Developer: D-Pad Studio
Publisher: D-Pad Studio
Released: November 1, 2016
Copy provided by publisher
Owlboy has been in development for a long, long time. I first started covering the game when I worked at Destructoid, charmed as I was by its then-novel throwback aesthetic, gorgeous soundtrack, and darling protagonist. That was almost a decade back, so long ago that I barely believe I’ve been able to play the finished product.
This is real life, though. I have indeed played it, and despite taking so long to materialize, there is no doubt the wait was worth it – Owlboy is bloody terrific.
A simple coming-of-age tale, Owlboy tells the story of Otus, a mute owl who works with his soldier friend Geddy to protect an airborne world from malevolent robotic sky pirates. Along the way he’ll team up with disaffected pirate Alphonse and misbehaving spider Twig, using their abilities alongside Geddy’s to enter numerous dungeons and attempt to foil the plans of the mechanical menace.
Being an owl… sort of… Otus gets free rein of the screen, able to jump from platforms and take to the sky by simply directing him upwards. On his own, he gets to dodge, perform a spin-attack that stuns enemies, and drag select objects around after picking them from the ground.
Over the course of the game, he gains new abilities via his friends – each of his three allies have a distinct weapon, and by summoning them into his airborne hands, he can direct them to attack. Geddy has a straightforward pistol, Alphonse uses a musket with a devastating blast but slow reload time, and Twig can fire webs to trap foes or use as a grappling hook.
The weapons of these characters will be essential for navigating the environment, too. The flaming discharge of Alphonse’s musket ignites torches and burns plant blockages, while Twig’s grappling web can drag Otus through strong winds or across waterfalls that negate his flying ability. Geddy’s weapon might not be so versatile, but it’s a dependable shot and good at destroying simple barricades.
With an armed ally, Owlboy plays somewhat similar to a stick shooter, one hand controlling flight and the other firing with a 360 degree aim. Each monster that appears comes with its own unique attack pattern and defenses – some will need heavy objects dropped from above to break their armor and render them vulnerable, while others shall require a quick spin-attack before they’re open to gunfire.
The only problem with carrying allies is the hassle they can be to not pick up every time they’re dropped. Spinning while holding them acts as a thorough dismissal, but if they’re instead dropped next to other items, they always take precedence if they’re even vaguely nearby – trying to pick up a berry to eat but grabbing Geddy-insteddy is a frequent cause for grumbling.
2D stealth sections also pop up from time to time, just to add some flavor.
The first stealth moment leaves something to be desired – a rather irritating little segment where you must avoid flying or making too much noise lest you be chased and instantly devoured by gnomes – but subsequent stealthing is rather enjoyable. Using perspective to create 2D objects behind which Otus can hide, these stages adapt the kind of sneaking seen in Jasper Byrne’s Lone Survivor, albeit to a far more complex degree.
Then there are the boss encounters. Bosses are huge, impressive opponents that often require specific tactics and abilities to defeat. Even the ones that just need to be shot a bunch of times can be thoroughly challenging, with a robotic snake in particular proving a tricky obstacle.
Owlboy is fairly forgiving with its liberal checkpoints and ability to find health, but it’s not a cakewalk. Navigating the world’s many hazards requires spatial awareness, and enemies are aggressive enough to chase Otus across multiple screens if they’re not dealt with. Some areas are littered with thorny bushes and other environmental traps, and players will routinely find themselves smacked around and flung into walls if they’re not careful.
Avoiding damage is mostly down to player care, but Otus himself suffers from some loose controls that could use tightening up. As fast as enemies operate, the titular owl boy flies just a hair too slowly to feel like he gels with the world correctly, while turning left and right causes a dramatic swoop in either direction that makes navigating tight thorny corridors a painful hassle.
While not enough to harm the experience to a significant lasting degree, it’s a regular annoyance that Otus is always just a tiny bit sluggish and subsequently isn’t the most responsive owl around.
Despite this grievance, Owlboy is a total delight to play. Its Zelda inspiration is subtle due to the flight and camera perspective, but it’s undoubtedly there. Adventures branch off from a vertical hubworld that expands as Otus gains new abilities and passes previously untouchable terrain, climbing higher and higher into the sky to enter a number of dungeons and acquire new skills.
The only other major criticism I can level at Owlboy overall is that sometimes it’s unclear where one has to go next. As the world expands and further areas become accessible, it gets tough keeping track of where everything is. Getting lost isn’t so common to keep a player stuck for hours, but it’s frequent enough that it merits a mention.
A number of signposts dotted around the world provide some bearing, but I dare say Owlboy could use a lot more. At the very least, there ought to be a way to talk to the party and get some hints or reminders about the next objective.
The hubworlds themselves – and indeed several dungeon screens – are thoroughly massive, with lots of little paths hidden off to the side filled with secrets and treasure. Coins hidden around the world are tallied up by an exuberant merchant and her unsubtle Prinny henchbirds, with new items awarded to Otus when enough are collected.
Upgrades take the form of health increases and gun augments, as well as a number of cosmetic hats that Otus can wear in tribute to one of his three friends. While none of the upgrades are essential, it’s nonetheless enjoyable to frequently return and cash in, if only for the silly banter that occurs as a result.
Owlboy‘s world is simply a lovely place, even if it is under attack by sky pirates. Despite his inability to speak, Otus is adorably expressive, his animations conveying joy, shock, or sadness appropriately.
The large supporting cast of heroes and villains is memorable – they’re often given exaggerated archetypal character traits that are broken down and explored to provide extra hidden depths. Twig’s arc, especially, is a satisfying one to see unfold.
Environments are gorgeous, bristling with detail and color, every area visually distinct while maintaining a unified artistic style. While “retro” aesthetic has become overused in the years since Owlboy‘s unveiling, D-Pad Studio does an impressive job of owning it, making a sky-high world that is truly theirs.
It would be wrong of me to not mention that soundtrack again – every piece of simply inspiring, a beautifully arranged orchestral selection that nails the mood of each scene. Exploring the central world is a joy thanks in no small part to the amazing music accompanying it.
Owlboy may have a few annoying navigational hangups, but none are enough to counter the overwhelming magic of the adventure at hand. Beautiful in both a visual and aural sense, littered with lovely characters, and home to a number of jawdropping combat encounters, Owlboy is a game almost ten years in the making that doesn’t show a trace of development hell.