Originally announced in 2008 and released in late 2016, Owlboy is a pixel-art platformer almost a decade in the making. It’s developed by D‑Pad Studio, an indie developer based in Askøy just outside my hometown Bergen, and was very well received by the international game press upon release, with a Metacritic score of 88 – no small feat seeing that Norway isn’t exactly known for internationally acclaimed games (those of FunCom being notable exceptions).
Lest you worry that the developer’s geographical proximity to yours truly will impact this review, do not fret – I will hold this game to the same
high bar for what I consider worth spending my time on exceedingly high ethical standards I always have when reviewing games.
First, a fair warning: In my opinion, the less you know about a game before playing it, the better. I will of course not spoil any central plot points, but there are some spoilers as regards the underlying themes, which might make some plot beats less surprising. This goes doubly for short games like Owlboy. It’s a good game, so if you’re considering playing it and want to do so with the freshest possible mindset, do so before reading on (do come back and finish reading later, of course).
A tale of weakness
In Owlboy you take on the role as Otus, a mute, adolescent owl simply wishing to be good enough for his peers. Besides disappointment from his teacher and scorn from his other pupils, life is peaceful in the idyllic floating archipelago called Vellie, until Events™ take place involving the dreaded Pirates. Otus then teams up with his self-proclaimed best friend, the military mechanic Geddy, to try and stop the interlopers.
It sounds fairly ordinary, but this isn’t your usual “sky pirates vs. sky peasants” plotline.1 Not only are many characters, including antagonists, given more depth than just a number on the “good/evil” axis; indeed, the game carries an interesting theme throughout – one of doubt, insecurity, weakness, and imperfection. While certainly not unheard of in games (indie games in particular), it still feels like a breath of fresh air to me.
The theme exists on many levels, from the permeating burden of failure inherited from generations past to the soreness of fresh failure; from the misplaced blame of perceived failures to the consequences of real ones. Everyone has failed and always will, says the game, but failure isn’t the end.
The theme of weakness is supported by the mechanics, too. Otus isn’t a gun-toting superhero. Besides his mechanical raison d’être – flying – he can only do a weak spin attack to stun enemies, and has to rely on his friend Geddy to fill more destructive roles. Geddy, likewise, must depend on Otus for any kind of locomotion throughout the levels, what with not having wings and all. Thus, you fly through the various levels, dungeons and landscapes, sometimes carrying Geddy and sometimes alone, solving puzzles, shooting enemies, and generally doing your best to save the world.
The game can at first glance seem like a metroidvania, but a more thorough look quickly reveals key differences: While everything takes place in a mostly open world, like Ori and Aquaria, which gradually “opens up” as you get the powers needed to get to new areas, there’s not a lot of focus on exploration, and fairly little forced backtracking (which is nice, if you ask me).2
While Geddy is your first teammate, you encounter more allies throughout the game with different weapons and abilities, and you must make use of all of them according to their own strengths. In practice, switching between teammates (and thus weapons/abilities) is done at the click of a button (which is justified by a teleportation device found in an early dungeon), just like you would normally switch weapons in other games, but it’s nice to see that Owlboy goes the extra mile to rationalize its mechanics in the context of its characters and lore.
It’s also nice to see a substantial variation in enemies throughout the game. None are mere bullet sponges, instead requiring genuinely different tactics to take down. Many enemies can be taken down in several ways (some more creative than others, such as playing “ping-pong” with the stone-throwing enemies), preventing the combat from becoming too repetitive.
The theme of weakness doesn’t mean that the game isn’t challenging, though. Here be dragons and other traditional bosses of ye olde NES age, all very much capable of killing you over and over again with their conveniently broadcasted attacks in matching hazardous square arenas. Sure, this isn’t Dark Souls – most notably, respawn points are frequent – but most players will become familiar with the Game Over screen by the end.
An audiovisual masterpiece
As you would expect from most modern pixel art games,3 Owlboy looks gorgeous. Even if you’ve become desensitized to the pixel art aesthetic by now, you’re likely to find something to marvel at in Owlboy, whether it’s the exquisite sceneries or the parallax scrolling goodness. What particularly impressed me about this game was the body language of the characters during cutscenes, including striking and humorous facial expressions. The humour in general is kind of anime-esque at times, both in characters, dialogue and expressions, and though I didn’t laugh out loud much, I enjoyed the style.
The music, composed by Jonathan Geer, is simply fantastic, and eminently supports the moods throughout the game. Much of the score is orchestral, starting out with melancholy strings, oboe and clarinet in Otus’ home as he contemplates his weaknesses, changing to heroic Zelda-esque chiptune music in Vellie as you take flight and start the game proper, then switching to growling brass and heavy drums as the drama increases, with the occasional mystic chiptune for the alien feeling of some dungeons or full-out intense electronic beats for the more dramatic sequences. I would also be remiss not to mention the stunningly beautifully performed piano composition during the end credits.
The sound effects are also deserving of a mention – not just the swooshes of wings or sound of bullets you hear all the time, but everything from the Zelda-like tune played when you’ve solved a riddle to one-offs used to great effect during conversational and expositional scenes.
Not all mirth and jollity
Solid as Owlboy is in every respect, it’s not perfect. Some boss fights and platform segments are less well designed than others. I occasionally found myself discovering a solution merely by accident after having smashed my head against a brick wall sufficiently many times, so to speak, and upon discovering the solution, wondered how I could have arrived there by other means. And some boss fights seem to almost require you to die several times before you can decipher the attack patterns.
Furthermore, the game occasionally feels like a test of patience instead of skill. For example, the camera doesn’t always pan to a new area before you are at the very edge of the screen. Several times, this meant I flew straight into some hazards in the next screen which would have been easily avoided if the camera had just panned a bit sooner (and which, of course, would have been completely obvious to Otus himself).
As with more or less all similar games, Owlboy sports collectibles, in this case coins that unlock a few simple upgrades. These coins are occasionally placed in secret areas behind your usual “fake walls”, expect that several of these fake walls can’t be distinguished in any way from normal walls. Thus, the only way to find them all, short of relying on stumbling into them by accident, seems to be to scrape yourself against every wall in the game.
Finally, the story felt a bit rushed towards the end, though to avoid spoilers, the less said about that, the better.
After almost a decade of development, was Owlboy worth the wait?
Well, I am hardly the right guy to answer that question – I wasn’t among those waiting for it in the first place.
But is it a good game?
Yes, it most certainly is. The quality of the craftsmanship is evident in all layers of the game, from the audiovisual presentation down through the narrative and the underlying themes. Gameplay-wise it’s got little new to offer, but what it does have, it packages nicely together into a coherent whole, which is more than you can say for a lot of games.
I wouldn’t say that this is a game you should definitely play no matter your tastes, but if you have enjoyed pixel art games or metroidvania-likes before, odds are you’ll enjoy Owlboy, too.
Owlboy is a masterfully crafted game with quality on all levels. The few pain points are easily balanced by its positive sides, making this a game well worth experiencing unless you definitely don’t like the genre.
Come to think of it – what is your usual “sky pirates vs. sky peasants” plotline?↩
So… a metroidvania-like? I.e. something that is similar to something that is similar to Metroid/Castlevania? Let’s not go there.↩
Or as D‑Pad Studio themselves call the style, “hi-bit pixel art”, which seems to be the technical term for “holy cow why didn’t SNES games look this great”.↩