The storied history of Owlboy is one that stretches across almost the entire time in which independent game developers rose from an offshoot novelty to a mighty force in the game industry, and then transformed into an oversaturation of developers and games on the marketplace, where visibility and attention are in short supply. Or at least that’s how I see it. Originally announced in 2008, the game has gained something of a legacy, and just last year, it finally came out to a rather warm reception. Considering I had been excited for this game since I first heard about it while in middle school, I was naturally looking forward to finally playing the game for myself. Unfortunately… Well, I’ll get into that.
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux
Developer/Publisher: D-Pad Studio
Owlboy centers around Otus, an anthropomorphic owl child living his life in a village made up of floating landmasses and enjoying his life as best he can with his emotionally abusive father, and a group of character who enjoy mocking him for his disability. That all changes after his village is inevitably attacked by a group of pirates, who in turn cause Otus to go on a journey to foil the antagonistic forces and ultimately save the world, as the old adage goes. In all fairness, the world and characters of Owlboy are clearly the highlights and it has every right to rely on a reliable structure such as this. Every character introduced and featured throughout the story is vibrant and eccentric in their own way, offering a series of memorable designs and enjoyable personalities that in turn leads to enjoyable dialog.
Despite featuring such a charming cast of ancillary or tertiary characters, the proper story of Owlboy is handled with a surprisingly dour tone and is strewn together by a series of failures on behalf of Otus and his band of merry men. Every time Otus and his friends try to better the world or hinder the pirates, their efforts are always thwarted just as it seems like they might actually win something. Instead, the pirates continue their acts of destruction while the story only further raises the stakes by threatening all life in the world as part of an eleventh hour reveal that, despite not doing anything necessarily wrong, rang generic and uninteresting. Something exemplified by just how little information is revealed by this final twist, with one of the terms introduced as part of it going so far as to be completely undefined.
However, the more disconcerting thing about the story is the fact that Otus never actually accomplishes anything. Yes, he befriends some people and saved two resistance members at one point, but that is about it. His actions towards the main storyline are completely undermined by the fact that he never succeeds at any of his goals, and the only time he actually benefits the world and story, it is because he prevented an unseen, if misguided, hero from doing it.
There are also various oddities about how the story is handled. Such as how an item that is discovered by Otus early on in the game is never brought up in the story after its introduction, despite its strong ties to similar items. The fact that the game is bizarrely male focused, without a single female character whose role could be considered anything more than secondary, and for absolutely no reason. Or how the main antagonist is not the final boss, and they are instead destroyed for unclear reasons in order to fasten the game’s conclusion.
Now, I would be more inclined to forgive some of these things if I enjoyed the gameplay. To be fair, I did find it enjoyable early on. It has many unique and unconventional ideas as an action platformer with a protagonist who may freely soar through the skies, rolling to rapidly ascend upwards, downwards, frontwards, and backwards, only pausing in order to call on an ally to help dispatch an enemy of interact with a small something or other. It had a sense of fluidity to it that I was really enjoying, yet that sense only became increasingly fleeting as the game progressed and became more difficult. Hazards became harder to avoid, precision was more required, and both deaths and taking damage became more commonplace, but in a way that did not feel as if it was testing my skill. Instead it was just testing my patience.
This can be attributed to a lot of factors. The first being how Owlboy handles taking damage. Typically, when the player character takes damage in the game, it should be made very clear and evident, yet the player should also be able to quickly recognize their mistake and get back into the action. Owlboy is of the mindset that if the player gets hit by anything, they should feel as if they’ve been sucker punched. The screen shakes, flashes white, and Otus is smacked into the nearest wall, skidding down as the pain overcomes him and dropping whatever he was holding onto the ground.
Every time Otus is hit, it’s like the game is jabbing me right in the side while demanding to know how and why I managed to get hit. Well Owlboy, I don’t think you can very well blame me for your crappy weapon system, weird hitbox, erratic enemy patterns, occasionally overly detailed environments that can make it hard to focus on a single thing, and camera system that offers limited vertical visibility, meaning it is entirely possible to roll directly into danger because the camera did not pan quickly enough.
Otus’s companions are also only a fraction as useful as they should be, with all but one of them only having a single ability to fall back on, and that ability always having some sort of problems with it. The timid human Geddy uses a peashooter that fires three shots with an alarmingly short range that serve to damage enemies and break obstacles, yet not in a satisfying way. Alfonse has fiery blunderbus that demolishes all it touches, and sends enemies back while converting them into flaming chunks of fire and death, but its range is pathetic and the recharge time between attacks is simply arduous at points.
While Twig is easily best of the three, as he features a rapid-fire attack that can immobilize enemies in one shot as well as the ability to grapple across the screen while making Otus invincible, however, his attack cannot destroy barriers, and simply does not work on some enemies. Also, it sometimes makes them unable to harm Otus, and sometimes not depending on the enemy in question.
They are a band of misfits who together have the workings of a good assistant character that should accompany Otus, but all ultimately come across as a waste due to their unmet potential and the issues each of them have from a gameplay perspective. If they featured a more direct series of upgrades, or perhaps were combined into a single character to negate the issue of switching between characters, I would have surely found the combat of this game more enjoyable.
Such an alternative would likely mandate the game to be more exploration focused though, and despite being a proclaimed fan of exploration, Owlboy’s hunt for collectible coins is easily among the most tedious and obnoxious collectible that I have bothered to collect in any game in recent memory. Of my nine hours with this game, approximately a third of that was spent backtracking for coins and following video guides to discover what coins I missed and where they were, seeing as how Owlboy not only lacks a map, it lacks any tool to help the player locate secrets. Most of the time, I ended up missing the coins hidden behind wall that Otus could arbitrarily pass through. Walls with no clear distinction of being different than any other wall in the game, and not even placed in a way that would make the player reasonably suspicious.
Yet, that was not the most annoying part of this quest for coins. That would go to the cannon mini-game, which is easily among the most frustrating, obnoxious, and irritating things I have seen in any game I have ever played in my life. The minigame has Otus being shot through the air while needing to be directed around obstacles and through rings in order to get coins. The problem is that Otus is moving at an insane speed, obstacles come up so fast they can only be avoided via rote memorization, and the controls for this section are driven by confusing and uncomfortable physics that makes the section a nightmare to control. I spent 40 minutes trying to get through this one section of the game, and it alone would be enough to prevent me from ever playing this game again.
However, and this is a big however, the reward for getting all the coins, for going through this tripe, for drudging through all of this irritating nonsense, is wonderful. It is a cloak that allows Otus to dash at a much faster rate, and makes him invincible while doing so. It is one of the greatest and most satisfying upgrades I have ever received in any game, but it was still not worth collection all of this pointless fluff and irritation it brought. I was so happy to have this item right before the final area of the game, but in a cruel twist of fate, the final area is the one place in the entire game where Otus is unable to fly, negating most of the joys my newly obtained obtained secret item. It was at this point where I questioned if Owlboy simply despised me for some reason.
There is one more aspect I want to mention about the gameplay, and that is the surprising amount of stealth the creators put into the game, as Otus infiltrates enemy bases several times and needs to hide away from enemies accordingly. This was ultimately fine in its first iteration and served to add some appreciated variety to the gameplay while making narrative sense, yet subsequent iterations really highlighted how boring and tiresome these sections could be, especially when they are combined with another bizarre overused gimmick of this game, black environments. By which I mean environments that are pitch black due to darkness and as much of a pain to navigate as one would imagine.
While Owlboy manages to achieve a Zelda-esque mix of varied combat encounters and intuitive puzzle solving and the joy of soaring through environments is enjoyable in its own right, there is simply too much about the gameplay for me to view the experience as a whole in a positive light. All the pieces are there, but the game ultimately feels less than the some of its parts. Also, in spite of some having claimed as such, this game is not really a metroidvania title, as backtracking is only for mostly meaningless collectibles and there are only tertiary upgrade elements.
While I have been very critical about the gameplay and story, the most obvious appeal of this game is its visuals, and I have nothing but nice things to say about them. The level of detail placed in the movement of each and every character, the manner in which they speak, how they express themselves, and simply move across the environment is wonderful. Every design is rife with personality and warrants replication. Every environment is crammed with detailed backdrops and minor moving elements that really help make the game visually pop during just about every second of it. It is one of the few games whose visuals had me gasp in awe or glee at how detailed, fluid, and downright beautiful they looked. I just wish that D-Pad Studio had this same level of talent when it came to game design.
I want to enjoy and love every game I play, and Owlboy is no exception. The way the story is supposed to end is that I consider it one of my favorite games in recent memories and ultimately praise it for managing to work its way up to such a high level of quality after it has been in development for about a decade. However, there are too many narrative and gameplay decisions that I simply enjoyed for me to walk away from this game without disappointed. It clearly aimed for the stars, but was not a strong enough flyer to even make it through the mesosphere.