A Young Owl’s Resolve
Developer D-Pad Studio spent the better part of a decade crafting Owlboy, and it definitely shows: the visuals are breathtakingly well-detailed and the narrative has plenty of heart to it. The soundtrack is triumphant and evokes a spirit of grand adventure that matches the sprawling vistas that make up many of the game’s backgrounds. However, on the whole, Owlboy never quite lives up to be that grand, triumphant adventure; Owlboy is a title that’s constantly flapping from moments of brilliance to moments of absolute frustration.
Owlboy follows the tale of Otus, a young owl in a world made up of floating chunks of earth. Otus, who is mute, trains under an impatient mentor that’s quick to berate and criticize the young owl. The story overall is a by-the-numbers save the world plot, but the characters redeem the otherwise generic plot they find themselves in. Crisp animation and colorful characterization help with this; although Otus cannot speak, his timid personality is revealed in the way he reacts to events unfolding around him. There’s plenty of heart and charm in Owlboy, and I wouldn’t dare to spoil the wonderful writing and interactions between its characters.
In fact, the characters, art, and lore in Owlboy are so strong that I would rather experience it as a comic book series. Where Owlboy falters is in the actual gameplay, unfortunately.
Owlboy resembles a “Metroidvania” title or a platformer at first glance, but it is neither. Progression from area to area follows the story beat for beat, and there’s not really any time at all to explore — each section of the game is excruciatingly linear. As an owl boy, Otus is able to spread his wings and fly around the environment at will, with only waterfalls putting a damper on his wings. He’s able to carry around and cycle between three different companions one at a time, each of whom have different abilities and distinct personalities.
What each of Otus’s companions have in common is the ability to fire projectiles of varying strength, making every combat encounter a miniature shoot-em-up. What’s frustrating is when Otus takes damage — he’s flung all the way across the screen until he hits something and falls to the ground. It’s especially bad in the all too frequent closed-quarters cave sections where Otus is flung from enemy to enemy until he dies. I suppose it makes sense from a narrative perceptive since Otus is portrayed as weak, but it is far too annoying when it happens for what feels like the one-hundredth time.
Combat isn’t a huge part of Owlboy, at least. Much of the game is spent following linear paths through gorgeous environments while an incredible soundtrack plays in the background. Occasionally, Otus will stumble across a simple puzzle that involves throwing an object at a wall or pulling a chain; the puzzles are pretty casual, if there are two bomb-looking enemies on screen then they’ll both need to be thrown at a crumbled wall that’s also on the same screen.
The first couple of hours in Owlboy are really special on all fronts, moving from the early charm of Otus and his best friend, Geddy, to the infiltration of a pirate ship. The stealth, the score — everything about this section was magical. A little while after that was a cramped cave section that had me pulling my hair out due to how tedious it was. The game sort of mellowed out after that, never reaching the triumph of its early hours or the failures of its middle portion until the very, very end, where everything wraps up into a satisfying conclusion.
System reviewed on: Nintendo Switch.
Disclaimer: The reviewer purchased a copy of Owlboy for this review.