Culture today seems to be completely dominated by nostalgia. From retro throwback sodas to miniature renditions of the Nintendo Entertainment System, the prevalence of products trying to appeal to our shared histories can come off as marketing departments twisting our childhoods to convince us to consume, and the less said about The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, the better. It takes genuine sincerity to put out a project that can truly bring out those warm fuzzy feelings without coming off as a purely pixelated cash grab. Owlboy manages to do that and much more.
If you haven’t yet heard about our young avian adventurer, allow me to do the honours. Owlboy is a love letter to adventure platformers of gaming past, nearly a decade in the making. Other games attempt this by directly emulating a particular game (i.e. Axiom Verge is to Super Metroid as Bravely Default is to Final Fantasy). However, while Owlboy certainly has its roots in games like The Legend of Zelda, Soul Blazer, or Castlevania (More Simon’s Quest than any of the others), you’d never think of it as one of those games. Owlboy is its own game, one that can inspire its own sense of adventure and wonder on par with any of its predecessors.
Gushing aside, we’ll get into the nitty gritty about this game. Owlboy follows the humble beginnings of Otus, one of the few remaining boys who also happens to be an owl. Otus studies under Asio, a curmudgeonly older owl person who routinely mentally abuses and mistreats our feathered hero. Development of Owlboy was hindered by a bout of depression from the design team, and this relationship definitely illustrates these feelings. The game doesn’t linger here, so players who don’t want to spend their time mired in existential dread will be soaring away from that pretty quickly.
Once the action begins, you won’t be doing a great deal of walking. Traversal in Owlboy is just as vertical as it is horizontal. While the sweet little owl child is a pro at flying, regardless of what his grumpy teacher says, he is no fighter. Luckily, he’s got friends, all of whom have guns. You can dispatch enemies by spinning, flipping, and throwing, but you’ll spend more time with a buddy betwixt your talons, playing the gunner to your pilot.
The world is a joy to explore. Flying never ceases to be enjoyable, even after hours of the stuff. The controls are tight and precise. The gorgeous backgrounds and epic soundtrack make Owlboy a joy for the senses. I found myself consistently awe struck by the by the diverse landscapes and the musical swells.
At first blush, the story seems like it will be pretty standard. Otus and his buddy Geddy are distracted from their duties as town guards and sky pirates attack. Pursuit ensues, as it does, and the dire nature of this conflict comes to light. It would seem that the pirate king is attempting to acquire eldritch power from an ancient civilization, to which the protagonist is tied. However, that is where the storytelling tropes end. Honestly, the characters are so endearing and writing so spot on that the deranged pirate feels pretty imposing where a weaker game would have just pitted you against a cheap Kefka knock off. Characters have well fleshed out motivations and undergo actual development, an idea that feels revolutionary in this day and age.
As much as I’d like to call Owlboy perfect, it’s not. Enemy encounters can become repetitive. Nothing ever feels too difficult, but overcoming hordes of similar enemies can be a little frustrating. Similarly, boss encounters tend to alternate between interesting fights fraught with puzzles or interesting mechanics, to arena style rooms pitting you against waves of the same enemies.
Really, those are my only real criticisms of the game, and none of that lasts for a particularly long time. Even the occasional stealth segment feels more like a puzzle than anything else. Whether it’s a game you’ve been following or something that you’ve never heard of, Owlboy deserves a look. You’ll come away from a great experience having seen something unique in today’s climate of triple A nonsense and vapid storylines.