After nearly a decade of development, Owlboy takes wing at last, bringing 2016 a new indie darling surprise that few saw coming.
Developer: D-Pad Studio
Publisher: D-Pad Studio
Release Date: November 1st, 2016
The last few years have seen a gaming audience, exhausted by an endless stream of sameish AAA games, suddenly delighted by a handful of indie platformers that hearkened back to classics they loved. While games like Mighty No. 9 prove that it takes more than just slapping a nostalgia label on a platformer to make a good game, titles like Shovel Knight successfully reinvent the genre for a modern day audience. Until last week, I was worried that 2016 would come and go without such a game. Yet here we are with Owlboy, from D-Pad Studio. They’re not just here to cash in on the pixel art, platforming nostalgia craze, either. Owlboy has been in the works for nearly a decade, and isn’t tied down by classic reminiscing. Its flight is all its own.
Owlboy tells the story of Otus, a young owl learning How To Owl from a strict teacher who is convinced he stinks at it. Owls are revered as wise protectors in a world of humans and other strange, sentient monsters and animals, all living on floating continents high in the atmosphere. Otus must come into his own when a pirate attack threatens the peace of his hometown of Vellie and other nearby cities, all the while uncovering something much more frightening beneath the surface.
I won’t go much any farther than that, because you’ll want to savor every last drop of Owlboy’s story. It’s on the shorter side (about ten hours long), but with no words or gestures wasted. Your companions are goofy, lovable, and flawed, and balanced storytelling helped me get to know and enjoy the company of them all. NPCs with whimsical sprite designs fill in the spaces of the intriguing world with a hearty mixture of levity and gravity. It was truly a pleasure to get to know everyone that I met in Owlboy.
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Not only are the characters colorful, but the world itself is a visual treat. D-Pad Studio describes their visual style as “Hi-Bit pixel art” in an effort to put a name on the newly popular form of pixel art that’s a drastic improvement from classic pixel games. So while what you’re looking at is pixel art, it’s much more elegant. Shimmering green leaves ripple in the breeze; brilliant starry skies illuminate your journey; character sprites are animated with adorable details. The visual style truly brings Owlboy’s fantastical world to life, along with an absolutely stunning soundtrack that will make your heart soar.
I almost don’t want to spoil the moment you’ll hear this music for the first time in game by posting it here now, but it’s just too lovely not to share (and it’s the trailer, anyway):
The denizens of the sky populate a Super Metroid-structured world; everything is interconnected, but certain areas are gated behind various skills you’ll learn as you go. It’s easy enough to return to old areas to uncover new secrets (and there are a few worth seeking out!), and the few loading screens there are were mercifully short. Cleverly-placed shortcuts and friendly movement controls mean this will definitely be a game for speedrunners in the coming years.
Each area was a refreshing, new challenge, all the way to the end of the game.
Owlboy’s platforming (or rather, flying, though there’s some more traditional jumping at certain points too!) is everything I could want from a game in the genre–simple enough for unskilled players to learn, but with plenty of tough challenges, too. That’s because Owlboy ascribes to the philosophy that you don’t need complex tutorials to explain a game to someone. Just give them a basic control or two, then let the gameplay teach them.
Whenever you learn a new skill, you’ll encounter a series of simple puzzles that teach you how to use your ability in concert with everything else you’ve learned. As you progress through the area, the difficulty will ramp up until you’re a master of complex button presses and movement sequences that make you feel like a platforming genius when you finish them. While Owlboy’s progression always built upon the knowledge I already had, nothing ever felt repetitive. Each area was a refreshing new challenge, all the way to the end of the game.
I was particularly impressed with the attention to object placement details. Oftentimes, I would trigger an unknown reaction from one object while testing out a new ability on another–thereby learning how the two things worked together. For example, when I learned to grapple, I inadvertently crossed the path of a bomb while grappling across a room–and learned I could grapple bombs to myself and throw them.
Otus’s primary ability is to pick up and carry his friends (or sometimes objects) while flying. Each of his three friends has unique strengths and weaknesses. For example, Geddy’s gun can do rapidfire ranged damage, but his shots are weak and cannot damage armored things. Alphonse’s flamethrower puts out a huge burst of flame that can bust through armor, but it has a long charge time. With a single button press, Otus can swap which of his friends he’s carrying, resulting in fast-paced switches being a primary component of certain obstacles or boss battles.
Boss battles in Owlboy are as they should be in such a title–comprehensive exams. Each functions effectively as a test over whether you’ve truly mastered the skills you’ve just learned in an area and can use them effectively under high pressure. Most bosses won’t be a cakewalk, but well-placed autosaves and cutscene skips make death a learning experience rather than a cause for frustration.
With Otus and his friends’ powers combined, you’ll fly, spin, shoot, blast, grapple, and leap your way across the skies. You’ll fight mobs of enemies, solve various switch puzzles, bypass deadly obstacles, and race against the clock to complete objectives. You’ll uncover hidden secrets behind even greater skill challenges, and seek out collectible currency for powerful weapon upgrades and trivial (but cute) cosmetic hats, if you so desire. There seem to be just the right amount of things to do in Owlboy–while I felt the story had reached its natural conclusion when the credits rolled, I couldn’t help but want an excuse to return to the skies with Otus and have another adventure.
A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.