Some people might lead you to believe that Owlboy is an emotional journey with a cast of instantly lovable characters. Some people would say that Owlboy has gorgeous pixel art, an enchanting soundtrack, fast and frenetic combat, and puzzles that require you to think creatively. Perhaps most tantalizingly, some people would even say that Owlboy takes a loose structure from The Legend of Zelda while incorporating many of its own ideas, and then making something entirely fresh by focusing the entire game on verticality.
“Some people” would be lying.
The truth is that Owlboy is one “mini”-game in which you shoot yourself out of a canon and try not to die by avoiding the walls, but you will. You will always die. It’s a minigame, so you could leave, but your pride prevents that, so you keep playing the damn minigame for an hour and a half until your body is so tense that you could explode, and then you just barely get through but hit a wall at the last second, and that song that used to be wonderful is now a 15-second loop of endless pain, and you realize that you’re in an never-ending hell that you inflicted upon yourself, and then you finally leave in defeat.
Wait, that’s just me. My personal trauma aside, Owlboy actually is all of the things described above, and more. I guess “some people” just haven’t played that mini-game.
Granted, Owlboy is far from perfect, and I swear I’m not just talking about the mini-game-that-shall-not-be-named. The plot itself is a bit overambitious, and thus appears rushed thanks to the 10-hour length. There’s also a batch of puzzles that are a bit overused, with one that comes to mind being especially egregious. While I haven’t played any other versions to compare it to, the Switch version has some pretty ridiculous occurrences of slowdown, and an unacceptable amount of game crashes.
Despite all of this, Owlboy is still a whimsical adventure through the sky with a meaty challenge and a lot of heart. Each of the 10 years spent by D-Pad Studio developing Owlboy shines through in each of the roughly 10 hours it takes to reach the credits.
You can buy the game on the official website for your regional price.
Owlboy makes itself painfully clear at the onset of the game that Otus, the mute player protagonist, is plagued by a community that largely views him as a failure. With no mention of his parents, Otus is raised by his mentor Asio, although “beaten down” might be a more fitting description. In many cases throughout the story, Asio’s language arguably becomes verbal abuse, which very clearly overwhelms Otus to the point of depression, all conveyed in the story before 10 minutes have passed.
Despite this, the game’s overarching theme is a positive one. By starting with this dark tone, the rest of the game’s events gradually show Otus how he is valued by the people he meets along his adventures, each of whom have their own personal problems that they must also overcome. While the story can often be solemn and evoke many tears, it can also be very uplifting (excuse the pun).
It can also be quite silly. While there is no voice acting, the high pixel count means that character animations can be extremely expressive, aided by the witty written dialogue. Otus’ three friends naturally have the deepest characterization, but there are many one-and-done characters that have hilarious situations thrust upon them. While it would be horrifying in real life, the shopkeeper who is heavily hinted to physically abuse her derpy minions is a joke that never stops getting old because of how it is presented.
But what leads Otus and friends into these daring escapades? Vellie, the quiet town of anthropomorphic owls such as Otus, is attacked by a group of pirates. Otus and his steadfast companion Geddy set off on an adventure to stop the pirates from attacking the city of Advent, and the plot continues on from there.
If you look at the internet forums, you will find that there are certainly people who love to dig into this game’s backstory, but I personally didn’t find it all that interesting. The gist is that there used to be an advanced ancient civilization of owls that has mysteriously disappeared. There are book entries and optional holograms to find that flesh out this backstory, but I was personally satisfied by the base explanation given to motivate these characters to continue onwards, whom I found far more interesting than the backstory itself.
Owlboy does not mess around when it comes to difficulty. If you’re anything like me, you will die multiple times in the later stages before trying a different strategy and finally figuring out a way to move on. In dungeons especially, the area is littered with enemies, and dashing past them is a surefire way to get a ticket straight to the Game Over screen. This is because the screen transitions are purely aesthetic, with no lag between one screen and the other, and enemies are just as capable as you to tail you across large distances if you don’t dispose of them properly.
Regardless of how diligent you are with clearing out enemies, it is likely to sooner or later become almost a bullet-hell, especially in boss fights. There will be times when up to six enemies will all be coming at you, their projectiles and/or themselves being thrown at you at all times. In order to not die, constant movement while shooting is absolutely key. As long as you shoot in the general direction of an enemy, your character will fire at it, but this does far from take the challenge away. Instead, it allows you to focus on switching out characters for different situations, positioning, movement, dodging, and any special actions you might have to do for a specific fight.
You play as Otus, but true to the game’s story, he’s not good for much on his own. He can fly the fastest without his companions, and can use a short spin attack to stun most enemies, and kill a small number. There is also a small dash that can be performed with or without a companion in tow. As a whole, Otus controls very fluidly across the largely vertical 2D plain, which usually leads to the feeling of control in combat. However, there is one small issue that can lead to some problems in certain situations. The A button is used to make Otus jump. It is also used to make him fly if pressed a second time. Simple, right? It would be, but instead, you will also fly if you jump off certain ledges, or press up on the d-pad or analog stick. Most of the time, you’ll want to fly anyway. But there are certain sections of the game in which you need to jump and not fly. This quickly becomes a struggle with getting the controls to do what you want them to, and takes the focus away from the game itself.
For the majority of combat, Otus will have to rely on one of his three friends: Geddy functions as the standard shooter, Alfonse as the heavy-hitter that needs to recharge his attack, and Twig as the hookshot to get from one place to the other very quickly, as well as disabling enemies with his webs.
While the balance of the game already lends itself to using different characters to their full potential instead of relying on one and ignoring the others, it takes the extra step to force you to use different combinations of characters throughout the story. Not until towards the end are you able to use all of these characters at once, and because of this, the strategy used to tackle certain enemies changes depending on who you have at your disposal.
There are essentially three types of areas in which you will be spending the bulk of your time in Owlboy, which consist of the following:
The overworld is fairly sizable, and it can certainly be fun to poke around here and there to see what you can find, largely consisting of treasure chests and rings to collect coins. Still, it’s not absolutely teeming with stuff that demands your attention, and there are some expanses of space in which you just have to fly upwards for a while to get to the next thing. For those simply looking to get from start to finish, much of the overworld can be skimmed over, but there are plenty of secrets to find for completionists or just those who want to spend a little more time with the game. There’s also a certain mini-game that you should ignore if you value your sanity.
Technically, there are three dungeons in Owlboy, but while that might seem like an unimpressive number, there are a few caveats. For starters, the third dungeon is so disproportionately long compared to the other two, has a series of boss battles throughout, and has such a large shift in theme halfway through that it might as well be classified as two different dungeons. The other two dungeons can take over an hour each to get through, and they are easily the most engrossing and challenging parts of the game. Much like a dungeon from The Legend of Zelda, they will introduce a mechanic or new character that starts with relatively simple puzzles or challenges that ramp up in complexity as you progress, culminating in a final boss that tests your full knowledge and skill of the concept. Although there are no maps in these dungeons, I very rarely got lost. There is a sizable amount of backtracking in the game after you find a new character or activate something in another room, and while the act of figuring out where to go is an enjoyable one, having to fight the horde of enemies all over again just to get to the next point could become a bit grating.
Finally, there are areas that aren’t quite the overworld, but aren’t quite dungeons either. “Mini-dungeons” works as a classification for these areas most of the time, but not perfectly. They usually follow a more linear structure than a dungeon, are shorter, and more directly related to the story, with more cutscenes and story events found throughout. Many involve stealth segments in order to hide from the otherwise overwhelming pirates, and while it’s nothing game-changing, the stealth works well enough and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
You can upgrade health, weapons, and get cosmetic outfits in a linear predetermined fashion based on collected coins found in the overworld and dungeons by finding treasure chests and flying through rings. Coins are finite, with a predetermined number of them inside each area. This poses a big challenge for completionists, especially because some of these coins are either hard to find or are deviously placed in hard-to-reach locations. Items are unlocked at the shop with the somehow hilariously abusive lady once you obtain a certain number of coins, but they aren’t actually ever taken from you. How does she stay in business?!
GRAPHICS AND AUDIO
Who says that AAA games have the most beautiful graphics? Owlboy proves that pixel art can grow with technology by having far more pixels on screen than any Super Nintendo could handle, but by maintaining the same style that makes the SNES and Genesis era so iconic to this day.
As previously stated, the animations on these characters can be goofy or pitiful, making the characters almost look like they’re from a cartoon. Otus in particular has some truly gut-busting and gut-wrenching expressions, which are important for his characterization, considering that he gets no lines of dialogue.
The art direction also makes liberal use of the background and foreground pixel art. Some of the most breathtakingly gorgeous uses of these are found near the end of the game, so I won’t spoil those, but they serve as fantastic set-pieces that add depth to the world you’re passing through, and I would often just stop to take it all in.
What was a considerably larger problem was the amount of crashes the game ran into. Over the course of the roughly 10 hours of play, the game crashed seven times! That is absolutely unacceptable, and hopefully there will be a future patch in which this is fixed. It is somewhat alleviated by the game's liberal use of autosaves, but no game should be crashing every other hour.
While containing some rare hints of 16-bit music, most of it is performed by an actual orchestra with recorded instrumentation, with emphasis on the strings, and even some instances of a choir. It perfectly captures the spirit of soaring up into the sky in this mystical world. Likewise, for boss battles and other tense scenes, the music also captures the frenetic pace of the gameplay, often scaling in intensity as the fight progresses through various stages. Simply put, the music is the highlight of the game. There are instances when the music loops a bit awkwardly, seeming to have a definite dramatic end but then transitioning back to the introductory musical phrases. Fortuately, this is a rare problem that isn’t terribly distracting most of the time.
There are some games that don’t have much wrong with them, but somehow can seem a bit empty. They might have intuitive gameplay, a variety of quests, even a compelling narrative, but somehow, it feels lifeless. Some games, despite how well they work on a mechanical level, don’t work on an emotional level.
Owlboy is not a perfect game. Its main plot feels rushed in places. There are concepts and characters that are introduced and never again revisited. And, yeah, that mini-game. But what this game has in spades is heart. At face value, the easiest place to see this is in the characters, from their writing, design, and motivations. But the passion that these developers had over a decade of making this game shines through in nearly every aspect of it. The music has an optimistic, uplifting energy to it, and in intense scenes, you can feel the anger, disappointment, and sorrow of the characters through the music. Every single pixel in this game was placed with an obsessive attention to detail, piecing together a richly detailed world of wonder. The gameplay might be rough around the edges here and there, but some of the ways in which they are put to use are truly ingenious, and the design of the dungeons is nothing short of top-notch.
In every aspect of Owlboy, care and careful consideration has been applied to create a seamless experience without the bells and whistles of modern AAA games. In my previous review, I deliberated over the strengths and weaknesses of Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s over-designed philosophy, where every aspect of the game was stuffed to the brim with mechanics upon mechanics. Owlboy has very little of this, and I believe that it is better for it. There is nothing in the way between you and Owlboy’s tragic yet comic characters, captivating dungeons, and irresistible soundtrack and visuals.
Except that damn mini-game.
|+ Quick-paced combat that uses different strategies||– Combat can feel overwhelming|
|+ Zelda-like dungeon design with added verticality||– Could have done more with many concepts|
|+ Enchanting soundtrack||– Somewhat rushed plot|
|+ Endearing cast of expressive characters|
|+ Breathtaking hi-pixel art design|