|Release Date||November 1, 2016|
2016 is shaping up to be the year of long in development games, with Final Fantasy XV & The Last Guardian right around the corner. First up, however, is Owlboy – a 2D adventure game that has been in development since 2007. In Owlboy you’ll play as a mute, well, owlboy named Otus. He’s a screw-up who means well and isn’t really helped by the fact that his mentor is a complete douche towards him. When Sky Pirates attack his village and everything goes wrong, he embarks on an adventure of epic proportions.
The quest Otus embarks on is a truly affecting, heartwarming tale of friendship, hardship and responsibility. It’s very easy to connect with Otus as a protagonist almost from the get go thanks some excellent animation work and the fact that the whole world seems to be against him. What starts out as a story of Otus goofing around with his best pal Geddy, in a village whose biggest concern is a troublemaker causing a bit of a ruckus, quickly escalates to a story of world-saving proportions.
While the main story is decent, with one or two standout moments, it does feel a bit generic. It’s essentially a game of “stop the bad guy, save the world, unravel an ancient mystery” – you know the score. It’s the more personalised story arcs for its core cast of characters, and how the main story affects those characters, that gives Owlboy its heart. Otus is joined in his quest by Geddy, a disaffected pirate called Alphonse and the aforementioned troublemaker Twig.
It’s the story arcs of these characters, as well as Otus’ personal storyline, that carried me through the game. Each of these characters are genuinely interesting and by the end of our journey together I genuinely cared about all of them. They’re given a lot of depth and the space to actually react to the terrible, world changing events that unfold around them and have those events change them in noticeable ways. It helps ground you in the narrative and make the world around feel that much more real.
Each of your companions serves a mechanical purpose as well. As a protagonist, Otus’ abilities are somewhat limited. He can fly, dodge and perform a spin attack, but that’s about it. Otus’ friends each confer on him a different ability. Geddy has a weak but rapid firing pistol, Alphonse has a powerful musket that takes time to reload and Twig can trap enemies in webs and render them harmless.
You access these abilities by carrying your friends. When you pick them up, Owlboy takes on the gameplay of a twin-stick shooter. It’s not just in combat that your companions become useful either, each weapon has their own way of helping you make your way through the game world. Geddy can clear simple blockages, Alphonse can burn plants and Twig gives you access to a grappling hook that can pull you through strong winds and across waterfalls that otherwise negate Otus’ flying ability.
It’s a neat system, although it’s not explored to its fullest potential. There’s no real upgrade system for any of your companions. While you’ll find coins liberally scattered throughout the world, these can only be exchanged for upgrades to Otus’ health (and a series of strange hats). Getting around is as simple as making sure you’re carrying the correct companion. This is made simple by a mystical doodad you acquire that lets you teleport your friends to you at will.
Simple is a word that can be used to describe much of Owlboy. Thanks to the protagonist’s ability to fly platforming is kept to a minimum. This is for the best as Owlboy’s controls don’t handle precision too well. Otus is slow moving, both in the air and on the ground, and the character always feels just a bit sluggish and unresponsive when moving. While this is a persistent problem, it’s mostly a non-issue.
There are, however, a few sections in the game that require more precision than the game can possibly provide. These sections put you in a direct fight with the controls, as it becomes increasingly difficult to actually do what you need to do to progress. This isn’t a major problem. It’s confined to a very small handful of short sections, and one longer one towards the end of the game, but when it happens it can be pretty frustrating.
Combat fairs better than movement thanks to a generous lock-on system that will target just about anything in the environment you can interact with. You can concentrate on flying and not getting hit by projectiles while you shoot, though the lock-on can sometimes cause you to shoot the wrong things. If an enemy is standing near a tree full of life-sustaining fruit, for example, it can be difficult not to start blasting apples harmlessly across the landscape instead of the hairy guy throwing rocks at you.
There’s a nice variety of enemies found throughout the game, each with their own attack styles, patterns and weaknesses. There’s just enough of a difference between them all to require you to put some thought into how you attack them, but they don’t offer enough of a threat to be anything other than minor inconveniences. As long as you don’t ignore them. They’ll follow you to the ends of the Earth until you deal with them.
Boss fights are similarly simplistic. Owlboy is a retro-themed game, as you might be able to tell from the pixel art style in the screenshots. It’s not just the art style that is reminiscent of older adventure titles, as the game brings a lot of classic gameplay staples from a bygone era. This is most noticeable in Owlboy’s boss fights, which trap you in an environment and pit you against a larger enemy with a very specific pattern of moves.
Learning these patterns, when to attack and when to dodge are critical to your survival and eventual victory. It’s a gameplay style I didn’t even realise I missed until I ran up against it in Owlboy. Each of the boss fights is made memorable by these very rigid patterns and there are very obvious methods for survival in each. Each encounter seems daunting at first, as massive creatures swat you around an arena like a pesky mosquito, but once you’ve got these patterns locked down boss fights become very easy to overcome.
The open world, however, does leave something to be desired. There is exploration to be done, with secret collectibles and areas that can shed a lot of backstory on the narrative. But Owlboy feels quite empty and there aren’t really enough of these alternative paths to make you feel like this world of floating islands is one worth exploring. Most of the paths that are initially locked off eventually become part of the main story anyway, as you gather your companions and unlock more abilities.
The game is mostly content with shepherding you along a linear path for most of its 6-8 hours anyway. This isn’t a big deal, the narrative journey is strong enough to keep you hooked, but for a game that describes itself as open-world there sure isn’t that much to actually see off the beaten path. You’re mostly just finding coins to unlock the next health upgrade when you do find a side path, and then you’ve simply got to fly back to the main path to continue.
Even in the dungeons that you’ll delve into, optional side paths are few and far between. Owlboy also has a habit of locking doors behind you as you move from section to section, which further discourages exploration. It also doesn’t help that there’s no map or any real way of telling where anything is. Getting lost in these interconnected hub worlds can be very easy.
There are some really cool non-combat encounters and puzzles in Owlboy, with the game focusing on keeping things fresh beyond simply flying, platforming and fighting. There are a couple of chase scenes that are a particular highlight, as you make a mad scramble towards an exit, dodging barriers and obstacles while a death machine chases you down. The puzzles are alright, though they don’t require much thought to actually solve. I definitely could have done without the enforced stealth sections, though.
I also want to make a special note of the animations and soundtrack of Owlboy, both of which are absolutely fantastic. There is a huge amount of detail in all of the character animations in Owlboy, more than you’d usually expect from a 2D pixel art game, and massive credit must go to the art team at D-Pad Studio. Also, the music of Owlboy, (composed by Jonathan Greer) sits amongst the best video game music released all year, and is something I can definitely see myself listening to independently of the game (in fact, I’m listening to it right now).
Owlboy is a game with a few frustrations, mostly centered around its sluggish controls and fairly empty world. These concerns, however, are minor ones at worst. Owlboy rises above them with a clean, simplistic approach to its gameplay, some very memorable boss fights and a few excellent non-combat encounters. While the main story isn’t as strong as I would have liked, with an ending that leaves a lot to be desired, you’ll fall in love with its wonderful cast of characters. The story arcs that this ragtag collection of misfits and outcasts have are endearing and occasionally heartbreaking, doing a fantastic job at hooking me in the game and making me care about what happens. Combining this with an excellent art style, fantastic animations and a brilliant soundtrack definitely makes Owlboy worth the nine year wait.
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