Gorgeous adventure sets the bar sky-high
Game offers players contemporary feel despite being 10 years in the making
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 The risk of being outdated is mitigated with Owlboy somewhat, at least in terms of its pixel art visual style, but it’s a risk nonetheless.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