D-Pad Studio’s latest release marks the end of one of the longest development cycles in indie game history. Owlboy has been in development since 2007, with frequent retoolings based on feedback and the team taking a break to work on 2013’s Savant – Ascent being the causes for its lengthy wait.
Despite being intrigued by the whimsical-looking pixel art since hearing about it ages ago, in recent years, I had come to assume that the game would either never materialize, or worse, pull a Duke Nukem Forever, and release as an uninspired and archaic mess.
Now that the final product is out, I’m happy to report I was wrong. Owlboy is a truly wonderful labor of love, with obvious effort put into every facet you can imagine. The gameplay, presentation, and overall imagination hit bullseyes in ways I never expected. It recaptures and refines the feel of games from the PS1 days when mainstream pixel art was both at its artistic peak and declining in prominence, adds a well thought out story and set of gameplay mechanics, and results in one of the best indie platformers in recent years.
Taking place in a fantasy world of floating islands, players control Otus, a young, mute owl who aims to be a useful citizen of his village, but has a history of making mistakes and struggling, effectively demonstrated by his vocally disappointed mentor. What starts with Otus and his best friend Geddy pursuing a thief quickly grows into the discovery of a violent force that threatens all of civilization, and Otus soon finds himself flying many skies in hopes of both saving the world and discovering the reasons behind the threat in the first place.
One thing I didn’t expect a lot out of with Owlboy was its story, but it ends up being one of the best elements of an already terrific whole. Otus is successfully sympathetic and lovable despite never saying a word, the NPC villagers and enemies have memorable moments and quirks, and both Geddy and two other eventual partners in Otus’s little group feel wonderfully distinct and endearing.
Despite its whimsical exterior, many will likely be surprised by the directions the plot is willing to go in. Characters have inner conflicts and regrets, certain moments get metaphysical and surreal, and despite having plenty of lighthearted moments, most of the biggest story beats carry a feeling of tragedy. It never reached a point where I got choked up, but it’s refreshingly bold and engrossing, yet still endearing, especially for a game of this type.
The game’s completely pixelated 2D art style is also a wonder to behold. Environments, characters, and effects all look meticulously detailed, inspired, appealing and distinct. To make up for lacking voice acting, character animation is fluid, varied and charming, with unique hand drawn motions for everyone down to the smallest bit player.
It’s reminiscent of that handful of classic PS1 titles that didn’t go for a fully 3D look and hold up today, like Symphony of the Night and Legend of Mana, only properly blown up to HD resolutions. Add an engrossing soundtrack that successfully amplifies any mood from serene beauty to frantic tension, and you have one of the loveliest worlds to explore in all of indie gaming.
It’s a good thing that the presentation isn’t the only thing Owlboy pulls off with flying colors, as the game is a blast to actually play. Supporting both D-pad and analog controls on the Xbox One controller I used, movement allows Otus to conventionally run and jump along the ground, but you’ll spend most of your time airborne, as pressing the jump button or Up while in mid-jump will spread your wings.
Otus’s perpetual flight abilities (and some occasional forced ground platforming) function as you’d expect them to and control great, but the game is also a dual-stick shooter of sorts. All three partner characters can be carried and independently aim and shoot projectiles, with each one packing unique abilities for both combat and navigation. Otus can also carry and throw numerous objects (including various fruits and vegetables that can be consumed for health regeneration), do a quick dodge in any direction, and even perform a close-quarters melee spin if his arms are free.
The various areas are also great at frequently throwing new concepts at you to both deal with and use to your advantage. They feel distinct from each other, but never gimmicky, as they genuinely build on the core mechanics your party provides. One moment you’ll bring light to dark caves with a flamethrower, and another moment you’ll outrun torpedoes via grappling hooks. The game even cleverly throws flight-free platforming in at select points, thanks to cleverly contextual elements like waterfalls flowing too hard for Otus to spread his wings. It feels fresh and inspired from beginning to end.
The game is also very smart in addressing potential issues that could have dragged the enjoyment down. The first playable moments show us that Otus starts out incapable of sustained flight, but a flash forward lets us realize that there’s no limit to how long and how high we can go. Exploring the first dungeon with Geddy also made me worry that the mechanic of dropping partner characters to solve puzzles would lead to a lot of backtracking and unnecessary frustration, but almost immediately afterward, a teleporting function is unlocked that allows you to summon and withdraw allies instantly.
In fact, this element is key to certain areas and boss battles, as switching between allies with the shoulder buttons is often important to coming out on top. And thankfully, those boss battles are varied, clever and challenging without feeling cheap, especially when some of them play into the more tragic elements of the story and characters.
It’s also worth noting that the main reason to explore every nook and cranny is in search of coins, which can be obtained both through traditional treasure chests and by flying through many wooden floating rings strewn throughout the land. These can be used to unlock several items in a preset order at a single shop, which range from useful to simply cosmetic. If you ignore trying to go for 100% completion, Owlboy isn’t the lengthiest game (I finished the main story with few distractions in just under 7 hours), but outside of wishing I could spend more time with the last party member I got, the experience felt like a very fleshed-out adventure to me.
All that being said, no game is perfect, and I can still name some quibbles with Owlboy. The game throws stealth segments in at certain points, and there actually isn’t anything generally wrong with them mechanically. However, the first example requires Otus to jump about without spreading his wings, and considering how easy it is to accidentally activate them in mid-jump, I screwed up many times in a manner that didn’t make me feel entirely at fault. The following stealth segment, while free of similar annoyances, does end up overstaying its welcome length-wise, which isn’t something I’d say about the other areas.
Also, while I obviously won’t get into specifics, the ending makes some stumbles. We do get some closure in broad strokes, but many characters don’t get a proper farewell, the last few shots and lines raise additional questions, and the final actions and the resulting consequences come out of nowhere. Still, the last boss and a final playable moment right afterward rank among the most epic and intense I’ve played all year.
But perhaps, in this case, the journey is its own reward. I grew to love the world and characters. I felt thrills, sadness, and intrigue with each new revelation, especially one in the later portion that broadens the scope and stakes wonderfully. I marvelled at the varied worlds, fun mechanics and fast-paced boss fights. There is no better summary of the whole experience than to say I had fun in its purest form playing this game.
If I haven’t made it clear, Owlboy is a true gem. I approached the game hoping for a reasonably charming adventure, and instead got an experience that has a good shot at being my favorite of the year. This reminds me of Shovel Knight in that, if it had ended up released on something like the original PlayStation with its same lovely pixel art and mechanics, it would have gone down as one of the best titles on the system.
The fact that D-Pad took so long with development that I grew worried about the game ever being released makes its final status as a triumph all the more heartwarming. In a release window dominated by conventional titles like Battlefield and Call of Duty, a game like Owlboy, with refreshing amounts of heart and creativity is all the more special. Don’t skip over Otus’s adventure, because it’s one that you’ll likely treasure.
This review is based on the PC exclusive, which we were provided with.
Owlboy packs a fantastic amount of retro charm and genuine heart, with wonderful and creative gameplay to back it up. This long-awaited indie darling may be one of the year's best.