Nine years ago in 2007, when D-Pad Studios began work on Owlboy, The Last Guardian and Final Fantasy Versus XIII (now XV) were recent announcements. “Can it run Crysis?” was the measuring stick of all PC Master Race pissing contests. And Michael Bay had only just begun defacing my childhood memories with the first abominable Transformers movie. Though I only became aware of its existence a mere month before its release, Owlboy’s aesthetic and 16-bit era sensibilities groped hard at my memories of Neo Geo/PSX era platformers and RPGs. Like a fine wine that can turn to vinegar if left too long in the cellar, Owlboy had me worried as few games can be said to have benefited from a protracted development. Bugger the fermented paint-thinner though, Owlboy is a bloody hoot. Heh. I prefer a good scotch, anyway.
Casting the player in the high-flying boots of Otus, Owlboy tells a coming of age story dealing with the power of friendship, resolve in the face of outright tragedy, and the pain of familial dysfunction. Otus is a mute and is presumed by many to be a fool. Otus’ mentor Asio, constantly scolds and dismisses him. Other children bully him. In a dream sequence at the opening of the game, he is shown to be crippled by anxiety and a lack of self-belief, and I identified with him immediately.
Otus and his best friend Geddy set out on a journey to save their small town when it comes under threat from a band of Sky Pirates. Things don’t go so well, and the pair eventually finds themselves delving into the forgotten mysteries of their world in the hopes of saving it. From the outset, Owlboy draws you in with characters who are not only beautifully drawn and animated but are characterised by well-defined relationships with the player character.
The narrative is enhanced by a retro-theme appropriate lack of voice acting; instead, a wonderfully old-school use of text delivery gives each character’s speech a uniquely expressive rhythm and tone. Most of Otus’ interactions are with the companions he gathers along his journey, and they too, are most amicable. The hot-tempered but protective town guard Geddy, the quisling Pirate and would-be thespian Alphonse, along with puckish spider-boy Twig (and others) make up Owlboy’s charming party of misfits.
Owlboy’s gameplay then is both similarly unique in its approach to its characters. Otus himself can fly, of course, spin attack dash shortly in any direction, as well as pick up and throw various objects, including other characters. In fact, Otus’ companions operate as tools and weapons throughout, making Owlboy something like a twin-stick shooter. Geddy is equipped with a meek, but reliable burst fire pistol used mostly for weaker enemies, but has no use in overcoming puzzles. Alphonse comes with a flamethrowing shotgun useful for close quarters attacks as well burning away the shrubbery that blockades Otus’ path. All the while, Twig can immobilise enemies with webbing, zip line in any direction to evade enemies or overcome environmental hazards that limit Otus’ ability to fly, like waterfalls or gale-force winds.
Most puzzles throughout the various dungeons require the use of pressure pads and other mechanical devices – some needing to be set with a particular character, some are based on a timer, whereas the rest are straightforward. The individual parts of overcoming the dungeons’ puzzles are never overly taxing, but most often change the layout of a level and will funnel you into new areas, and continually introduce new elements with which to adapt to and use.
The jungle area which, for example, is littered with entire sections blanketed in complete darkness. To navigate one of these sections, Otus must carefully follow small groups of glowing flies, who faintly reveal that the surrounding walls are covered in sharpened spikes.
Another darkened sector won’t have any flies to guide you, yet instead at intermittent points glowing consumable fruit trees are littered sporadically throughout its passageways. Once consumed, these fruits cause Otus to briefly illuminate his path until he can locate the next tree, all the while deadly flesh-eating gnats will slowly drain your health bar if caught in the dark.
Some of the later sections take place in a zone characterised by minimal gravity and thin air, where Otus’ ability to fly is significantly reduced, and Owlboy changes to play more like a traditional platformer, hopping between fast moving bits of rocky debris. Again, this endless variety is hard to understate, and it makes Owlboy’s dungeons consistently intriguing, as you can be sure that there’ll always be something new around the corner.
More commendable is the fact that I did not once get lost through any one these sizeable labyrinthine areas, despite there not being a world map of any kind for players to reference. There are literal signposts in the hub areas, but once you’re comfortable navigating Owlboy’s world, you’re not likely to feel the need for their reference.
Punctuating the dungeons are the positively lavish boss battles. Whether it’s against an army of dirty gold-banded goddamn apes, a tentacle-wiggling super-bot or a Studio Ghibli-esque steampunk techno-organic mega-frog, all are fabulously animated and undeniably memorable. Some play out like a bullet-hell game, with various attack phases where you’ll have to take specific patterns of avoidance and attack, or even lure your attackers into environmental dangers. Others are more scripted chase sequences, again, with multiple phases, but Owlboy makes all of these altercations distinct and just challenging enough that you’ll probably die at least twice on each of them, but not enough to make you want to pull your teeth out with a heavy piece of mining equipment.
Stealth also is occasionally thrown into the mix to keep things fresh. Each sequence is significantly different from the next, as always – the first instance I found to be the easiest, where I had to avoid making too much noise around blind, but hyper aloof gnomes in the dark. Another has you skulking behind large objects placed in Otus’ foreground to hide him from roaming Pirates amongst the boondocks of a floating city. These initial sections were easy enough, but later ones start to lay heavier consequences on you, like poison gas traps, to crank up the difficulty curve. It is the last act of the game, though, with the final bend in the difficulty curve, which began to highlight two very apparent but minor gripes that I had with Owlboy.
Firstly, Otus controls just a bit too haphazardly for the spatial arrangements which the dungeons throw at you. During the opening hours of the game, this is impossible to perceive as most of Otus’ adventuring is done in great open spaces where he is given a wide berth from his enemies and can luxuriate when avoiding environmental hazards.
Dungeons, however, are consistently claustrophobic in size, and when Otus’ finds himself in areas occupied by multiple enemy types, his primary traversal abilities reveal themselves to be in need of a bit of tweaking. For one, changing direction while flying will cause Otus to swoop with the smallest amount of acceleration.
This tiny idiosyncrasy is negligible in large spaces, but in close confines with gnats surrounding you and striking from every angle along with trolls below throwing boulders, any imprecision can be quickly punished. Often being hit by enemy attacks will send Otus flying either until he hits a wall, or if the player has more than a second, to recover by tapping the jump button. The latter is less than likely to happen, as most encounters where this will happen won’t leave you enough space to recover.
Otus’ dash move can also be problematic. Not only do the small areas in which most encounters take place hamper its usefulness, but it’s just not quite quick enough to feel useful unless you have consumed extra life-giving vegetables. Buffing your health bar will allow you to spam the dash button for hastier traversal, but you’re not likely to keep this advantage for long as the dungeons are sure to make light work of your health bar with an abundance of enemies and easy to stumble into traps. A smaller gripe still is the problem of picking up your buddies; they’ll always take priority over other objects you might be trying to pick up if they are within your immediate vicinity, even if you are directly on top of said object and your companion is otherwise askew. I tended to bunt them off with a spin attack, which can be concernedly cathartic at times.
In spite of its minor systemic clumsiness, Owlboy never feels overly punishing. My success or failure in combat seemed like it was down to my level of ability, for the most part. Liberal placement of checkpoints prevent any deaths from feeling overly frustrating and keeps the glorious momentum of the game’s pacing from being stifled. I often found myself a bit uncertain of where to go next, but constantly seemed to be heading in the right direction and pushing the story forward. There are some collectibles for which you’ll have to venture off the beaten path to find, but they’re kept to a minimum as to avoid a feeling of panic-inducing kleptomania I get when I play most traditional platformers. Some are pretty damned well hidden, so you’ll have a touch of additional investigation if you want all those achievements.
Adding rewards for exploration and certain combat instances, usually clearing a zone of enemies, are loot chests which will drop coins. Once the player acquires a certain number of these, they’ll be awarded costume items as well as abilities for your buddies at a charmingly odd antique shop located in the centermost hub area. Though the upgrades are helpful, they aren’t integral if you don’t care for coin collection. If you want all of them though, you’ll need more cunning than I – by the end of the game, I’d missed an entire dungeon because of a seemingly innocuous rhythm puzzle.
Lastly, I must re-iterate the sumptuousness of Owlboy’s presentation – the luxuriously animated sprites, Hayao Miyazaki-esque art direction and sheer diversity of distinct environmental palettes had me feeling spoiled. The music, a mix of chiptunes and a rousing set of orchestral arrangements which left melted in childlike wonderment, is doubtless to leave my mind anytime soon. Seriously. Every time I boot up the menu screen, it’s like I’m six years old again, and being sat down to watch a Disney film for the first time.
Owlboy feels, sounds and moves like how my mind remembers a game from an older era but is really a larger and more cleverly directed experience. The story lends it a unique level of sapience placing it amongst the glut of indie darlings from the last decade, and I loved the time I spent playing this game. If the current crop of end-of-year shooters has you feeling jaded and tired, or just pine for that indescribable feeling of magic that captured you as a child, this will go a long way to restoring your faith in the status quo. Owlboy is a masterful work of modern gameplay design, fantastic retro art direction, and emotive story-telling.