Owlboy (2018) REVIEW

Taunted by indecision, stymied by mental illness, and in service to a rapidly changing market Owlboy’s quiet ‘old school’ charm ultimately wears its creator’s determination and strife on a bloody sleeve. Inspired by the most classic 2D Nintendo platforming games and originally conceived as a potential Wii eShop darling Simon Stafsnes Andersen‘s vision for Owlboy was undoubtedly ambitious; Whatever bumps in the road he’d hit along the way, the final product is genuine in its adherence to the cult of 16-bit era of character-driven action/adventure console video games. Character and ‘heart’ are almost too sentimental descriptors from my perspective, especially in a review of a mildly flawed game, but the ‘character’ offered by Owlboy is its greatest triumph.

Oddly enough Otus, the titular Owlboy himself, can’t speak and yet despite being determined and good-hearted isn’t given much respect. His fellow inhabitants amongst a stratosphere of floating continents are largely self-serving Saturday morning cartoon assholes. This world between a great barren ocean below and cold dead space above serves as a setting of greater unknowns. The inhabitants around Otus are distinct in their factions: Humans serve as ingenious, quirky, and emotional folk; Owls provide elitism and cruel intellectual classism, while robots serve as freed and barbaric former slaves of the Owls (pirates who are feared by all). Otus is made to feel inadequate, chided unfairly and without patience by his fellow owls yet each human he interacts with is sympathetic and sees his good intentions. The strength of this narrative is that it does not dwell or feign interest in Otus’ past, but locks the player into the present.

Let the end begin…

The cryptic world building around you is very much in the tradition of classic Japanese where foreshadowing and unique naming conventions create wonder and a purposeful slight confusion that unfolds it’s origami as you complete the experience. The ancient Owls, apparently just a few generations previous, created what they call Hex (the current state of the world) where the continents of the planet rose from the oceans and will take several years to inevitably float out into space. Heads up, it’s happening now. Why? Uh, the game explains this in horrendous fashion at the very last minute by suggesting The Loop (represented by an infinity sign) was the goal. Three powerful relics serve as the antidote to The Hex, The Anti-Hex, and much of the game is spent chasing after the relics in Owl Temples without knowing what purpose they serve. What appears to be a race to save the world from the unknown (but clearly dangerous) power the relics hold is ultimately a futile series of events; Otus and the three friends he makes only serve to slow down the inevitable Anti-Hex event that returns the world to its natural state. But that isn’t the point of the adventure and the value of the storytelling comes between simple character interactions and the maze-like, puzzle filled stages taking Otus and friends from point A to point B.

Being a boy, and an owl, Otus can fly or hover with the tap of a button and he controls a bit like Red Arremer from Gargoyle’s Quest and Demon’s Crest games in that he can fly and hover; He can additionally grab and toss with mechanics akin to Mickey’s Magical Quest. If D-Pad Studio totally nailed anything beyond beautiful pixel art it is the feeling of controlling Otus and slowly introducing his complex control scheme throughout the initial hours of the game. Combat itself is less successfully tutorialized but some of the joy of this type of game comes in figuring out those nuances on your own.

There aren’t a ton of cut-scenes in the game but the few there are, are really beautifully done.

Owlboy initially feels like a very simple puzzle-platformer in its opening hour while you toy with grab mechanics and the almost twin stick shooter feeling of controlling Geddy, your first of three companions who you’ll carry during combat and platforming challenges. Geddy is human and Otus’ best friend but more importantly he is a mechanic and carries a gun. I found the initial hump of figuring out how to play Owlboy was moderately frustrating as controls for flight and grasping/throwing objects were not intuitive. In some respects the game holds your hand long enough that the learning curve is subverted; The gameplay’s saving grace comes from its consistent push to introduce new mechanics with each successive sequence.

With new sidekicks comes new mechanics. Alfonse is a big robot pirate who can weigh down switches, shoot a shotgun blast, and light/burn things with his lighter flame. Twig is a walking stick dressed as a spider who shoots web that immobilizes enemies and provides a grappling hook of sorts. The implementation of these powers into a series of increasingly challenging events is the genius, and the fun, of Owlboy but the combat feels less fluid as the game progresses. By the time the game ended I figured the rapid switching of powers and complex enemy types would be a thrill but it only revealed the sluggishness of those components.

Some of the early boss designs are very impressive and as you can see the backgrounds are deeply layered.

While I want to avoid spoiling the details of the story I will suggest it isn’t as light-hearted as it appears. Death and its lingering trauma are felt alongside some truly unfair alienation all without the sugar coating that I’d expected from a game taking so much influence from 90’s Japanese video games. Friendships are tight but not overstated and Otus never truly ‘earns’ the sympathy he seems due as a well-meaning, determined do-gooder until he needlessly becomes a vessel for the Anti-Hex. As ‘out there’ as main plot might appear it is a relatively simple series of events that are drapery for a beautiful game with a rushed feeling conclusion.

One last puzzle. The final area is awesome, but the platforming leading up to the final encounter is deeply frustrating.

The only serious offenses came in the form of a couple of difficulty spikes and a messy final platforming section. In one area the lights go out, the walls are covered with spikes and death-spitting spider-bird things, and you’ve got a lighter attached to a chubby robot who can only shoot every 15-20 seconds; The level is a maze and not a difficult one in hindsight but it marks the first of two points in the game where enemies begin to do double or triple the damage they had up to that point. These odd spikes were pointless in a game that rewards the player for clever movement and not for precise reflexes. I don’t want to prattle on too much about the final level but… You can’t fly. Otus must occasionally platform without flying in a couple small sections throughout the game but the final level blocks flight entirely and shows a great frustrating weakness right before it ends.

The artwork is perhaps just as important as gameplay in terms of reasoning with the market for this type of nostalgia driven conception and the color palette and pixel art reminded me of Seiken Densetsu 3 if it were less washed out; Blue skies, craggy rocks, brambles and bushes, ancient temples and wooden sky villages all clearly influenced by the later years of the Super Famicom. I wouldn’t recommend buying this game for its look but rather with some understanding of its complex controls, odd pacing, and mildly vexing lore. If you can forgive Owlboy’s idiosyncratic design choices and power through it’s smaller issues there is some great fun in mastering its clever level design and seeking out its most challenging collectibles. Moderate recommendation, give it maybe 2-3 hours to show its hand.

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Title: Owlboy
Genre 2D Action/Adventure
Released April 10, 2018 | D-Pad Studio
Platform(s) Reviewed Playstation 4 Pro [Digital]
Score 3.5/5.0

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