Owlboy: PixelArt Elegance

I don’t think I’ve seen anyone comment on ‘Owlboy‘ without using the word ‘Beautiful’; D-Pad Studio’s troubled little owl has captured the hearts, of what seems like, everyone who has had the pleasure of soaring with Otus. The reported 10 year development time is striking, not only for the commitment and dedication from the small dev team, but because I’ve seen the evidence of that dedication in every screen of the game thus far in the hours I have spent with Otus. It would be easy at this point to reach for Hundstrasse’s “Big Book of Cliches” and use one of the many appropriate phrases such as “Owlboy is a love letter to the 16-bit era“, or “The creation of ‘Owlboy’ serves as an homage to the retro platformers that crossed swords in the fabled console wars of the 90’s“, but this would be doing a disservice to what ‘Owlboy’ ‘is’.

‘Owlboy’ is a beautiful and engrossing sprite based platform game.

The developers may have intended ‘Owlboy’ to be a 16-bit inspired metroidvania style action-adventure-puzzle-platformer*, but my experience with Otus tells me that it doesn’t need to carry a disclaimer that it is trying to be something; it stands very easily as its own thing.

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It is .. erm.. detailed!

The player is given the reigns of Otus, an orphan boy-owl who is both unable to win the respect of the village or speak. I assume that the haziness about Otus’ exact ‘situation’ is intentional, either left hanging as an open plot point yet to be resolved, or simply irrelevant to the unfolding events. It’s not clear (yet?) if his inability to volcalise is simply an unwillingness, or if he is a boy in an owl-suit rather than an anthropomorphic owl. Regardless, it is the threat by sky pirates on his hometown that takes our silent protagonist on an adventure of discovery about the ancient owls and teams him up with an underdog team of ‘misfits’ which, despite being decidedly standard plot fare, is touching without being too smooshy.

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Wah!! .. Pirates

Before I start wallowing in the pixels, I should probably discuss the gameplay, an exercise that seems crude given how crafted the visuals are; like holding a delicately hand engraved set of salad servers and mentally pondering the question “yes, they might look nice, but can they handle rocket“. Beneath the layers of charm lies a game which is fundamentally ‘un-complicated’, but competently assembled; a movement system that feels smooth, but not breathtaking; a combat system that is functional, but not jaw-dropping; and puzzle elements that are more interesting than taxing. The charm of the mechanics here are how they are wrapped up in the theming; it wouldn’t be uncommon in a game, for example, to be a ‘thing’ flying around shooting, but in this case substitute shooting for carrying around one of the many colourful supporting characters who then shoots for you. I couldn’t help but smile when the mechanic “push object through level navigating hazards to a goal” was whimsically transformed into carefully guiding clouds to ancient stone basins, then filling them by having our feathered protagonist squeeze those fluffy bundles of moisture.

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Squish!

The pixelart aesthetic is undoubtedly tuned to my own tastes, however I believe that Owlboy’s appeal goes far beyond personal bias. It’s a 2D platform game with a plethora of locations and diversity; Otus carries us through lush greenery, ancient ruins, warzones, and caverns of forgotten technology. It is a crafted world that carries with it a rich sense of lore, legend, and depth without boring the player with the details. In true ‘Metroidvania’ tradition, these areas are unlocked via. ingame mechanics and discoveries from a hub region which has the advantage of bringing Otus home every so often and reminding the player what is at stake. The multitude of areas are each unique with their own geological features along with a variety of, sometimes hostile, flora & fauna. These characteristic additions, along with palette choices, may provide an identity to each area, but the game as a whole has a sense of coherency which manages to ensure that this diversity doesn’t feel jarring or out of place. The boss battles punctuate each of these areas and are, likewise, solid gameplay elements providing a fair degree of challenge relying on the player’s quickly understanding & anticipation of the attack sequences. The flair of these encounters is once again (and I know I’m entering the realm of ‘broken record’) achieved through visual presentation. Each of the bosses provides a unique and memorable spectacle; they are outlandish without feeling incongruous and often prefixed with a growing sense of anticipation imparted by clever level design leading the player to the combat area.

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It’s not just the exterior sections that are intricately detailed

Unapologetically I admit that I’m gushing, but ‘Owlboy’ has in my opinion cleared the bar of being an excellent 2D platformer experience, and maybe serves to remind us what this kind of game can be when it fulfills its potential. In recent years it has been a genre that has been dominated by clever puzzle mechanics, quirkiness, and quick reflexes (some of which have been undoubtedly excellent) possibly as a response to a false perception that 3D worlds can better create atmosphere; D-Pad Studio’s creation has gifted the player a crafted & atmospheric pixelart world. ‘Owlboy’ has given me moments of genuinely pulse-raising excitement, intrigue, laughter, sorrow, and joy. It is truly enchanting, and I challenge anyone to sit at that campfire looking out at those stars not to feel that same.

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Feel free to jump into the comments, have you played Owlboy? .. am I overselling it?… did you love it too??… 

*Disclaimer: I don’t have special psychic abilities and I apologise to the developers if I just freaked you out by describing exactly what you were going for..

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