Oh gosh, it is a splendid thing when a game like Owlboy [official site] comes around. Big, smart, involved, silly, gorgeous, aurally stunning, and with a compelling story. It’s got flaws, a couple of big ones, but it also has the wit of a Mario & Luigi game, and the professional delivery of a classic 90s big-studio platforming production, despite coming from a five-man indie team. This is something very lovely. Here's wot I think:
Drawn in utterly beautiful hi-res pixel graphics, Owlboy is a platformer-cum-Metroidvania about a young mute - well - owl boy, Otus, attempting to defend his homeland from invading robo-pirates. Controlling him, and latterly controlling other character’s weapon powers by carrying them, you explore an ever-expanding and broad, sprawling 2D world (but in no sense an “open world” as their marketing rather spuriously claims) in your pursuit of the enemies who threaten your very existence.
A very smart tutorial introduces some of the basics, but really exists to beat you down, to see you fail, such that you learn Otus’s status in this community of a few remaining owl people and their human townsfellows. He’s young, green, and an apparent meekness suggested by his muteness means he is without the respect of his peers, but for a couple of friendly folks who feel similarly sidelined.
Then, as events unfurl, your rag-tag crew (that eventually grows to include other surprise characters which I shall not spoil) attempts to help out alongside the more official efforts. And, without giving a single thing away, I want to make clear they’re smart people doing good work, not interfering idiots making things worse - something that’s ludicrously rare in such games, and a real pleasure.
Otus can fly, so while it looks like a platformer, leaping from surface to surface is rarely (although sometimes) how you play. It’s much more about negotiating paths, working out how to open doors via environmental puzzles, and engaging in what is essentially twin-stick combat. (It can be played without, but I strongly recommend playing this with a controller.) And the flight is lovely, feels fluid and free, allowing you to swoop about without tiresome restrictions.
In fact, that captures something that keeps impressing me about Owlboy - it seems to know how people want to play, and provides short-cuts where other similar games have only repeated frustrations. Otus has only mild attacks of his own, but picking up one of his chums lets you control their weapons - but rather than having to laboriously find them and put one down to pick up another, by means the game only jokes about rather than wastes time explaining, you can instantly teleport any of them into your claws. Perfect. You gather coins as you play, but rather than having to spend and save, instead you unlock new extras by passing a certain coin “score” - again, it removes the tedium of having to faff around getting money for vital aspects, instead it’s just optional extras for thorough collecting.
Almost ten years of development hasn’t gone to waste here - this feels so exquisitely well put together, the combat a real pleasure to play, the boss fights easily finished with a second or third go (that’ll disappoint some, I realise, but you get more than enough games that meet your disturbing fetish, and for once this one’s for everyone else to enjoy), and oh my goodness, it looks so lovely. And I don’t mean in a faux-ironic, ‘look at me liking crude pixels’ way - this is artwork, sublime cartoon creations using a restrictive palette to drive creativity. There are intricate locations, beautiful backdrops and detailed foregrounds, that exist in the game only for a few seconds, then gone forever. The degree of effort and talent on display is to be cherished.
Which of course means, where it does make mistakes, they really stand out. The biggest, most common frustration, is the utterly ridiculous frequency with which it takes controls away from you to have characters exchange meagre conversations. The writing is, for the most part, great, and the larger plot beats are utterly brilliant and it’s infuriating that I can’t sell you on the game with them, as they’d ruin it for you. But when you’re only given control back to walk off a screen, and then the same thirteen seconds of play after the next chat, and then again because you walked past a building, bloody hell it gets annoying. I’ve shouted at the screen a good few times, “JUST LET ME PLAY!” In a game as completely lovely as this one, it’s forgiven, but boy it would have been completely lovelier if they’d been a little more sensible about the interruptions to flow.
A more egregious single scene is a very ill-advised stealth sequence that so strangely seems to fundamentally misunderstand how the game itself is played. You’re not allowed to fly for this section, only jump, but flying is triggered by pressing a direction button after jump, so it endlessly misfires the wings while trying to jump diagonally between platforms. Pressing the jump button a second time also releases your wings, so jump a picosecond too early in these manic jumps and you’ll also lose. God, I repeated that boring sequence so many damned times. Not fun.
I want to tell you about this big plot point in the middle of the game, because blimey, oh I can’t even say which emotion it triggered! I can’t remember the last time I gasped out loud at a turn a game took like that. But I can’t - you’d kill me. So instead, trust me, get this game and then email me when you get there and we can share that moment, belatedly for me. But see, it’s a game that has a moment I wish I could now talk to someone else about - I love such things.
That Mario & Luigi comparison I made at the start deserves a little expansion, I think. The first couple of those games (Superstar Saga and Partners In Time) are two of the best platform adventures ever made, and two of the funniest games ever made. So this isn’t a comparison I make lightly. While Owlboy doesn’t feature the RPG elements of those games, and certainly isn’t as extraordinarily involved as AlphaDream’s Nintendo-funded creations, the comparison is earned. Not just in the nature of the banter between characters, but more importantly, with the stunning cohesion of the delivery. A level of competence and coherence that feels so rare, especially when it’s delivered in a carefully opaque way as it is here. I keep thinking I’m getting frustrated by being given two directions to head in, each so long and splitting themselves that I have that “Oh I’m missing out on the other path!” anxiety, and then being blown away by how cleverly it had manipulated me, or had things loop around so I knew I’d not lost out. There’s some excellent level crafting on display here.
What a treat. And a surprisingly deep one, with compelling moments you’ll want to talk about. It’s a pleasure to control, it has impeccable difficulty balancing to keep you moving forward while always feeling like you’re being skillful, and all in the prettiest of pretty pixel graphics. Triumphant.