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RPS 2016 Advent Calendar, Dec 16th: Owlboy

Fight and flight

The treat behind the next door on our calendar gives you wings and lets you soar. Day sixteen of The RPS Advent Calendar, which highlights our favourite games of the year, brings...

The year's best platformer, Owlboy [official site]!

John: Owlboy does something very important: it’s lovely. It’s funny, smart, sad and novel, and all of these aspects are infused with loveliness. That may sound twee, and perhaps it is, but it’s a special treat in gaming land.

I love its subtlety, too. Describing it, you’re compelled to mention its mechanic of having your humanoid owl character carry others in his claws as he flies, using their unique weapons and skills to match a situation. But it does it a disservice to be so specific, the game being so relaxed and underplayed about it. Yeah, that’s how you play, but it’s because it’s what happens. It doesn’t feel forced or laboured, just a result of the circumstances that arise.

Also, good Lord it packs an emotional punch. There was a moment in the game that I’d know others had reached because an IM window would pop up and thoughts would be shared. It’s superbly crafted, the deftness in design so strong that you don’t notice it until you realise how it didn’t make mistakes in hindsight, and it’s just, well, completely lovely.

Alec: I should start by saying I’ve only played the 90-odd minute preview version (time has thus far forbidden playing the release version), so for all I know Owlboy nosedives right after that. If Crybaby Walker is banging on about heartstring-tugging again, there is a chance I’m going to want to hurl the thing into the sun - but going on what I’ve played so far, I sincerely doubt it.

I acquired a Nintendo 3DS lately, ostensibly to play Pokemon, but instead I’ve been spending my time with a handful of olden Gameboy Advance titles (sadly only available to a few 3DS owners, mercifully including the guy I borrowed the console from) - particularly Metroid Fusion and Yoshi’s Island. I’ve spent a few years being pretty poisonous towards Nintendo, who I felt had fallen into endless self-cannibalisation of their most popular characters.

These revisits served as a reminder that Nintendo is a giant for a reason - that the name stands for a breed of total craftsmanship that is rarely found in the wide-open battleground of big-money Western games. Metroid Fusion, particularly, has floored me with its precision and flow. I took it for granted when I first played it a decade and a half ago, but now it seems like a masterclass in design.

Owlboy is the only game I’ve played in years which felt anything like that. That sort of absolute polish, the pursuit of moment-to-moment perfection over setpiece or a slew of miscellany. It feels like every frame has been tested and honed. We’ve been accustomed, over the years, to almost any game being a bit janky or inelegant in some way, and Owlboy says no, that doesn’t have to be the case.

Adam: I don’t know if Owlboy is playing on nostalgia in any way because the games it might be referencing would be lost on me. Growing up with Amigas, Atari STs and PCs, my platform games were Zool and Jazz Jackrabbit and Oscar and Chuck Rock - I know the classics of the consoles, but I discovered them after the fact.

Platformers don’t have any hold over me. And yet I’ve been waiting for Owlboy since I first saw screenshots years ago. It’s the high-fi approach, as the developers refer to it, that appealed to me. This art style that looks to the past but is quite clearly of the future (or at least of the now), beautiful and packed with detail. I didn’t expect to enjoy playing it from start to finish, but I definitely wanted to spend more time looking at it, on my screen.

It’s wonderful though, to play as well as to watch. I think the pacing is the key; in a comically cruel tutorial you’re told that you are a liability, a terrible owl, and you struggle through learning the basics. And it’s only a few hours in that you realise, hey, I’m not such a terrible owl after all, because you learn as you grow, and the game opens out to allow for all manner of unexpected heroics. It’s a rare example of a game that pins its protagonist’s arc directly onto the unfolding play area and mechanics, and that makes the emotional pull of the plot all the more powerful.

Owlboy might be reach into the pit of your nostalgia and find treasure there, or, like me, you might only want to skim across its surface. Either way, you’re likely to find yourself enchanted.

Oh, and one final word. I worried that it might be cutesy and twee, and there is a little of that, but beneath the fur and feathers there are sharp talons. As a rule, if you’re not Redwall (there’s the nostalgia talking) and you have a cast of animals that behave like people, you’re going to have to work extra hard to win me over. Owlboy works as hard as any other game released this year - it doesn’t miss a step.

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