Otus is not exactly your regular videogame hero. He’s mute for a start, and as such unable to give back the verbal pastings he gets from his mentor. And he gets a lot of those since, for an owl, he’s not too great at flying. He’s pretty terrible in a fight too, with a spin attack that sees him get hit more often than not, and a dodge roll that’s in dire need of some invincibility frames. So Otus is probably not the first owl you’d go to in the event of, say, a band of pirates turning up and trying to destroy all of owldom after hunting down a series of ancient, all-powerful relics. And yet here we are, weaving in and out of a volley of homing missiles, trying to get behind a pirate craft so that it’s struck by its own ordnance.
Luckily, there are other things Otus is pretty good at. Carrying stuff, for instance. He’s good at making friends, too, despite his inability to speak. Before long, he finds himself combining the two: making pals, then picking them up. His first recruit is Geddy, a sweet if rather hapless soldier who fires his blaster at enemies from the comfort of Otus’ talons in one of eight D-pad directions. Later he’ll be joined by Alphonse, a deserter pirate whose shotgun blast is an essential tool for dealing with large groups of enemies, and Twig, who can fire off webs to freeze foes in place. All have their roles to play outside of combat too, in a smartly geargated world – destroying different barriers, perhaps, or using a grapple hook to reach distant platforms.
Owlboy has been in development for the best part of a decade, something most evident in the way in which its world has been painstakingly pieced together. While notionally a Metroidvania, only rarely must you remember some long-passed corner of a level that a new power can take you through. Instead you’re propelled by smart level design toward the next combat encounter, puzzle chamber or set-piece. A surprising highlight are gentle stealth sections, which place scenery on parallax layers, allowing you to hide from pirates behind boxes.
Yet other elements belie Owlboy’s troubled, protracted development. Otus’ movement is stiff and ungainly, and at times you feel like you’re wrestling with the controls a little too often, particularly when it comes to dropping one object and picking up another, or switching between allies in the thick of battle. Checkpointing can be miserly, too. But you’ll persist, just as Otus does; if he’s not prepared to let his shortcomings stop him from saving his fellow owls, then neither are you. With a smart, wry script, a warmly uplifting narrative and a likeable cast, this is a game with its heart in the right place, even if some of its other parts feel a little out of whack.
These winged fellows are the first enemy you’re introduced to. While they’re easily dealt with early on, later they attack in large swarms and gain armour that only Otus’ spin attack, or Alphonse’s shotgun, can break