Baldo: The Guardian Owls has an almighty elevator pitch: what if Legend of Zelda was remade by Studio Ghibli? After fifteen years of love and labour, Baldo has attempted to deliver on that potential, creating a fifty-hour-plus adventure, with side quests and hidden secrets, alongside hand-drawn characters in an artfully rendered world.
Perhaps the elevator pitch was a little too good. We built up Baldo: The Guardian Owls in our heads, and it’s disappointingly distant from the one we have in our hands. Part of that’s on us, but there’s no getting round the larger truth: Baldo falls short.
None of the disappointment comes from how Baldo: The Guardian Owls looks and sounds. It may have started life as a Gameboy Advance game, but nothing here looks outdated. The characters are superbly drawn and animated, very much capturing the Japanese animation touchstones that Naps Team were aiming for. There’s a fair amount of Ni No Kuni in Baldo’s characters, if you’ve played it on other systems. If there is a complaint, it’s that the character designs are a little safe – there’s little in the vicinity of Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, as most of the cast are human and could have been more outlandish. But generally everyone looks on point.
The world looks and sounds astounding too. Again, a small caveat that areas tended toward darkness more than we would have liked (making it hard to pick out items to use), but Rodia is a kingdom dense with detail, often vibrant, and it absolutely looks like a game that took fifteen years to create. It’s all on the screen. The same goes with the soundtrack, which feels like a bunch of Howard Shore’s offcuts from The Lord of the Rings soundtrack. In a good way.
There isn’t much wrong with the amount of content, either. Baldo is flipping massive, like an early Legend of Zelda game that’s got hold of a Breath of the Wild strategy guide and decided that it likes the look of its map. End to end, Rodia takes a good thirty minutes to cross, but you’ll take a while to get to that position: you’ll be blocked by the usual Metroidvania gubbins and an impossibly large number of dungeons. The main dungeons are locked behind a sub-dungeon, which are locked behind a sub-sub-dungeon, and Baldo would put you through a dungeon to complete a ‘cat up a tree’ quest if it could.
Holy Miyazaki, all of the ingredients are here. This could and should have been a Link-beater. But Baldo has crises of design and difficulty.
Naps Team clearly believes there’s too much handholding in modern games, so they strip everything out. There’s nary a tutorial to be found in the whole game, and Baldo often relies on your knowledge of other games to untangle what it wants. If you have a younger player who’s drawn in by the art style or premise, you might want to push them away from Baldo.
Instead of giving you a main quest line, Baldo gives you several at once and let’s you guess which one’s possible with the abilities you have right now. There won’t be much in the way of direction towards each one either, as the maps are zoomed out and useless, and the waypoint markers are permanently on the fringes of your game screen, each one a generic white so that it’s impossible to tell the difference between them. Quest-givers give you a vague notion of where to go, leaving the rest down to you, even though the areas are gargantuan and dense with stuff. Baldo is a vat of alphabet soup and you’re trying to find anything that spells out a main quest line.
It should be better in dungeons but it’s worse. These are discrete areas that are harder to get lost in, but a problem and it’s solution are often separated by an entire dungeon. You’ll be constantly wondering where you’re meant to be heading, backtracking more often than forward-tracking and scanning a map which is marginally more useful than a blank page. Critical objects will often look like background furniture, and you will tear your hair out as you realise, for the 700th time, that one particular crate was pushable, when all the others were inactive. If you want a lesson in how much modern gaming has done in terms of subtly pathing you, guiding you to solutions through its lighting, or staggering problems so they don’t overwhelm you, then play Baldo: The Guardian Owls. You’ll see what it’s like to play something that has them all yanked out.
Some will sneer and say that Baldo is doing God’s work, creating a demanding game when so many others wrap a player in cotton wool. We’re certainly aware of that criticism and we occasionally feel it. But there’s a fine line between a lack of handholding and bad design, and Baldo lives deep, deep in the Realm of Bad Design.
There are too many design weirdnesses to catalogue properly. It takes four different buttons and multiple interfaces to use items. The camera is completely static, but ledges and important items are often tucked behind stuff, so you enter a raffle called ‘Reward or Death?’. Baldo never talks (presumably his terrible name has made him shy around others), so everyone talks in a weird rambly way that goes all the way from “Hello” to “oh my gosh, can you help me with a quest?” in the space of a chat box.
Then we get to the load times, which are roughly fifteen seconds too long, even on a Series X|S. And then there are the bugs. Oh the bugs. We got locked in scenery, got our followers locked in scenery, created impossible permutations of puzzles, and generally restarted the game every hour or so. We hit a critical, game-ending bug in the middle of Baldo, and we weren’t the only ones. Scanning forums, this blocker and others are extremely common, and the delay to Baldo’s release date hasn’t removed them all. We took it as an opportunity to take a holiday from an excruciating game, so we’re kind of thankful for it.
The controversial topic is the difficulty. Separate from the obscurity and the bugs, Baldo is also a hard, hard game, and you’ll be seeing a listless number of Game Over screens. Most of that will come from combat, as Baldo likes to treat its enemies like mini Dark Souls bosses. Even with a number of extra hearts (lifted directly from Zelda), enemies will often one-hit you. They have multiple attacks and – here’s the rub – no visual telegraphing at all, so you’re rolling a dice about whether you nail an attack or leave yourself open.
Death means returning to the last time you entered the room, with most of your progress removed. But some areas are plain massive. And when it’s not combat that is draining you of expletives, it’s instant death from fall damage or puzzles that never fail to choose the most annoying path. Mazes are bad enough, but making them pitch-black, with enemies that can only be seen when you’re on top of them? Balance-beam sections are a pain, but with crumbling beams that are indistinguishable from others? Every design decision has been made with a masochistic edge, and we can’t fathom why anyone would think they’re okay.
It’s so infuriating, because there’s a fantastic game here, somewhere. The puzzles are good, the dungeons are huge, and the game is massive. But when you can’t find the good stuff because Baldo won’t tell you where it is, gives no pointers on how to interact with it, makes it incredibly difficult to use, and then punishes you harshly for failing it, well, you begin to lose enthusiasm.
It’s not hard to imagine a game that fulfils the promise of a Legend of Zelda game set in a Studio Ghibli world, because it occasionally shines through Baldo: The Guardian Owls. But Naps Team needed an experienced hand to get more than ‘shines through’. They’ve locked so much good stuff behind terrible design decisions and a steep difficulty that your patience will run out well before the fifty hours it takes to complete Baldo, which is a crime against some fantastic art and music.
You can buy Baldo The Guardian Owls for £20.99 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S