Owlboy Review — Reaching for the Sky
Owlboy is a 2D platforming action-adventure game that has been in development at D-Pad Studio since 2007. While a ton has changed within the video game industry since its inception, Owlboy proves itself as a gorgeous adventure through a charming world and smartly designed gameplay that never outstays its welcome and consistently introduces new ways of progressing.
At the very beginning you are introduced to your player character, Otus, a mute owl who has been taken under Asio in order to grow and fulfill his role in the village Veille. However, Otus is established as someone who just can’t seem to do things right. Constantly berated, Otus experiences a nightmare of being confronted with his failures by the other villagers.
Tasked with patrolling the village one day in order to protect it from roving pirates, Otus encounters a shadowy figure that leads him into a cave with his best friend Geddy. This begins a chain of events that cause the deterioration of the world, and forces Otus to embark on a grand adventure to try and set things right.
A recurring theme throughout Owlboy is friendship. From Otus’ friendship with Geddy, to new ones created with unlikely figures. Most of the friends you make along the way are also outcasts, picked on, don’t quite fit into their surroundings, or are comfortable as something other than what they were born into. The group you gather around yourself are a great support system. Always worried about each others safety when put in danger, and generally looking to just try and do their best in every situation.
While the world itself doesn’t contain a ton of characters, the ones you are given are distinct and charismatic. This ranges from NPCs encountered in the village to the penguin-like helpers of the trinket shop. While at first colorful and bright, the world descends into darker tones and foreboding images as the danger becomes more imminent. This is a satisfying way to present a threat, as you are given quite some time to run around the starting area, which you return to a few times after major events in order to display the difference in the state of the world.
Attributed as a love letter to the pixel era of video games, Owlboy‘s graphics are simliar to a much more advanced Super Nintendo Entertainment System title. It contains characters and environments much more detailed than anything seen on the consoles of the 1990’s, it is still rendered in such a way that has the nostalgic appeal of those consoles.
Every animation is smooth, from the flapping of Otus’ wings to Geddy flying into a wall and sliding downward before jumping into his idle animation. Enemies will disappear into a poof of beautifully created smoke. Backgrounds are consistently impressive with their detail and design. Some of the best art is in the outside areas where you can view giant clouds moving slowly in the background as you run, jump, and fly around floating islands covered in green grass and foliage.
Thankfully Owlboy is not only a gorgeous title to look at, but also a fun game to play. As Otus you are able to fly, but your offensive capabilities are limited only to a spin move that can stun most enemies at best. Instead of taking enemies on directly, you must team up with Geddy (and later on more party members) to utilize their attacks. Each one you gain has different capabilities and uses both in and out of combat. Geddy can shoot small green energy pellets, but they bounce off of anything metal. To circumvent this you will have to drop him and use Otus’ spin attack to knock off whatever metal object an enemy may have, or aim for exposed pieces.
Platforming plays an important role, as environmental dangers require correct timing and skill. There are even a few stealth sections where Otus must hide behind foreground objects to avoid detection. While most of these can be accomplished with ease, there is a later section of stealth that delved further into frustration than I believe was intended. While the game offers a reset button in the world itself for the alarm state, the amount of times I inadvertently caused one due to ignorance or circumstances I felt were unfair was a bit too often. Checkpoints are very fair, and require a minimal amount to do once loaded to catch up to your previous location at death.
Health can be replenished by eating various vegetables found in the ground of villages and dungeons. Some will even temporarily extend your health, though you can obtain maximum increases via a trinket shop. This shop is run by a tough-as-nails though largely hospitabal woman named Buccanary. She will allow you access to special items ranging from health increases to hats and equipment upgrades if you collect the required amount of Buccanary coins found and hidden in most major locations.
Puzzles and adventure games go hand in hand, and Owlboy is no different. Most puzzles you will encounter are fairly simple. Push a button and reach a door before it closes, place a companion on a button as you move ahead to activate a separate switch. Gather two screws from different sections of a dungeon and return them to progress further in. These puzzles never become so hard that you are left shaking your head and, while you may have trouble returning to one if you have been away and forgotten what was happening, there is generally only one direction you can move along to proceed. Dungeons themselves contain you into hallways and caves, with each one requiring a new or altered mechanic.
Before you were able to take out the flying cyclops, but now you must knock off their helmets. This cloud needs to travel to a certain area, but now its being sucked in by a hole in the wall so find the plug. Little alterations like this are consistent throughout the entirety of Owlboy, ensuring you never grow too bored of one section, and are always learning new combinations of abilities or the capabilities of new enemies.
The soundtrack is very well done, balancing uplifting and foreboding tones as is necessary. There is also a large amount of variety, with sixty-seven tracks total and ninety-four minutes of music between them all. The theme really grabs that sense of wonder and open air ready for the taking. There are even separate tracks for the daytime and nighttime of certain areas that change the mood just as the lighting does.
Much like the beauty of the visuals, the ease of use and learning curve of gameplay just scream polish. Both plot and gameplay proceed at a very natural pace. You are never left wandering in a slow section, or forced to learn something entirely new and unrelated to anything previously used. Dungeons last just long enough that you feel an accomplished leaving them, but not long enough that entering one feels like the beginning of an afternoon wasted.
The only unsatisfying part is right at the end, where a cutscene becomes gameplay without notice, and the lack of clear instructions combined with a time limit can lead to multiple deaths. Despite this minor complaint, Owlboy delivers a satisfying conclusion that, like all good fiction, leaves you yearning for more.
While I want to avoid spoiling anything in regards to the main narrative, you will learn a lot about the owls and their part in the state of the world as-is, with floating islands and rampaging pirates. Owlboy never gives too much away, and actually keeps one important element very much ambiguous to allow for players to determine their own conclusion. That ambiguity never plays so heavily into the plot involving your personal character arc that it would harm the story being told.
Thanks in part to the cartoon nature of characters, the artstyle and setting makes it easy to believe in robotic pirates, floating island villages, humanoid owls and various other species occupying the same world. It is its own fantasy, separate from the dark and high fantasy generally seen in RPGs.
While Owlboy may have small sections that cause numerous restarts, those portions are buried underneath the overwhelming amount of great moments found within. Nearly everything about Owlboy is well-crafted. From the graphics, the soundwork, the characters and their inter-relationships, the changing state of the world, the gameplay, and the title’s ability to introduce and drop mechanics in a dynamically-paced way, Owlboy is a perfectly executed composition of story and gameplay.