Years in the making, the love-child of a small Norwegian development team D-Pad Studio, a retro-platform adventure Owlboy, finally premiered on PC two years ago to good reviews. Now that the game has landed on three major consoles, how does it fare at its true home soil? After all, it pays a substantial homage to the 16-bit era platformers, both in the gameplay and presentation with its lovely pixel art. After seeing Owlboy through and leaving me with a major headache, I have advice to any indie developer: not everything in the old games is worth remembering for, let alone copying.
Everyone thinks that mute little owl Otus is a failure (curious fact: “otus” is a Finnish word for “creature”). The fun and heart-wrenching tutorial sees him in failing in every gameplay element presented to the player, much to the annoyance of Otus’s arrogant mentor. Poor boy can’t even speak for himself. Luckily Otus has a good friend in Geddy, a local engineer specialized in tinkering with weapons. After a short venture into a nearby cave, a horde of sky pirates darkens the sky of the peaceful village. They’re about to take hold of three ancient owl relics in order to destroy the world of floating islands. Otus turns out be an accidental hero and tries his best with old and new friends alike, all outcasts in their own right, to rise against the threat.
It’s funny to call Owlboy a platformer because as an owl he is, Otus can fly with the aid of his cape (yes, these are fantasy humanoid birds without proper wings!). It’s fun to flap around, and the controls are smooth and effortless. In those rare occasions when Otus is stripped off an act of flying (waterfalls making his cape heavy or thin air having no lift), though, the actual platforming feels floaty and weighty. Otus can do a spin attack with his cape and can grab onto things, either to consume or throw them. Most importantly, he can carry his buddies around who provide the attack power against the numerous foes. Geddy has his rapid firing shooter and Alphonse, who betrays his murderous pirates and joins the heroes’ cause, wields a powerful musket with a long reloading time and handy smoldering in the barrel after each shot. Completing the sidekick trio is a spider-wannabe Twig (just don’t call him a stick bug he really is!) who can tangle the enemies with web, also used as a grappling hook
There’s no further gameplay actions and understanding the means at your disposal is the key to solve many puzzles in Otus & co’s way. The genre fans can see solutions to the environmental hazards miles away! The boss fights aren't as imaginary as they think they are, and are usually easy to read. Overall, the game strides along in a casual pace with no need to perform death-defying stunts, even though the story may have really dire situations and dramatic upheavals. There’s integrity how D-Pad Studio has boldly followed their own vision and not mimicked current retro-gaming trends. There are some metroidvania elements whenever you first grab a new buddy along for the ride but mostly they’re downplayed. Unfortunately, this same integrity works also against the game.
I like to watch retro channel in Twitch, seeing in action all those platform games and such from the days gone. I enjoy their sights and sounds, but I have to admit, many of them have terrible gameplay ideas and level designs. Illogical mazes with no sensible architecture or apparent goals are there only to make games longer – and more annoying. Owlboy is at its best when it soars up in the sky, equally heart-warming and stalwart. After a shocking turn of events in mid-game, the game loses its focus as it descends into dungeons for most of the remaining running time (technically, some of these dungeons are up there but they’re dungeons nonetheless). What’s the point in sending a flying creature to its unnatural habitat of cramped mazes and bitchy traps? There, Owlboy loses its lovable identity and succumbs into any run-of-the-mill Nintendo platformer of the past.
The good spirit of the first hours of Owlboy is eventually choked under tedious and pointlessly repeated gameplay elements. For example, the underground dungeon has endless run of twisty and dark passages with traps and enemies abound, while the airship is full of replicated airduct mazes and timed puzzles. Running in circles to no end is not my idea of good time, and it doesn’t foster anything but the headache. Not that the game is exactly difficult but it certainly isn’t exciting. If the later gameplay is padded, also the narrative doubles up. The game didn’t even have decency to end at the credits. Instead, the story took its existential nonsense to the next level in the postgame - with more forced platforming to perform in-between. With the gameplay growing more repetitive and the narrative more long-winded, I played the game through grinning instead of smiling.
Yet, the game has its shining moments worthy of smile. There are genuinely funny and moving scenes, and Otus and his outcast friends’ comradeship is heartwarming to watch develop. The gorgeous pixel art of Owlboy reminds me more of games of 16-bit computers, Amiga and Atari ST, than SNES and Genesis titles. The graphics aren’t clinically polished but painted with a restricted color palette of broken tones, with skillful and painstaking halftoning to add more shades to the surfaces. The score is also inspired by 16-bit music, but with added punch and technicalities, and only rarely falling to video game tinkles. Perhaps fittingly, the more grating tunes are played during the most annoying dungeon sections, making them even more irritating.
The most common problem with indie games is that the developers can easily grow blind to their work, and persistently cling to every idea that common sense could see problematic. Owlboy is obviously a labor of love, and not some cold and calculated syndicate product. Altogether, it would have needed some outside help to do doctoring, especially to the latter half of the game. I get it that the story needed to grow more serious than it first seemed, but the tedious gameplay elements don’t meet this shift in dramaturgy. Instead of raising stakes, it only hampers the game flow. In the end, Owlboy is true to its inspiration: a retro-platformer both in good and in bad. It’s a shame that it couldn’t grow beyond that.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.