Fighting against owl odds
We’ve all felt a little like our eponymous hero, Otus. We’ve had those times when someone’s talked down to us and belittled our ideas, called us names, and sniggered behind our backs. We’ve all felt small and humiliated, acutely aware of our mistakes and failings. And that’s the magic of Owlboy, really; though its story is anchored firmly in fantasy—a story of a floating world heavily influenced by an ancient race of wise old owls—it’s a tale that, sadly, most of us can identify with.
The opening tutorial alone—which exists pretty much to showcase your ineptitude to the masses—is enough to draw a sympathetic frown as you watch, not for the last time, as Otus’ ears pull back in dismay and his shoulders sag miserably. He starts his lessons so full of expectation, only to have that chipped away as Asio—Otus’ impatient, quick-tempered mentor— realizes that Otus is, well, a little bit clumsy. A little bit different. And because he’s mute you’ll spend much of the time listening to others talk for Otus, or—even worse— at him, as though this lack of speech makes him incapable of anything else, too.
And that’s what Owlboy is; it’s a story of suffocating expectations and failure, but also one of quiet courage and the need to keep on keeping on, trusting your closest buddies with your life to get stuff done, even when nobody’s watching, even if the bullies and naysayers won’t believe a word of what you’ve done. It’s about the power of friendship, sacrifice, and self-belief. Oh, and there are sky pirates, too.
Presented as an old-school 2D platformer, Owlboy’s nostalgic in more ways than one, and shouldn’t feel unfamiliar to anyone who’s spent time running around in old SNES-esque adventures. The story is told via an atmospheric, pixel-perfect world that feels at once both classic and contemporary thanks to its stunning use of sound and visuals, each area bright and distinct, offering its own rewards and challenges. It’s a traditional platform game in every sense of the word—from its presentation to the dungeons and temples and boss fights—but in its defense, it very much retains its own unique style and substance, too.
While Otus’ own abilities are pretty limited (he can spin a bit, roll, and fly), it’s the friends you’ll meet and make along the way that round out Owlboy’s combat. At first you will see the arsenal for what it is—weapons that help you neutralize interfering foes— but you’ll soon realize that they offer much more than that, too, especially as you start to explore a bit, stumbling upon hidden walls and entrances dotted around the world, places you might not even have noticed the first time around. Best of all, teaming up with these friends doesn’t mean you’re lumbered with laborious escort missions, either; you can literally pull your pals from thin air whenever you
“It’s not often we encounter a game that conveys so much with so little”
need them thanks to an ingenious teleportation device—something you’ll come to rely on more and more as you progress through the game.
You might find the twin-stick mechanics a little tricky to adapt to at first, though, especially as the reticle floats about quite wildly when there’s a lot of enemies on screen. The dark sections can be cumbersome, too, if you’re not very careful, and, occasionally, the 2D graphics can be a little misleading when it comes to onscreen props and depth perception (magma section, we’re looking at you).
But while the game is stripped back and surprisingly simplistic, Owlboy’s world is not easy to conquer, and you’ll need a little ingenuity to topple some of its more robust enemies. Like us, you might spend too much time chucking your BFFs into the nearest wall (we’re so sorry, Geddy!), and like us, you might notice how hard it is to recover from a boss battle smackdown (particularly the ones that also send your buddies flying across the room— honestly, it was an accident, Geddy!). Experimenting with your friends’ skills is key, especially if it feels like you’ve hit a dead-end. While there’s a little bit of backtracking in Owlboy, it’s never fruitless, and you can usually find something new to see or do if you’re observant enough.
No, the run time isn’t particularly great—you could probably get this done over the course of a weekend, or even a single day if you’re up early and have nothing else to do—but there’s plenty of variety in the levels and missions, each one painted with aching attention to detail. The story’s pretty linear, granted, but there are plenty of secrets stuffed throughout the world, including hidden coins that can be spent in a store with the world’s most adorable assistant.
It’s not often we encounter a game that conveys so much with so little, especially one that uses no spoken dialogue at all. But Owlboy’s deceivingly simplistic delivery belies an enviable story, a charming cast you can’t help but fall madly in love with, and a surprising, and pleasing, narrative twist. Seems it was worth the ten-year wait, eh?
Far Left Look out for fruit that help light the way in dark sections.
right Not pictured: The bit where the boss smacks us and we throw Geddy headfirst into the wall.
Left The world feels both classic and contemporary.