Owlboy Review (PC)
We’ve seen some pretty great platformers come out of the video game community in recent years. Whether you’re looking at Ori and the Blind Forest and its robust tale of light and dark or Shovel Knight and its colorful journey through a world of retro charm, there’s no lack of enjoyable experiences. The strength of these games lies in their expressive nature of how they unravel their world to players. The music, the story, the gameplay --- these are matters that separate a good platformer for a stellar one. Owlboy is the latest of one of these types of games, nine years in the making from D-Pad Studios, and in every fiber of its being, you see the long dedication to these great game elements at work. From its robust art to its meaningful character progression, we fail to remember a game that has ever delivered a package of goods so beautiful and complete as Owlboy has done.
Owlboy tells the tale of a broken and fragmented world. Landmasses as small as little islands and as large as continents float high in the sky for a mysterious reason few remember. Among these land masses, humans live in harmony with owls, which in this game are half-human, half-avian beings tasked with keeping the peace and protecting their respective settlements. Players take on the role of one such owl, the young and diminutive Otus. Otus is a silent protagonist, but not in your usual unexplained way. He is a mute, which is a tongue-in-cheek way of addressing this concept in a video game. Otus also lacks in the skills of most owl kind and is looked down upon by many around him. From the first minutes of the game, he comes away early as an endearing underdog that must emote heavily or rely on his friends to help express himself, and it plays into the entire game wonderfully.
As the adventure begins, Owlboy guides you into its relatively simple control mechanic. Otus can jump and fly as he desires, but he only has two forms of defense in a spin attack that stuns rather than kills most things and being able to pick up and throw applicable objects at enemies and obstacles. That’s where pals like Geddy come in. Besides being Otus’s best friend, Geddy also packs a blaster pistol and doesn’t mind Otus carrying him about. To this end, Owlboy becomes sort of a twin-stick shooter in its combat, but it’s a little more than that. There are enemies and obstacles that Geddy can’t remove that Otus can and vice versa. There are also obstacles that neither of them can conquer and that’s where new pals generally come in that Otus can carry in the same way as Geddy later in the game. In many ways, Otus and friends’ growing move-set pushes an iconic practicality found in games like Legend of Zelda and Metroid at their peak forms.
In fact, a lot of Owlboy reminds of the best elements of those two franchises. It’s a Metroidvania romp in that practically the whole world is connected and accessible at nearly any time, sans some areas that require certain abilities gained further in the game to open. Every dungeon, boss and challenge is approached in way where even if you haven’t gained a new tool or helping hand, it pushes you to use what you have in creative and unique ways at nearly every juncture. One dungeon saw us grabbing clouds and squeezing them to expel a rush of water into certain basins while another, obscured in darkness, forced us to often rely on a more fire-based friend to help Otus light the path and find his way. Every challenge is a puzzle in Owlboy and each feels clever and distinct from the next. These puzzles constantly escalated in complexity, while at the same time thoughtfully guiding you to the information needed to solve it in this rich and diverse world.
And when we say rich and diverse, we mean it. Owlboy’s world and characters are a pixel tapestry of colors, variety and expressiveness. Every character is distinct, clean and robust in their every animation and reaction to the events of the story. When you see Otus’s owl brows lower and his shoulders slump as he twiddles his fingers close to his chest, it’s easy to sense his pain or worry. When you see characters like the bizarrely adorable half-penguin, half-reptile boguins constantly tripping head over heels in the game in bouts of fear and joy, it’s enough to elicit a laugh out loud. Every single character in this game tells a visible story with their animations in relation to their dialogue, and the emotional journey the game takes you on builds an amazing camaraderie as you help Otus and his friends grow closer and stronger.
The environments and atmosphere tell their own great story in Owlboy as well. Each area of the game has a bustling life (or intentional lack thereof) that gives it a distinction from any other in its vibe. Whether you’re looking at the claustrophobic stylings of the aforementioned dark dungeon that pushes a slight fear of the unknown or marveling at the expansive majesty of ancient carvings in a hallowed owl temple, the adventure of Otus and friends will take you through a vast and varied world that truly runs the gamut.
All of that visual artistry is aided by an amazing soundtrack we wouldn’t mind having in our collection as well. Owlboy’s music aids in the characterization of each environment and scene it accompanies. It’s as intense or gentle as it needs to be at any given moment and incredibly charming as it dances between conventional orchestral sounds and a chiptune aesthetic. Some of the fantastically catchy tracks in the common areas will have you humming them long after you’ve walked away from the game.
Owlboy is an amazing platform experience from top to bottom. From the gameplay to the art to its style of wit and storytelling, Owlboy takes notes from the long history of its genre and combines them into a stellar journey. There are tons of collectibles and secrets in the game that will keep dedicated players coming back to unravel its wealth of extras and lore, but it also allows those who just want to take the journey to enjoy it without penalty. The growth of Otus, his friends and the people around them as everyone tries to make sense of this crazy world is a beautiful adventure we couldn’t put down. Perhaps the most upsetting thing about Owlboy is that it eventually comes to an end.
This review is based on a digital copy of Owlboy provided by the publisher for PC.