By Marty Mulrooney
Owlboy is a 2D platform-adventure game created by indie developer D-Pad Studio. Touted as ‘a love letter to pixel art for a new audience’, Owlboy looks, sounds and plays like a high-definition version of a classic Nintendo title. In Owlboy, players must fly around and explore an open-world, recruiting new allies as they try to stop the impending destruction of the planet.
The player takes control of a small mute character named Otus. A member of an owl-human hybrid race called the Owls, the weight of expectation lies heavy on his young, feathered shoulders. Pirates roam the skies in flying battleships and it’s his duty to help protect the floating town of Vellie. However, his mentor Asio can barely hide his constant disappointment and frustration that Otus simply isn’t better.
After a surprisingly dark opening that lays bare Otus’ fears and insecurities for all players to see, the game opens up to reveal a truly beautiful Studio Ghibli-esque world full of floating islands, pure blue skies and soft white clouds. Otus will jump with the click of a button – ‘A’ on the Steam Controller, which was used for the purpose of this review – but it’s when pressing that button a second time in mid-air that magic truly happens. Otus can fly!
Using the left stick to move through the air is a very freeing and liberating experience. Otus is conveyed as a somewhat vulnerable protagonist – his fellow owl kids are outright bullies who think he’s a joke – but when he flies, he soars. When pirates begin to attack, he doesn’t seek cover. He spreads his wings and jumps into action. While flying Otus can spin and dash, but neither ability will do much more to enemies than daze them.
Thankfully, Otus isn’t facing this adventure alone. There is a strong theme of friendship and strength in numbers that runs deep throughout Owlboy’s gameplay and story. Otus’ self-proclaimed best friend is a gunner named Geddy. By picking him up the player can shoot his pistol while flying through the air, effectively transforming the game into a tightly controlled twin stick shooter.
Like many of the classic platform-adventures it pays homage too, Owlboy features a series of dungeons that become trickier and trickier as the end draws near. In the first dungeon, there are moments where Otus must place Geddy on a switch to open a door. It’s a simple idea that works well, but it soon starts to feel like a chore. Yet the game developers were smart enough to realise this.
An ancient owl relic is eventually discovered that will allow Otus to ‘teleport’ his friends to him. A click of the ‘Y’ button will instantly bring Geddy back to Otus. As the adventure continues new allies will be found, social misfits and outcasts with their own unique abilities who will eventually become dear friends. Pressing the ‘L1’/’R1’ shoulder buttons cycles between them, effectively replacing the traditional weapon switching of similar games.
It’s an inspired gameplay mechanic that continually reinforces the idea that Otus can’t do any of this on his own. He needs his friends, and his friends need him. It also ties into the game’s impressive open world. There are many areas that can’t initially be accessed, such as passages blocked by thorny branches that Otus and Geddy can’t break through.
However, when a new character joins their team it is quickly revealed that he can deal with such barricades with ease. Some of the most memorable and touching moments are when Otus and his team rest at a campfire, telling each other about themselves.
The gameplay is a fun mix of exploration, interaction, fighting and puzzle solving. All of these elements will make the player think without ever becoming overly difficult. However, the boss battles can often prove extremely taxing, requiring many failed attempts before Otus and his friends can emerge triumphant. Likewise, there are stealth sections that can quickly become frustrating, as it is so easy to make Otus fly by mistake.
Difficulty spikes can often come out of nowhere. Near the end of the game there are moments where Otus must be controlled like a regular platforming character – think Mario – and the game loses a lot of its appeal. This neutering of his abilities makes sense story wise and thematically, but it’s during these moments that Owlboy is at its least enjoyable.
Yet the times where players will want to hurl their controller across the room can ultimately be forgiven. There is just so much here to like, from the ‘high-bit’ pixel art graphics that are absolutely teeming with detail (there is even a stunning day/night cycle), to the charming soundtrack, clever gameplay mechanics and a storyline that starts off simple before becoming wonderfully complex.
Development of Owlboy began in 2007, meaning it has taken over 9 years for the game to be finished and released. Art director Simon Anderson and his small team have battled with numerous start overs, delays and personal hurdles, but the end result has definitely been worth the wait. The 10-12 hours that Owlboy lasts are full of surprises, moments that will make you smile and perhaps even shed the occasional tear. Much like Otus himself, it isn’t perfect – but when it flies, it soars.
9 OUT OF 10