Game Review – Owlboy

Every owl has his day

It was a matter of minutes before I realised something crucial about Owlboy: it isn’t just a pretty platformer. Adorable characters and the promise of flight through cloud scattered skies create a mask of innocence that quickly dissolves, making way for harsh, unshackled realism. Yet, despite its thick layers of pessimism, Owlboy isn’t completely devoid of hope. Ultimately, it is proof that persisting in a world where the odds seem forever stacked against you can result in soaring, elated triumph. Like Otus, the game’s protagonist, developer D-Pad Studios endured struggles of its own, pushing through a gruelling ten-year development cycle to achieve a lifetime dream. And the transfer of such humanity is evident when you read between the pixels: Owlboy is a powerful ode to the underdog (or perhaps I should say, underowl) and isn’t afraid to embrace failure as a mechanism to drive home its story.

story

From the very beginning, Owlboy delves into darkness. It teeters along a tightrope of despair, roping in players with a mixture of sympathy, guilt, and resignation. Let me explain. Unlike the other owls, Otus is mute. He is mocked and ridiculed for his incompetence, and it’s clear he’s considered a pariah in his native Vellie. This certainly wasn’t what I was expecting. Few games deal with disability as a central focus let alone hint at it. But as the narrative unfolds, so too does the importance of disability as a theme: Otus the mute, charged with the crimes of terrible flight and shocking school performance is the one chosen by fate to save his homeland. The irony is incredible. But even more incredible is Otus’ journey of self-discovery that helps him realise opinions and assumptions can crumble when put to the test; heroes don’t always look like heroes, and wearing bravery like a suit to impress in theory doesn’t mean you’re actually brave.

So really, Owlboy is about perception. It asks players to think more deeply about how someone is seen versus who they actually are. Bizarre, intelligently formulated NPCs like Fib and Bonacci, the delightfully passive-aggressive Buccanary and her boguins and the Pirate Alphonse all stretch the fabric of Owlboy’s narrative, incorporating both humour and indelible sadness. Every character feels memorable, likeable, and painfully human. Otus is his teacher’s greatest disappointment, and yet, he somehow ends up on a heroic voyage. Alphonse, who renounces his wicked ways in a moment of spiritual enlightenment, hesitates to judge Twig for assisting the Pirates even when Geddy refuses to welcome him. Twig’s family, who choose to defend their home instead of blindly obeying the orders of the Pirates and evacuating. Why? Why don’t they surrender their ideals for guaranteed safety? Because they have something the Pirates don’t. They have something worth fighting for, and choose to guard their Thermopylae. These are tiny pixel stick bugs in a game – a game – but there’s still a lesson about defending one’s honour. Perhaps the most powerful line to emerge in their dialogue is that “We cannot let fear dictate our actions”.

The locations also follow a smart system of nomenclature: Strato, Tropos and Mesos all refer to stratosphere, troposphere and mesosphere respectively, different layers of the atmosphere. These names are extremely relevant considering the setting of the game: the sky.

GAMEPLAY

Owlboy’s digital canvas provides an eclectic mix of puzzle platforming and flight-based battles. Explorers amongst us are in for a treat, too: get ready to be occupied with investigating houses, caves, collecting coins and solving challenges that are genuinely fun. The flight physics in particular feel natural and precise; Otus glides smoothly sideways, vertically and diagonally, flapping his wings in an impressive animation, and it’s evident D-Pad Studios calibrated the speed of movement perfectly. There’s a rich abundance of secret areas, cleverly disguised with invisible walls as well as cave surfaces that don’t seem traversable, so the element of surprise is always in good supply. Combat wise, Owlboy comes with a great variety of enemies including ‘ugly-cute’ cyclops bats (who sometimes masquerade as fruit), rolling gargoyle boulders, mustached, stone-throwing yak men, Xenon 2 style swirling flower bomb chains, and literal thorns in your side – spike covered vines. Each of them has a different style of attack, and applying a creative range of defence techniques to defend Otus feels refreshing. The solid game design extends to fantastic mini-boss designs which are splendidly diverse – take the haunting battle with squadron of angry bees, determined to sting you with their mighty venom.

difficulty

Owlboy’s puzzles are satisfying because they’re neither too easy, nor too hard, but the bosses are another story – especially as you progress. The aforementioned bee battle may just make you scream with rage (or laugh with delight) but on the whole, sparring with a variety of creatures is pure fun, exhilarating action that demands some really good reflexes. What is difficult for me will be easy for more skilled gamers. At one point during the game, there’s an upside-down flying section on a robot dragon’s back, and although it’s disorienting at first it’s also wildly exciting. First it feels like the astronomical speeds don’t give you enough time to think about how to escape danger, but with a few tries you memorise the pattern. Considering the measured, well-paced increase in difficulty level, this section needed to be a bit more of a joyride, especially since a boss battle preceded it, but this is probably a matter of opinion. A minor gripe for me is the necessity to skip boss-battle cutscenes every time, which feels repetitive and unnecessary, and at worst, becomes annoying – especially after several failures.

art & Music

Musically impressive, Owlboy’s soundtrack genuinely delights the heart. It’s a true atmospheric wonder. Icy worlds present a slower, gentle quality characterised by distant melodies that contrast magnificently with the chip-tune sprinkled victory anthem of Vellie’s Skies. Tropos is similarly uplifting, channelling the harmonies of strings and violin to inspire determination, hope and courage, while Strato indulges in a mellow, free-flowing chorus of sweet, healing echoes and calming ambience supported by a quiet undercurrent of digital strumming. Composer Jonathon Geer does a marvellous job in teleporting audiences to an imaginary world of breathtaking beauty that fortunately always exists when we close our eyes. The magic continues with Owlboy’s character art. Devotion is written all over it, but the environmental artistry is so phenomenally accomplished it needs to join the Pixel Art Hall of Fame™. Whether you’re looking at gorgeous, frothy clouds or the rich, sumptuously crafted grass and rocky floating islands, the attention to detail is so superb that your eyes can’t possibly absorb it all. Otus even leaves footprints in the snow, a characteristic normally reserved for 3D platformers/action adventure games.

originality

When you release a 2D platformer, there’s always a risk. Once a genre dominated by classics, pixel-art sidescrollers ended up saturating the market to the degree that gamers almost became immune to enjoying them. So naturally, it takes something special to catapult a game beyond a sea of ideas and capture the public’s attention. Shovel Knight succeeded because of its unique protagonist, majestic soundtrack, and combination of strong pixel-art and thorough, addictive gameplay, and I’m happy to report that Owlboy also succeeds as a classic of the modern era. Apart from today’s seemingly obligatory auto-save feature, it sets itself apart with an exquisite level of maturity that often borders on philosophy. Its hilarious characterisation, stunning audiovisual landscape and story of unforgettable, amazing depth make it unlike anything else I’ve played.

When I look at Owlboy, I feel a special longing that’s rooted in a beautiful age of old-school platformers made with heart, passion and curiosity. It’s a game that was born too late, in a world did care. For D-Pad Studios, making it might have been an arduous journey, but the result, like Otus himself, is a silent wonder. Walking in the shoes of the underdog isn’t something we get the chance to experience everyday. So Owlboy makes every second count. It takes players on a tumultuous, scintillating adventure of an unlikely destiny that befalls upon an individual who is still nestling in the warmth of security. An individual who, crippled by both disability and a lack of belief from his own people, was once the unlikeliest candidate to change the course of history. And yet, the ocean begins with a single insignificant drop of water. As sensitive as it is uplifting, Owlboy is a magical platformer that proves there is a hero within all of us.

Owlboy is out now via Steam (PC, Mac, Linux), GOG and the Humble Store  for $24.99 USD. A Nintendo Switch version was also recently announced.

WHY YOU SHOULD PLAY IT:

  • You love 2D platformers
  • You can’t say no to great pixel art
  • You like owls

THE PROS:                                                                                   

  • Beautiful, meticulous pixel art graphics
  • Solid gameplay mechanics
  • Sensitive, well-constructed narrative
  • Memorable characters

THE CONS:

  • Occasionally frustrating difficulty

GAMEPLAY:★★★★☆

GRAPHICS:★★★★★

SOUND:★★★★★

REPLAYABILITY:★★★★☆

OVERALL:★★★★☆

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