It took Michelangelo around 10 years to complete the Sistine Chapel and Davinci about 14 years to finish the Mona Lisa. These masterpieces are pillars of artistic history and their beauty evokes deep human emotion to all those that view them. Dare I mention D-Pads Studio’s Owlboy, a computer game, itself 10 years in the making, in the same breath as these two seminal works? Well……no, I am not about to go down the whole comparing priceless works of art to games rabbit hole, but the game did evoke similar deep human emotions in me from start to finish. Owlboy also reaffirmed to me that games can be, in their own right, art.
Growing up playing 16bit platformers like Earthworm Jim, Aladdin and, Mickey’s Magical Quest I was excited for this game to take me back to those responsibility free days. The aforementioned games were bright colourful blasts of simple and well executed gameplay. What I got with Owlboy was a grand tribute to these old school classics and so much more.
You are in control of Otus a budding owl apprentice charged with protecting Vellie. Our hero has to overcome the problems of being so young and inexperienced as well as mute when things go wrong and pirates invade his village with a dastardly plan to take over all the land. From here you embark on an enthralling adventure that takes Otus and his friends (Geddy, Alphonse, and Twig) around the floating continents that make up the world. You will interact with a multitude of unique characters that are strongly written and bring vital exposition to the story, a story that is succinct and well paced. The troubles of the present, we discover, are linked with the mysteries of the past and the race of the Ancient Owls.
During my time with the game there was never a moment where I felt like I had been on the same plot point for too long. Owlboy’s quest is filled with exciting action, tense slower paced sections, victories, losses, and plot twists that all drive the story on to a very satisfying and enlightening ending. The writing in the game is charming and funny with nothing feeling forced. The characters have substance but also a simple innocence to them that is endearing and similar to those from classic animated films from Disney and Don Bluth.
This story is delivered to you through absolutely stunning graphical and sound design. The pixel art characters and semi open world areas are second to none. It is immediately apparent that this game has been a labour or love for its five creators. The talent and time it took to make a game look this beautiful is staggering. The characters are animated with fluidity and expression. Every move of the body or change of emotion is deliberate and executed with pixel point accuracy. In game cut scenes, and there are many, mesh seamlessly with the gameplay never taking me out of the moment. The world that you explore is varied and detailed. Foreground and background animations make the scenery seem to jump out of the screen at you and everything feel alive. Whether you are flitting past the floating islands of the village of Vellie or dashing through the snow of Mesos, Owlboy is pure, unadulterated, eye candy.
Complimenting the mesmerizing graphics is Jonathan Greer’s soundtrack and this is where I start to use words like ‘masterpiece’. I am a great believer that music unlocks emotions and resonates with the human soul on a deeper level than just about anything. There were points during Owlboy that I simply put the game pad down and sat, enthralled by the music of the particular area I was in. To say the score is extensive would be an understatement. Every interconnected area in the game has its own theme that is punctuated by battle, character and cut scene tracks. In the first five minutes of the game alone I was spirited back in time and made to feel like a child, being exposed for the first time, to scores by the likes of James Horner and John Williams. The sheer range of music involved in the game from the fantastical and orchestral ‘The Truth About Otus’ to ‘Trouble Maker’ with its modern spin on chiptune, is a feast for the ears. If you can buy a copy of the game that also comes with the soundtrack this is a must. I will certainly be enjoying the beautiful score long after the game is behind me.
All of this visual and audio brilliance would lose something if they were not backed up with solid and fun game design and gameplay. Owlboy does not let us down in this department either. When in control of Otus you are able to run, jump, and dash on land as well as take to the air and soar around to your heart’s content. The game is made up of vast areas that are connected by smaller areas to form a semi open world. You, as Otus, are able to move freely between them when you have the necessary equipment or friend to accompany you. This adds a simplified Metroidvania feel to the game and brings with it a satisfying sense of depth. All the areas in the game are designed with a verticality that should be present in any game with the word owl in its title. Flying around the beautiful levels is a pleasure as there are no constraints put on you, such as limited, timed flight or a stamina bar. You can just, fly. This encourages exploration, and the joy of finding a secret area hidden behind a bush or through a fake wall is, again, a nod to classic games from the past. After only a few minutes in control of Otus I was swooping about with precision thanks to the accurate and intuitive controls. The developers have stated that they were inspired by aspects of Kid Iccarus and Mario 3 and I get the same feeling of mastery from the tight controls.
Otus is rarely alone in his adventure and interacts with his friends by picking them up and they assist him with their weapons while in flight. Geddy brings his standard rapid fire blaster that can be used to take down everyday enemies. Alphonse carries a shotgun that has short ranged powerful blast that damages multiple enemies as well as natural and man/owl made barriers. Twig will stun enemies with his web and has a grappling hook feature that can be used to get the gang to hard to reach places. Early on in the game Otus gains the ability to teleport his friends to him from anywhere and this is used in the simple, dynamic puzzles that litter the game. On the fly puzzle solving and friend/weapon switching becomes the mainstay of the gameplay and feels very natural very quickly. The weapons and Otus’ health can be improved by finding and collecting Bucanary Coins and this adds a simple but effective upgrade system to the game. As with many classic platforming and adventure games, bosses, are frequent adversaries for Otus and his band. You will fight mini bosses and multistage big bosses that all feel very challenging but fair. When you die, that feeling of knowing what you did wrong and wanting to jump right back in is ever present. The gameplay is further varied with small, but tense stealth sequences and areas that use light, or the lack of it, to keep things fresh.
Exploring, collecting coins, unlocking upgrades and finding three special gold coins that help unravel the history of the owls all bring Owlboy’s length to over 10 hours. This is a commendable amount of time to be able to spend in a world so great to look at, so enjoyable to listen to, and so fun to navigate. As with any work of art there can be flaws that show themselves to different observers, even if to some they serve to enhance the piece overall. For me there was a twitch based flying mini game, optional to all except the completionist, that seemed a bit out of place and detached from the more relaxing exploration based main game. Also towards the end of the game the flying mechanic that I had grown so used to was reduced, and while this ramped up the challenge it did cause flashes of frustration that had been all but absent during the rest of the game.
‘Revered, exalted, wise, this is what owls aspire to be’ is the noble quote that opens the game and from this moment on and for the entire duration of the game I felt something that I had rarely felt from a computer game as an adult. Wonder. There have definitely been moments of amazement and awe in games in my recent past but these came and went and I moved on to the next thing. What the small indie team at D-Pad Studio has created here, through many years of dedication and care, has elicited a tangible and lasting emotional response in me akin to when I first laid eyes upon the masterpieces mentioned in the opening paragraph of this review.