The defining moment of Owlboy is one towards the end which you may actually miss: a simple hug. It encapsulates everything wonderful about the game - the poignant story, the character arcs, the realisation that everyone is flawed. In many ways, the first thing that strikes you about Owlboy isn’t the old-school graphics, but that the visuals belie how deep the game actually is. For what appears on the surface to be a simple SNES-style platformer is actually a touching tale of triumph over adversity wrapped up in a truly splendid game. It is beautiful too, and much of that is down to the animation. Otus the titular character is mute, but every emotion is laid bare. Whether it’s wide-eyed shock, an affable grin, or the shoulder-heaving sorrow he feels after a devastating event, you can see where D-Pad Studio’s nine years of effort have gone. As Otus struggles through a graveyard, cloak wrapped tightly around him, you realise that words and text can’t convey anywhere near as much as the sight of a lonely character pushing against the wind to meet a friend.
Because he can’t speak, Owlboy’s companions help carry the weight of the story. He’s been ostensibly raised by his mentor Asio who, frankly, is a complete arse. He is the antithesis of a motivational speaker, as he berates Otus at every turn and blames him for every bad event that occurs. He’s also the guy who will help you get to grips with the controls, so strap in for five minutes of abuse coming your way at the start. One positive outcome is that he gets you onside with Otus immediately, since it is made clear that disabilities mean nothing to this raging idiot and Otus’ determination to succeed against the odds is mirrored by your own.
When pirates attack his village of Vellie, Otus is tasked with investigating a temple to trigger a device to defeat them. Flying Otus around is simple, as is using his cloak in a spin attack. However, he has no other weapons so needs to rely on his friends to provide assistance which is done by picking them up and utilising their powers. Geddy is a hot-headed but loyal chap who wields a pistol, Alphonse is a pirate-turned-friend with a short-range shotgun, and a third companion (who we’re avoiding naming for story purposes) can grapple to hard-to-reach places and entangle his enemies. We found using a controller to be a more natural way of playing; switching between companions is done via the bumpers, whilst the face buttons map to dash, spin and fly/jump respectively.
The tricky part is swapping characters in the heat of battle. They are invincible - unlike Otus - and whilst Geddy’s pellet gun allows for a constant barrage, Alphonse’s more powerful shotgun has a cooldown time. Since the triggers are used to fire and also drop your companions, you will find yourself accidentally dropping a character you actually want to fire, or trying to fire the gun of someone you want to swap out. This isn't helped by there also being other options to switch people in and out (the Y button and bumpers). It’s a minor irritation which isn’t insurmountable, but which still lingers through the fifteen hour running time, causing you unnecessary frustration. Fortunately, the checkpoints are generous, and Otus’ health bar can be topped up regularly by pulling up vegetables scattered throughout the levels.
However, even this small niggle doesn’t undermine D-Pad Studio’s stupendous achievement. For while Owlboy may look like a retro-styled Metroidvania outing, following the oh-so-fashionable trend of indie gaming going back to its 90s roots, the result is transcendent. There are nods to Zelda through the progressively complex environments teaching you new tactics, as well as the jingle of revealing previously blocked passages. There is an astounding array of interesting enemies and bosses to fight, the latter perfectly balanced in difficulty to make you think tactically, the former keeping you on your toes as you navigate the caves, ships and ruins of Vellie and its surrounds. There is a joy in clearing a room of enemies to be rewarded with a treasure chest filled with coins, reminiscent of the Amiga classic Traps ‘n’ Treasures. There are a bunch of interesting NPCs to chat with, if only briefly, around the vertical world of Vellie, each with a surprising amount of personality. They have even chucked in a day and night cycle, because why the hell not? It doesn’t add anything of note, but the transition from dusk to dawn looks gorgeous.
Even the story is engrossing, which for a platform game is a marvel. It charts the history of the owls via the invasion of Vellie and the surrounding cities by an army of robot pirates. Halfway through, things take a much darker turn in a totally unexpected way. It may appear to be a cutesy side-scrolling lark from the screenshots, but they mask a surprisingly deep and often morbid story. The reveals of the antagonists and their motivations are surprising, and there are a couple of twists that you may see coming but which tie in perfectly with everything that you’ve been shown up to that point.
The level design is equally impressive. Not content with the usual parade of platform fare, Owlboy hits you with a succession of innovative set pieces. Whether riding a rock dragon through an exploding lava cave, or leaping through space between sections of crumbling ruins, or staving off killer insects in a cave through the clever use of light, you’re never left doing the same thing for too long. In many respects it feels like a game that Treasure would be proud to have developed. Otus’ progression is bolstered by the coins he collects, but you won’t actually be buying anything - they merely serve as markers at which you’re granted health bonuses and slight upgrades to your companions’ weapons. Even the sadistic shopkeeper and her poor abused staff are a comedy highlight.
And then there’s the score. A clear contender for game soundtrack of the year, Jonathan Geer’s soaring, emotive orchestral masterpiece is the perfect backdrop to Otus’ quest. There is absolutely no reason for an indie game to have music this good accompanying it, but it does and we are tremendously thankful for it. The “Tropos (day)” theme is one of the best pieces of music we can recall since To The Moon, a soaring, evocative delight tinged with sadness - much like the game itself.
Simply put, Owlboy deserves all of the plaudits and awards it will inevitably receive. It may have been almost a decade in the making, but the effort and determination of this small studio oozes from every pixel. It’s not often that a 2D platform game can mesh together with such a wonderful story, but Owlboy hits a sweet spot which is no doubt down to sheer graft more than luck. Let’s hope that we don’t have to wait another ten years for its successor.