By: Brian Gunn
Owlboy has attained an almost mythic status in the indie gaming community. In the works as long as some of this winter’s blockbusters like Final Fantasy XV, it’s one of those games that has been seen for years but never materialized. That is, until recently, when developer D-Pad Studio finally let the game take flight.
While Owlboy is a 2D game that hearkens back to the 16-bit era, it’s not really much of a platformer. The titular character has wings, and so, for the most part, there’s little running and jumping. Instead you often have free movement, which feels great and acts as a nice change of pace.
Controls get more complicated as the game goes along, giving you several partners to lift up to help you shoot things. The only quibble is that you have to cycle through those partners, when a dedicated button for each might have been preferable.
Owlboy is a stunning tour de force when it comes to pixel art. You can tell why it took so long to be released when you see the dozens of unique sprites and animations. While it is clearly mining nostalgia, what’s on display stands on its own as well.
It won’t stand out as much as the excruciating detail given to the visuals, but the soundtrack also truly impresses. Every soaring adventure song or sudden dramatic shift fits well and also balances that deft area between appealing to the past and forging its own identity. Sound effects are full of character and charm, though they’re probably the weakest element of the presentation.
Owlboy stars Otus, a mute owl (in this world, owl’s are basically humanoid) that is essentially the runt of his litter in the local village. The other owls pick on him, and his mentor is often needlessly cruel. Such is the luck of every underdog in an idyllic village that it is soon attacked by sky pirates, and Otus ends up on quite an adventure to save the day.
There’s a surprisingly in-depth story to be found in Owlboy, which caught me off guard. Games like this often go fairly light on the narrative, but Otus and company get clearly defined relationships and character development.
It helps flesh out the oddball little world D-Pad Studio has created here, and minor touches like making Otus being a mute an actual part of the story instead of just because it’s a common convention was a nice development. Prepare for your heartstrings to be tugged.
While Owlboy is a 2D game with Metroidvania elements, the actual main inspiration seems to be the Zelda series. The familiar gameplay loop of exploring an open area, then proceeding into a dungeon to obtain a special item that you’ll need to defeat the boss is present, and the overall world reminded me a lot of Wind Waker.
Players will find themselves splitting their time between puzzles and shooting things. Otus doesn’t really attack directly as much as he lifts up a friend that’s packing heat to dispatch the enemies. This is often the blandest element of the game, feeling a little tacked on, as much of the combat with basic enemies has little variation.
Boss battles are often quite fun, however, and are where the shooting mechanics shine. Puzzles tend to be clever, offering some unique twists around the old weighted switch designs.
A few bumps in the road are present as well, namely in the form of a few too many stealth sections. They don’t play horribly, but they hurt the pacing, especially early on.
Owlboy was worth the wait. The long developmental cycle clearly paid off with a gorgeous unique little tale about a cast of endearing characters, and I look forward to what the developers try next.