Gor­geous ad­ven­ture sets the bar sky-high

Game of­fers play­ers con­tem­po­rary feel de­spite be­ing 10 years in the mak­ing

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - GAMING - By OLIVIA WHITE

It’s been al­most ten years since we first heard about Owl­boy. De­vel­op­ers D-Pad Stu­dio have popped up with info, up­dates and even a demo over the years, so there’s never been any sug­ges­tion that the game wouldn’t come out, but … al­most ten years, for an in­die plat­former. It’s a long time to be ex­cited about some­thing. And there’s a se­ri­ous risk with any game that’s been in devel­op­ment for so long. Tech changes, tastes change, and some­times you can be left with some­thing that feels like a prod­uct of its time, even though it’s only just hit stores. The risk of be­ing out­dated is mit­i­gated with Owl­boy some­what, at least in terms of its pixel art vis­ual style, but it’s a risk nonethe­less.

As you’ve prob­a­bly heard by now thanks to fan­tas­tic pre-re­lease re­views and launch day sales, Owl­boy’s risk paid off. The al­most decade-long devel­op­ment did noth­ing to harm it. In fact, hav­ing played the game in­tensely over the last week or so, rins­ing out every sin­gle se­cret, col­lect­ing every sin­gle op­tional col­lectible, find­ing every last hid­den item and area on top of com­plet­ing the main story, it’s hard to imag­ine a game that could be any more pol­ished, any more pre­cisely and lov­ingly crafted. Con­trary to the way that many games with huge devel­op­ment cy­cles turn out, Owl­boy is an ab­so­lutely stun­ning, con­tem­po­rary ex­pe­ri­ence.

Owl­boy is a 2D pixel-art plat­former ad­ven­ture, with Metroid­va­nia el­e­ments, an as­pect of shmup de­sign, and strongly plot-driven. It fol­lows the story of young Otus, an owl-in-train­ing, who’s tasked one day with keep­ing an eye out for a trou­ble­maker and ends up in the cen­tre of an apoc­a­lyp­tic plot in­volv­ing ro­bot pi­rates, spi­der-men, an­cient owl so­ci­eties and a hand­ful of stolen relics. It might not sound like the setup for an in­cred­i­bly deep, heart­felt tear-jerker of a plot, but looks can be de­ceiv­ing.

Not that Owl­boy lacks any­thing in the looks depart­ment, mind. The pixel art style is an ex­am­ple of where this game man­ages to be in­cred­i­bly mod­ern de­spite the lengthy dev cy­cle. Rather than go with a retro throw­back feel, D-Pad Stu­dio uses a style they de­scribe as “hi-bit” — in­cred­i­bly de­tailed, lux­u­ri­ously an­i­mated pixel art that thrusts the gen­er­ally retro-styled aes­thetic into the 21st cen­tury. And make no mis­take, the game is ab­so­lutely stun­ning. Every­thing has been crafted with love and an im­mense at­ten­tion to de­tail, from the an­i­ma­tions of pro­tag­o­nist owl­boy Otus to the in­di­vid­ual clouds in the back­ground as you soar through the strato­sphere.

You’ll tra­verse dingy, dank caves over­grown with vines, teem­ing with shrubs and wildlife, or cir­cle and wheel through the skies above your home­town Vel­lie, as tiny birds flit in and out of the screen, leaves drift through the air, trees shud­der and ripple in the wind. It’s one of the most evoca­tive video game worlds I’ve ever in­hab­ited, and the 20+ hours I spent in the com­pany of Otus and his friends was a vis­ual treat.

The be­liev­able, sump­tu­ous world is structured around ver­ti­cal­ity, with a cen­tral se­ries of hub screens lead­ing off in branch­ing di­rec­tions to var­i­ous lev­els through which you must ex­plore, solve puz­zles, take down a va­ri­ety of en­e­mies and ex­pe­ri­ence the won­der­ful plot.

The game map’s struc­ture is al­most tree-like, which makes back­track­ing and col­lectible-hunt­ing a joy; the lo­ca­tions have very dis­tinct vis­ual styles that use aes­thetic de­sign cues to guide play­ers around; one large area is cov­ered in spiky vines for ex­am­ple, and they change colour or lay­out de­pend­ing on the paths they lead into, gen­tly guid­ing play­ers around without the need for an in-game map or con­stantly re­fer­ring to way­points.

Once you reach a dun­geon, you’ll spend most of your time fly­ing around as Otus; you can land and jump around, and there are sec­tions in which reg­u­lar plat­form­ing comes into play, but the ma­jor­ity of the game takes place in flight. This de­ci­sion could’ve weak­ened the game in the hands of an­other team, but D-Pad make great use of the flight me­chan­ics, de­sign­ing the lev­els so it’s never sim­ply just a case of float­ing your way through.

Things are mixed up by the in­clu- sion of Otus’s friends; three char­ac­ters whom Otus can tele­port around and switch be­tween, grip­ping them in his talons so they es­sen­tially func­tion as three dif­fer­ent weapons, al­beit liv­ing weapons who can be flung around on a whim.

Mostly this leads to the com­bat be­ing air­borne shootemup style, but the ad­di­tional char­ac­ters — Geddy, Alphonse and Twig — also serve a pur­pose in puz­zle solv­ing. Var­i­ous switches re­quire char­ac­ters of cer­tain weights, while Twig’s grap­pling hook al­lows you to tra­verse ar­eas in which flight is im­pos­si­ble. Ideas and so­lu­tions are reused reg­u­larly through­out the game, con­stantly tweaked and ad­justed so they never get old. Fight­ing against rooms full of en­e­mies, sur­pris­ingly ex­cel­lent stealth sec­tions in which you sneak past pi­rates, some clever puz­zles that in­volve drag­ging clouds around, nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples of us­ing Otus’s flight to solve prob­lems in a va­ri­ety of ways.

It’s a fan­tas­tic ex­am­ple of rep­e­ti­tion in de­sign be­ing used to ex­cep­tion­ally clever ef­fect; every­thing feels fresh and new through­out the game, but without over­load­ing the player with con­stant new things to learn and master. It’s per­fect plat­form game de­sign, and Owl­boy sets it­self up to be re­mem­bered as a genre great along­side the usual pow­er­house sta­ples.

What re­ally sets Owl­boy apart is it's the plot and writ­ing. Of­ten in games like this, we’re pre­sented with a per­fectly en­ter­tain­ing yet throw­away ad­ven­ture yarn. Owl­boy goes above and be­yond this. It’s an in­cred­i­bly deep, plot-heavy game for what’s es­sen­tially a cute 2D plat­former. There’s some re­ally dark mo­ments, and some in­cred­i­bly heart-wrench­ing scenes.

A few hid­den, op­tional sec­tions in par­tic­u­lar show the level of depth the de­vel­op­ers put into the plot in tremen­dous ways. More than once play­ing the game I had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat, and the tone and sub­ject mat­ter that the game is will­ing to deal with re­ally leaves a last­ing im­pres­sion. It feels like a game made and writ­ten for peo­ple who grew up play­ing plat­form games in the 80s and 90s, without ever re­ly­ing on retro throw­backs or nos­tal­gia trips to power its ex­cel­lent ad­ven­ture yarn.

Dart­ing through the skies of Vel­lie, Tro­pos and Stratos as the gor­geous orches­tral mu­sic plays, hang­ing out with Otus and his pals, seek­ing relics and coins, shoot­ing bats and bugs, and the won­der­ful jour­ney over­all, it’ ll stay with me for a long time. The years-long wait paid off; D-Pad Stu­dio has crafted a sub­lime, pitch-per­fect ad­ven­ture. Smart, grip­ping, joy­ful and ex­pan­sive, Owl­boy sets the bar sky-high for fu­ture 2D plat­form­ers.

Owl­boy for PC has been out for a lit­tle over a month. It is an ad­ven­ture game, where you can fly and ex­plore a brand new world in the clouds.

Owl­boy Re­lease date: Nov 1, 2016

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