D-Pad Studio first began development on Owlboy back in 2007.
Since then, the team created Savant – Ascent, which released in 2013 and saved them from financial difficulty, allowing them to finish their original passion project. With its release in 2016, it marks an almost ten-year development cycle – something that can often mean a title crashing and burning. But Owlboy is not a normal game; it goes against the grain and soars high – even with a few problems causing turbulence.
Taking the role of a young owl boy named Otus, you’re immediately thrust into a world that doesn’t much treat you as a hero. A rarity in the metroidvania-esque platformer world, or even in the video game world; you aren’t a proud knight, a powerful fighter or potent mage, you’re a normal (well, owl-normal) everyday boy. In fact, you even have a disability: you’re mute.
Now being mute unfortunately means two things – along with it being a convenient excuse for a silent protagonist. Firstly, you’re bullied, not just by the other kids in the village but your own mentor cannot help to berate you at every turn. This means that the only people who will speak up for you are your friends who you will gain throughout the game and play both a large part thematically as well as mechanically.
Now, while Owlboy can easily be classed as a platformer you will in fact be doing surprisingly little of it. Owls can of course fly, meaning that, the vast majority of the time, you will be hovering rather than hopping. This also leads to the game’s combat feeling more like a twin-stick shooter than anything else. Otus can pick up everything from fruit to chests to his own friends – a useful endeavour. Each ally you venture across comes with a different weapon and, through the use of an item you gain early on, you can switch between them on the fly.
Due to the lack of any standard platforming mechanics, general gameplay becomes more an exercise in exploration and simple puzzle-solving. Unfortunately, when trying to relieve the absence of platforming, Owlboy makes a few mistakes. The developers try give each stage of the game its own unique mechanic; for example, one introduces stealth, another, lighting pathways using various fire weapons. While each idea is certainly not used constantly, it is used enough throughout each level that it becomes a common theme – but ends up feeling more of a bothersome gimmick”
While it does help differentiate each area and make them unique, they all end up feeling more like slight annoyances. I’m pretty sure there has never been a dimly-lit section in gaming that has actually worked and the stealth has some minor problems with controls. In fact, controls are sometimes a problem overall, even with a controller – which I strongly recommend using. It’s just an issue of multiple controls bound to the same button. It often ends up leading to picking up friends instead of items, grappling instead of shooting or – in the case of stealth – launching into flight instead of jumping.
Barring those issues, Owlboy is an absolute wonder to play. Flying around is perfectly smooth and responsive – except when you accidentally land by coming to close to ground. Combat, along with boss fights, has enough depth to be challenging, but easy enough to still be a pleasure to play. Oh, and it looks utterly gorgeous. I wouldn’t be surprised if D-Pad Studio spent most of their lengthy development time on the artwork because this is by and far one of the most beautiful games of the year – and it’s pixel art!
Now, admittedly, with as high a resolution as it is, this is as close as pixel art can be without being “normal art” – the devs describe it as “hi-bit”. But it’s a triumph; the artwork combines the exquisite detail and refinement of non-pixel art with the colour, appeal and charm of it. In fact, it’s a rather good metaphor for the game itself. While, at first, a story about pirates attacking a town of owls may seem offbeat, the story and characters hide a much greater depth.
It wasn’t until late in the game that I realised how attached to the characters I had become. I had grown to love Otus’ best friend Geddy and his complete and utter selflessness in defending his friends and the things he cares for. Even Otus himself, who is never able to speak a single word throughout the game, conveys so much through minor animation and interaction that he is given a complete personality of his own. Surprisingly good writing, along with a charming art-style help create characters and a world that you can’t help but love.
And I can’t not mention the soundtrack. It’s hard matching Owlboy’s artwork, but the orchestral tracks that play in the background of the game’s highs and lows help make Owlboy an absolutely incredible experience both visually and aurally. It’s a shame that, for me, some of the experience was marred by problems with gameplay mechanics or controller quibbles as, barring the occasional frustration, D-Pad Studio have created a wonderful and satisfying tale filled with superb characters and marvellous presentation.