‘Cause darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream
A few weeks ago, when I found out I was reviewing Baldo: The Guardian Owls, I jotted down a simple and amusing lede I thought would be a good introduction for what I was sure would be a pleasant review. After all, this is the long-in-development Zelda-by-way-of-Studio-Ghibli title that’s gained a great deal of attention since it was first revealed. As ledes are often the most difficult part of a review to write, I was happy to go with something as simple as “Don’t write Balto, don’t write Balto, don’t write Balto.”
You know, real casual reference humor that’d garner a sensible chuckle gif in the comments below. But to warrant a lede like that, I would actually have to feel good about the game. And I don’t feel good about Balto Baldo.
Baldo: The Guardian Owls (iOS, PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One [reviewed on a Series S])
Developer: Naps Team
Publisher: Naps Team
Released: August 27, 2021
Baldo makes a decent enough impression in its opening moments. The world is bright and colorful, its characters are charming; it’s the type of game I would describe as quaint, and I mean that as a compliment. It has the same vibe as something like Little Dragons Cáfe, where there is a little bit of tedious busywork at the beginning you need to get through if you want to explore what is sure to be a big and expansive world. But a few hours into Baldo, I started to realize the tediousness of the gameplay never waned. If anything, that tediousness grew, and all the little problems I thought were ignorable at the start of my quest began to define the gameplay experience.
On paper, Baldo is a fantasy action-adventure game featuring a young boy who is pure of heart on a quest to reach the Owl Village. In practice, it’s more like a test of players’ patience and willingness to continue playing a massive game riddled with questionable design choices and very little reward. There isn’t really a sense of accomplishment to be found in Baldo. Rather, completing most anything in this game just gives a relieving feeling of “Thank God that’s behind me.”
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that there would be troubles early on. One of the first things you’re asked to do in Baldo is to retrieve some turnips. I’m sorry, that should read “slowly retrieve some turnips” because when holding any object, Baldo walks about a fast as an octogenarian fresh out of hip replacement surgery. Now, this wouldn’t be an issue if you didn’t have to carry that many objects throughout your adventure, but oh lord, is that not the case here.
Carrying items is honestly one of the central activities you’ll do throughout your journey as Baldo is first and foremost a puzzle game. There is combat to consider, but more than anything, you’re going to be spending a majority of your time solving puzzles everywhere you go. In dungeons, mini-dungeons, and the overworld, there really isn’t anywhere you’ll venture that won’t have some sort of puzzle element to it.
And they’re not that good of puzzles either. Most involve either slowly carrying an object from one place to the other or pushing whatever blocks and boxes can be pushed in a room to reveal a secret passage. There are visual cues that should be able to guide players through each puzzle solution, but they can be pretty easy to miss, or confused with elements in the scenery that look like they’re visual cues but are most certainly not.
Admittedly, not all puzzles are that bad. Some, I would argue, are clever. However, the ones that do rise above the fray are often hindered by unpredictable gameplay mechanics. One of the most annoying aspects of Baldo is how easy it is for anything and anyone to kill you in this game. Drop off a ledge that’s slightly too high? That could be a game over. Accidentally walk into a spiderweb ball you thought you walked around? Good luck figuring out how to cut yourself loose before it kills you. Get hit by an enemy while you have full health? They might take two hearts, they might take everything thing; you won’t know until you get hit.
I died a lot early on learning all of this because the game doesn’t give you any direction. There’s no tutorial, and when you talk to NPCs, they vomit a paragraph and a half worth of text at you, often telling you to go to a certain location without telling you how to get there. This is very much an experience you have to figure out for yourself, and while I love it when games cut out the hand-holding to give me a challenge, developers have to meet you halfway. They can give you the freedom to figure things out on your own through trial and error, but they need to make the path to discovering what you can and cannot do in the world they’ve created an enjoyable one. A game should encourage you to explore and experiment, and that is something Baldo DOES NOT DO. If anything, it actively discourages exploration.
There is nothing I enjoy more in big open-world games and MMOs than filling out the map. When a game gives me the chance to embrace my inner cartographer and map out these worlds and the secrets that lie within, it’s basically digital nirvana for me. But the structure of the overworld in Baldo is a lot closer to digital purgatory. It is mind-boggling the number of dead ends I encountered simply trying to get from one point to the next. I don’t need every path to be a straight line, but cut your audience some slack. Too much of my time with Baldo was spent trying to figure out how the hell to reach the point I had to reach to continue the story. Or to find a location I needed to complete a side-quest.
There are a few mapping tools at the player’s disposal that, in theory, should help you navigate this world. This includes a mini-map on the lower lefthand corner of the screen and a full map on the pause menu that you slowly fill in throughout your journey. However, both are near useless at assisting the player, failing even to show you different elevations of your surrounding area or a useable path you can take to guide you. There are signposts throughout the world that point you toward different locations, and it’s clear the game expects players to rely solely on these to get around.
Dungeon maps aren’t any better, and just like the overworld, dungeons can be confusingly designed. According to a Facebook post from the developer, the dungeons are designed the way they are so players can find their own way through it rather than following a set path. This isn’t a bad idea, but the layouts and execution of these dungeons, as well as the lack of help from the mapping tools, can result in players just running around in circles. And that’s before it asks you to backtrack to complete puzzles.
Because of how frustrating it was to simply make my way around this game, I had an absolutely miserable time playing through Baldo. But even when I look past the layout of this world, I’m not really seeing anything worth writing home about.
The combat is very basic and Baldo isn’t as nimble as he needs to be. Enemies can attack you from offscreen or the moment you walk into a room, they one-hit kill you if you don’t have enough heart pieces — which are more difficult to find early in your adventure than you might think — and their A.I. is unpredictable in a way that can make them very aggressive or simply wander away as if they were distracted by a shiny object on the ground. While your sword will never break, your shield will, and unlike Breath of the Wild, there isn’t a stack of shields you can pillage from the moblins you just killed. The best thing I can say about the combat in this game is that it isn’t a huge part of the experience as most of the overworld is somewhat sparse on enemy encounters.
There is more I could dig at here, including the awful control scheme and forgettable boss battles, but what’s most disappointing about Baldo is the lack of reward. There are a lot of main quests and side quests to complete in this game, a lot of rooms that’ll lock you in until you defeat all the enemies, and more often than not, no matter how difficult the activity, your reward is a pitiful amount of coins. The further I got into this game, the more annoyed I became with how little it thought of the time and effort I put into tackling the challenges it put before me.
If you’re wondering why it took so long for this review to show up on Destructoid, I’ll tell you: I dreaded playing Baldo. Every night over the past three weeks, I looked down at my Xbox controller with unease, worried the next two to three hours of my life would be agonizing. And every night, that intuition turned out to be correct.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]