about lies and truth, and a good interplay of mechanical and narrative elements that mostly work together in ludonarrative resonance really well. Its insistence on twitch platforming later on is odd, but that doesn’t break the experience overmuch.

And that’s not even getting into the (local-only) co-op, which has two people control Octodad’s arms and legs independently. I’m fairly certain this is a rare example of the kind of party game where playing it flat-out drunk won’t actually make it harder to play.

“Wait, who was the left arm again? Was it you, or…”

If you’re into strong storytelling games, fun weird and experimental games, and/or games about octopi in three-piece suits, Octodad: Dadliest Catch can be obtained here. At a fifteen-dollar price, I’d say it’s more than worth its money. The original Octodad can also be downloaded from that page, so if you’re in doubt about this game, and you haven’t played the original yet, I highly recommend you do so.

And finally, both to close on a thematically appropriate note and because I’m pretty sure there’s a chance you could miss this exchange otherwise:

Octodad, ladies and gentlemen.

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2 comments

  1. Having previously read the think pieces you mention, and smirked knowingly at Octodad memes on social media, imagine my chagrin when I realized that I’d never consciously registered the “dadliest catch” pun until I read the second paragraph of your review.

    I found your remarks on the resonance of the game’s difficulty on both the narrative and mechanical levels intriguing. As someone with a very low frustration threshold, I appreciate your tendency to review slightly crunchier/harder games that I find really interesting, but rarely actually play. (My recent Humble Sid Meier Bundle purchase was essentially aspirational, the gaming equivalent of buying a Bowflex.)

    I suspect that my actual relationship with Octodad would be more like Philippa Warr’s: getting endlessly stuck on escalators and progressing from frustrated and bemused to genuinely unhappy. Still, Octodad‘s going on my “Maybe” list, which is more than I could say before reading your review.

    1. That escalator bit wasn’t the game’s strongest point, no. I’m very curious how that streamer is going to like Tommy’s infini-ball kelp tower.

      Thanks for reading! I tend to go for more difficult games from time to time because challenge is something I ‘enjoy’ in games — which is to say that I look back on the anger and the calling the games names fondly once time has passed — so it’s not unlikely there’ll be more games like this in Ninja Blues’ near-to-far future.

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