Excruciating. It's not a word you ideally want to have in your head when you sit down to write a review but, in the case of Baldo: The Guardian Owls, it's the one that most accurately describes the situation we find ourselves in.
NAPS Team's action-adventure RPG, some fifteen years in the making, is excruciating on so many levels. It's excruciatingly difficult, repetitive and clunky. It's excruciatingly confusing and unpolished in almost every single one of its core gameplay mechanics. It's also excruciatingly close to being a really, really good game.
It's quite hard to know where to start with this one in all honesty, so let's begin with the positives. Baldo: The Guardian Owls is one of the most exquisite looking games on Switch. Whether you're playing docked or in handheld, the world in which you toil here — and you better believe you're going to toil — is absolutely stuffed full of Ghibli-esque charm, bursting with atmosphere and filled with exacting little details in its presentation. As far as wanting to play this game, wanting to push on and see everything it's got to offer, what NAPS Team has achieved from an artistic perspective is nigh-on flawless.
No matter how much we were punished for our curiosity, for our desire to see new areas, meet new characters and delve into yet more dungeons, the creativity, the richness of the world and attention to detail here kept us pushing back against a torrent of mechanical and technical failings.
Rodia is one of the most absorbing settings we've experienced in a video game from an aesthetic standpoint, then, and it's also filled with puzzles and quests that are clever, that have been meticulously put together and should be a ton of fun to get stuck into solving. Sadly, however, these puzzles and quests suffer severely due to mistakes made in almost every other aspect of the game's design.
Baldo: The Guardian Owls sees you assume the role of the titular pint-sized Link wannabe as he starts out on an epic hero's quest to discover the secrets and mysteries behind the legendary village of the Guardian Owls. It sets its stall out well, with a story that immediately presents its players with tales of sunken galleons, hidden treasures, magical gateways and all manner of monstrosities and danger. Taking control of Baldo for the first time, wandering around Kidoge Village and then heading out into Rodia and the mountains and valleys beyond is an enthralling experience. This is just such a beautiful game to move around in, and the dungeons and areas that you pass through as you go are never less than spectacularly atmospheric places in which to spend time.
However, this is pretty much where our praise of this game ends. It's a beautiful thing to behold, no doubt, but it's also a disaster to play in most ways. Everything — from the most simple bits of traversal to battles against bog-standard enemies, boss fights, the solving of puzzles and completion of quests — is hindered by mind-boggling design choices and, as a result, you'll see the Game Over screen more times in the first dungeon here than you'd likely see in a playthrough of the entire Dark Souls trilogy.
Fall off a ledge that's ever so slightly too high? Instant death. Fight an early level enemy type in one of the first areas of the game before you've even found a weapon? Instant death. Attempt to walk through a door in a dungeon without being blindsided by an unseen foe, walk along a corridor without falling down a hole you couldn't possibly have seen, tussle with one of the game's insanely frustrating bosses? Instant death a thousand times over. It's bewildering stuff, and it's almost beyond comprehension what exactly the developer was thinking in making it all such a massively punitive trial.
Combat is turgid, with Baldo a slow-moving target that can withstand very little in the way of damage — a quite unfortunate turn of events when even the lowliest of foes can strike with enormous force. Puzzles are well-designed, yes, but they are a tremendous pain in the backside due to the fact everything within environments can, no, will kill you stone dead in an instant if you make even the slightest of errors. Puzzles here are, in fact, a test of endurance. How many times will you keep coming back if we keep killing you for the slightest of infractions? Are you ready to give up yet, Baldo, you fragile little wimp?
Rooms are filled with blocks and items of furniture, every single one of which will see you prompted to push them if you stand in their immediate vicinity, except only a few of these items can actually be pushed. Sometimes they stand out from others, coloured in a slightly different way that indicates, in time-honoured video game fashion, that they should be moved in order to solve a puzzle or open a pathway forward. Except Baldo: The Guardian Owls doesn't even really seem to understand this most basic of video game concepts; it highlights objects that cannot be moved, that serve no purpose, and so you're surrounded by environmental lies, doomed to an eternity spent lost in a tiny stone room — or until you give up and hit Reddit for a solution.
And then there's the death mechanic itself. It's entirely pointless. Every time you die you respawn — after a short loading interval — in the same room you perished. So why bother with that unbelievably frustrating Game Over screen every single bloody time? What's the point of the health bar in the top left corner when the exact same attack from any enemy can drain it entirely on one occasion and only take away one heart another?
Or how about the world map, perhaps the single worst world map we've ever encountered in a game. It's completely blacked out when you begin your adventure, you'll need to unlock it slowly, piece by painful piece at a vendor hidden in and around various areas — and of course you'll die a million times trying to find him — but even when you do this, even when you've cleared the fog of war from the entire thing, it's still almost entirely useless, you can't even zoom in on it for a better look.
And so you spend your time looping around in circles, slowly learning where everything is as best you can — not easy in a game this enormous — and checking the internet every five minutes for any kind of help you can possibly find as to where the heck you're meant to be going, what on earth you're supposed to be doing next. It took us three hours to best the first dungeon here. Three tortuous hours.
Then there are the bugs. As you'll already know, we delayed this review in order to play the game with its first hotfix, a patch which tidies up a few game-breaking bugs, such as a skeleton puzzle in a prison dungeon that saw our review progress halted for several hours until we learned you could pass through a blocked cage door by holding a piece of fruit in your hand.
However, as much as it's nice to have these issues addressed, the fact remains that no amount of bug-catching patching can rectify the serious flaws that are present here with regards to difficulty in combat, in traversal, in that useless map, the clunky UI and menus, and often bewilderingly obtuse puzzle and dungeon solutions which we reckon 90% of players will have to use the internet in order to solve. No amount of fixes, hot or otherwise, can hide the fact that Baldo: The Guardian Owls is, by any standard, a mess.
And yet, we keep wanting to return to it. Even beyond this review, when all has been said and done, Rodia draws us back in. There's something about the absolute oddness of this game, about the complete mismatch of its outward presentation and the reality of its brutally punishing, deeply frustrating gameplay that will undoubtedly appeal to a certain type of gamer who finds a perverse joy in suffering, in pitting themselves against its dungeons, bosses and puzzles and somehow emerging victorious some seventy hours later. If you're into slaving away, checking Reddit every ten minutes, getting really bogged down in the self-flagellation of it all... well then, you may still find something worth your time here.
If only NAPS Team had spent more time working on the basics, on the difficulty, on the combat and traversal. If only as much time had been spent fixing the jank here as has obviously been spent on the art of this game's world. It feels so close to having been something special but, in the end, we'd be doing 90% of the gamers who might pick it up an injustice by suggesting that this wonderfully Ghibli-style action-RPG is anything more than an extremely buggy, infuriating and ill-advised adventure to set out upon. In a word, excruciating.
Baldo: The Guardian Owls is a beautiful looking Ghibli-esque adventure that draws you in with its wonderful art style and atmosphere and then beats you into submission with its bewildering gameplay. This is an excruciatingly frustrating game filled with bad design choices, clunky combat and traversal, a terrible UI and map and instant, unfair death waiting around every corner. For a small number of gamers who thrive on pointless, unfair punishment, there may be some joy to be found here. For everyone else this is one adventure you'd do well to avoid taking.