Owlboy – PC
Developer: D-Pad Studio
Publisher: D-Pad Studio
Release Date: November 1st, 2016
Nerd Rating: 7.5 out of 10
After nine years of production, the much-awaited indie title known as Owlboy hit the virtual shelves. Along the way, it has received critical acclaim at gaming conventions as well as from review sites and publications. “But,” you might say, “I’ve never heard of Owlboy. Why does everyone think it’s so great?” I asked myself the same question. Let’s dig in and find out.
Telling the story of a mute protagonist named Otus, Owlboy takes the player on an action-packed journey to save the world. Using his wing suit, Otus flies around, exploring the floating islands that surround him. He travels accompanied by his crew of friends, whom he carries around and uses to defeat enemies and conquer obstacles.
The brainchild of Simon Andersen, Owlboy was developed by D-Pad Studio as “a love letter to pixel art for a new audience,” drawing inspiration from games during the 16-bit era, where everything was slightly blocky and simplistic, yet somehow deeply expressive. It is with this mindset that Owlboy was conceived: to demonstrate the advantages of 2-D pixel art over the 3-D graphics of our modern era.
Right off the bat, Owlboy wastes no time in working to make good on its mission statement. The game beings with the player awakening from a troubling dream to find themselves within the warm safety of their owl loft. The pixel art and sound direction work together to begin crafting an atmosphere of comfort, awe, and wonder, capturing that same feeling evoked by the opening moments of many games from The Legend of Zelda series.
At its core, Owlboy is a side-scrolling action-platformer. The player will likely spend a lot of their time flying around in the air, but they can also run around and jump, just like in traditional platformers. While in flight, Otus can pick up a lot of different items, using them to solve puzzles and defeat enemies. Alongside that, Otus will collect friends throughout the game that he can also carry around. Each of these friends wield some sort of unique projectile that can be used in different situations for…you guessed it! Solving puzzles and fighting enemies!
The controls of Owlboy are fairly unique and intuitive. Playing with a controller in hand (not sure how it would work without one, definitely make sure you have a controller for this game), the player can navigate and activate Otus’ flying abilities with the left stick, using the right stick to aim projectiles and the like. This is a great example of blending new ideas with more retro concepts, since, of course, older 8-bit and 16-bit games did not have the benefit of dualshock controllers. This allows the gameplay and combat to be complex and fast-paced, requiring the player to think about many things at the same time.
Otus’ friends are each unique and well-designed, lending their distinct characters to the development of the story while adding complexity to the game’s mechanics. Over time, a real bond can be felt between the player and these characters, due in no small part to the use of pretty believable and well-crafted dialogue.
This extends into the world of Owlboy, in general; the main hub is filled with fascinating and distinguished characters worth talking to. Just about everyone has something interesting to say, and their manner of interacting with Otus will change as the story goes on, helping to further immerse the player within the story. Over the history of video games, it has become a trope that every adventure/RPG-style game wants every little character to have something to say, and over time, this has become less and less compelling (just think of how much of your life has already been spent skipping your way through boring conversations in games). Owlboy is the first game in recent memory where I felt genuinely interested in what everyone had to say. As the end of the game drew ever nearer, I found myself seeking out these characters in order to “catch up” with them and see how they were doing, so hats off to Owlboy’s character writing.
In true Zelda-eque fashion, Owlboy sports a handful of expansive dungeons along the player’s journey, offering the tantalizing prospect of adventure in the face of danger. These dungeons are pretty well-designed and represent significant spikes in the game’s level of difficulty.
A couple of really good dungeons come to mind. These dungeons feature winding architecture and layouts that surround the player with danger at every turn. It’s pretty refreshing to see a game that isn’t afraid to get challenging from time to time, significantly heightening the exhilarating feeling you get when you can pull off a successful run, surviving the traps that wait within the dungeons’ walls. This doesn’t mean that the dungeons would be impossible for the casual player, but it definitely ensures that they will become a more skillful player by the end of the game.
The dungeons in Owlboy are wonderful news, in my opinion. One of the keys to crafting a really good adventure-style or RPG game is to put the player in situations in which they’re not entirely sure what the outcome will be. Challenging dungeons are a great way of doing this, trapping the player within a hostile environment for an extended period of time as they desperately claw their way toward what they hope is the finish line. Only…
There aren’t really that many of them. All told, there might be five dungeons, max. This is a pretty small amount, which means that each one has to be right on point for this game to present a truly rewarding experience. Unfortunately, not all of them really are. From memory, there are about two or three standout dungeons, and the rest are kind of bleh.
The bleh dungeons are either short or super-linear, rarely leaving the player in situations of uncertainty or distress. These dungeons are easy and heavily story-driven, not really feeling that much like dungeons at all. At the start of the game, the first couple of dungeons are rich with rewarding puzzles and challenging enemies, but this format kind of breaks down toward the game’s end. While this is kind of a shame, the dungeons do feature a pretty good amount of variation.
While there may be a relatively small number of dungeons, Owlboy sports a very impressive amount of one-off action sequences that have continued to take me by surprise. These sections are carefully crafted, often requiring the player to run through a gauntlet of sorts, and feel different at each new turn. Sneaking past deadly goblins, dodging falling rocks, and riding giant sky serpents, Otus is put through an extraordinary number of epic feats that both heighten the story’s epic tone and put the player’s skills to the test.
These sections are rarely easy, often requiring a good deal of timing and skill from the player. Though they may be difficult, they strike a good balance between replayability and allowing the developers to get the most out of their assets. I’m glad these are in there and actually kind of wish there were more.
Aside from these one-offs, there is a pretty tidy number of unique bosses, to boot. Every dungeon will have between two or three bosses, but almost never just one. This is a great feature, since the bosses are really freakin’ good, sporting a decent amount of variation, as well. Each one is tougher than the last, often requiring two or more tries to get right. It’s been a while since a game was tough enough to force me to try a boss more than once, so I’m super happy that Owlboy doesn’t flinch on the difficulty here.
As an adventure game, Owlboy naturally has a fairly solid story going for it. Otus is a pupil owl who doesn’t seem to be good enough for his master, struggling to prove his merit by saving his village through one epic stunt after another. He has a friendly sidekick, the world is in trouble, three powerful relics are required to save it, yadda yadda.
On paper, Owlboy’s story is relatively simplistic and predictable, but it’s the characters and dialogue that really drive it home and make it believable. Each character feels distinct and true, and the dialogue is pretty well-written, with some mild adult references thrown in–safe enough for the children, but not so basic that an adult won’t feel at home with this game. A lot of the story takes place through dialogue and cut scene, but there are a nice handful of gestural-based storytelling elements that will make you laugh and cry.
The thing is, Owlboy’s story runs into a bit of a snag: it takes over way too often. When playing an adventure game, it’s super frustrating to have your control taken away to have some plot points dictated to you by a group of people talking back and forth at one another. In order to maintain player immersion, it’s incumbent upon the designers to interrupt player flow as little as possible, and Owlboy does it a little too frequently, wrestling control away from the player for too long. But underneath that lies an even bigger issue.
Owlboy is a really short game. Throughout my first hour with this game, I was absolutely in love. The atmosphere, the graphics, the music, the pacing, the homages to 16-bit games, all of it had me hooked from the start. All told, however, there’s probably about 3-4 hours worth of content in this game, which is a little depressing, considering that a significant portion of this time will also be spent watching cut scenes or navigating through dialogue. I complained about the story butting in so often, but in hindsight the real issue may just be that the developers were trying to cram too much content into too small a space, causing significant pacing issues. And because of this, I never felt like I really had time to get to know the world of Owlboy, rushing from place to place without being encouraged to stop and appreciate its beauty.
And boy, is it beautiful. One of the original tenets of Owlboy’s creation was to display the might of pixel art, and D-Pad Studio pulls this off with flying colors. Literally.
The landscapes and surrounding environments are magnificent, with impressive special effects that push the limits of pixel art.
The characters are charming and expressive, featuring well-executed sprite-based animations and little facial expressions that convey meaning and emotion with seeming ease.
Alongside the art direction, the musical score of Owlboy is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Lofty, sweeping orchestral pieces played with live instruments set the mood for life up in the clouds. A distinct tune will play within each of the houses in the central hub, and each dungeon sports its own theme, as well, with epic battle music to boot. Some songs, like this one, are downright adorable and will stick in your head forever. Seriously, the music is absolutely stellar in this game, with a significantly high production value. Only, something feels slightly off…
As much as I hate to bring it up again, the music is extremely reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda series. I’m reminded of The Wind Waker most strongly, almost as if the composer was given temp music from that game to help him get an idea of what the developers were looking for. As great as the soundtrack is, I just couldn’t get The Wind Waker out of my head every time I heard a song from this game. And that’s not a terrible thing, but it’s definitely not a great thing either.
Nip’s Correction Corner
This review is winding to a close, but before we finish, I’d like to welcome you to the first ever edition of Nip’s Correction Corner, where I offer a summation of all the things I believe Owlboy didn’t get quite right, suggesting my own solutions that I came up with off the top of my head. I was more critical of this game than I intended on being, so I think it’s only fair that I offer some ways it could be improved. If this kind of thing doesn’t interest you, feel free to skip on over to the end.
For one, I think one of Owlboy’s most impressive and underused asset would have to be its collection of one-off action sequences. They’re challenging and immersive, and more of them could heighten the feeling of adventure. And I’m not even suggesting that more be made. I think a lot of the existing ones could be repurposed and changed slightly in nature and difficulty to offer more action-packed encounters and increase game length.
There’s no way around it. Owlboy needs more dungeons. The number that it has just doesn’t feel like enough.
Frame-based navigating needs to go. A more dynamic tracking camera could help the player navigate the world a lot easier. On that note, a mini-map or just a map would have been super helpful in tracking down secrets.
A flight button needs to be designated. Assigning flight to the control stick, which is already used for other things, leads to too many mistakes.
Story elements need to be spaced out more to avoid boring the player. With more dungeons, that part would almost take care of itself.
The player needs more opportunities where they are encouraged to explore the hub world. It’s always point-A-to-point-B it seems with this game, so more opportunities to wind down and explore the map for the next objective would be very welcome. Consider The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past. This is an adventure game that gives tentative goals, allowing the player to explore the surrounding world and figure out exactly how they will accomplish them. Frankly, I’m just not sold on how rigid Owlboy’s structure is.
Thanks for tuning in to this edition of Nip’s Correction Corner! See you next time!
Owlboy is a very impressive game with tons of promising potential. Awesome dungeons, an immersive atmosphere created through fantastic visuals and a tight soundtrack, a fairly interesting story with well-written characters, all of these things help to create a game that is simply a joy to play. Every little detail of this game feels handcrafted to the max, a testament to the hardworking nature of the development team. However, a lot of this is diminished by Owlboy’s setbacks, most notably the game’s shortness, giving the player very little time to soak in the wonder and beauty of the world around them. By the same coin, the story is tightly-condensed, meaning that it will interrupt the player’s flow at excruciatingly regular intervals, which seriously hampers immersion.
My reviews can get pretty negative sometimes, and it may be easy to get the impression that I didn’t like Owlboy. That’s just not true. At its peak, Owlboy offered me some of the richest adventure gaming experiences I’ve had in a while, harking back to the feeling evoked by classic adventure titles like A Link to the Past without feeling like an uninspired clone. But, the fact remains that I was left wanting more. If the relative shortness doesn’t deter you, and if you like adventure and story, you will have a lot of fun with this title, and I would recommend it for any gamer of just about any age.
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