Most video games ten years in the making have released as complete disasters but, thankfully, this indie adventure from the five-person, Norwegian-based D-Pad Studios, bucks that trend and then some. Yes, it’s another indie game with retro aesthetics - this time capturing the look and feel of the 16-bit era - but the stunning presentation is backed up by enjoyable gameplay and solid writing.
You take control of Otus, a mute owl-boy under the tutelage of the world’s least supportive mentor, thrust into a quest to recover ancient owl relics from a marauding pirate horde. I think it’s the first time we’ve actually had a protagonist with legitimate reasons to remain silent and the interactions with other NPCs play off this limitation to great effect, especially when helped along by some brilliant sprite work that manages to convey plenty of emotion with a limited pixel count.
You initially team up with Otus’ long-time friend, Geddy, who sports a weak pistol and a knack for technology, before slowly gathering a small following of like-minded outcasts – Alphonse, the bulky renegade pirate with flaming shotgun, and Twig, a web-slinging Spider-Man wannabe. What starts off as an upbeat adventure with low stakes quickly escalates and, in contrast to the often humorous writing, the tone becomes considerably darker. Thankfully, the game sticks to its clichéd yet uplifting coming-of-age narrative and the unlikely heroes band together to save the world.
Otus and his motley crew.
Gameplay is a peculiar mix of platforming, puzzling, infrequent stealth, and 2D bullet-hell shooting. Otus can fly in almost every situation and has the ability to haul around both objects and his companions – essential for solving puzzles and combat. Armed only with a simple spin attack, your companions serve as weapons and each is best suited to specific encounters. Alphonse’s shotgun can scatter mobs of enemies and set barriers on fire, while his bulky frame can trigger certain pressure plates. Twig’s webs can pin enemies in place, grab distant objects, and slingshot you across the screen to avoid damage or deflect projectiles (an early plot device allows you to teleport them to you and switch between them on the fly - har har).
Common foes are more often an annoyance than a threat, capable of chipping away your life bar if you get complacent, but it’s the boss encounters that’ll put your skills to the test, requiring dexterity, speed, and often multiple companion attacks. These battles can be tough – most took me several attempts to conquer – but the penalty for death is (mostly) negligible and the satisfaction comes from learning their attack patterns and planning your counterattacks. I’ve lost a lot of patience for difficult games as I’ve got older but Owlboy understands the difference between tough and frustrating – some platforming sections aside.
Hauling around your companions as weapons is a novel concept and picking the right tool for the right job is essential, especially in boss encounters.
When not battling a myriad through of foes or dodging hazards, you’ll be soaring around the map looking for secret chests full of coins that are used to unlock health upgrades and modifications for your companion’s weapons. It’s not a particularly complex system but when a single run will take about eight hours on the first go, it didn’t need to be. Look a little harder and you’ll also find owl tokens that expand upon the lore, or you’ll find some missing creatures – minions of the games only shopkeeper – who’ll unlock a mini-game that’ll put your reflexes to the test. Each zone is chock full of secrets and side paths to explore and you’ll wish there was an in-game map to help navigate.
There are a few quirks worth mentioning however. Protracted damage animations can see your character knocked back, set on fire, only to hit a wall and then slide down it. You can jam buttons to try break out of those states but it’s annoying as hell. There’s also a particular late-game platforming section (that requires pure memorisation), paired with inconsistent inputs (jump vs. glide), and rubbish check-pointing; it feels retro in all the wrong ways. So far, so 16-bit action platformer.
Puzzles are never overly challenging but provide a nice break between intense periods of combat or dodging environmental hazards.
What sets Owlboy apart is the remarkable presentation that helps create a world that is full of small details, beautiful vistas, imposing architecture, and plenty of atmosphere. The backgrounds look hand drawn with intricate details, while the sprite work captures the personalities of the key characters and brings to life the monstrous creatures and contraptions you’ll battle. The music supplements and surpasses many visual elements when it comes to creating atmosphere, mood, or tension. The Vellie village theme is as retro as it comes and instantly brought a smile to my face; soaring up into Tropos for the first time, the music swells in volume and intensity, emphasising your newfound freedom and the start of an epic adventure; the upbeat tracks during a boss fight elevates your pulse and perfectly complements the action as you dash around madly avoiding screen-filling attacks. Its incredible stuff and I’d recommend checking out the soundtrack on bandcamp.
In summary, Owlboy is a near-perfect retro adventure that doesn’t emulate classic 16-bit titles so much as it gives us what we remember them to be. Sprawling and epic, even in the confines of a 2D plane, full of likeable protagonists, nefarious villains, tough encounters, and an uplifting story that you’ll walk away from satisfied. It’s available digitally now on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 but will be coming to Switch in May (along with a physical release for Switch and PS4).
Enjoys games with awesome stories and characters, along with new and interesting hardware. Dislikes day-one patches and driver updates.
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PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
10 April 2018
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