|Developer D-Pad Studio
Heroes still triumph of course, as they tend to do, but there’s a thread running through it all that speaks to a level of doubt, insecurity and imperfection that too many such stories barely skim in comparison. Perceived failure and genuine failure, inherited failure; failure that’s fresh as a wound. The point is that everyone fails, has failed, will fail, and that’s OK. Failure isn’t by definition the end.
If that seems like a heavy message for a game about a cute little owl kid and his friends, well, welcome to Owlboy.
Failure isn’t by definition the end
On the surface, Owlboy is all clouds and feathers and friendship staged in the sun-soaked floating archipelago of Vellie. The demands of the game itself are not always as kind. Make no mistake: Owlboy is about clever boss fights and punishing platforming puzzles. Though most of these aren’t masochistic in their difficulty, no player will leave a stranger to the crumpled and broken frame of the game’s hero, Otus the owl.
That said, Otus isn’t helpless. Progressing through the branching world map requires his skills (spins, rolls and, of course, the power of generally unlimited flight) as well as those of his friends, whom he can summon and carry as he flies about. Each of them has a different weapon and a different utility to make use of, from guns to grappling hooks, and they can interact with the game’s environments in different ways. One ally’s fiery shotgun, for example, can be used to blast enemies and obstacles alike, daintily light lanterns, or raze patches of vines and leaves to ash in the wind. Allies are unlocked as you progress, and coins accumulated by digging up treasure and flying through aerial loops can eventually be used to soup-up their skills as well as Otus’ health.
While picking up, carrying, swapping and using these other characters could have easily been a chore, Owlboy has streamlined this aspect pretty effectively. Aiming a weapon will snap the reticle to the most likely targets within range. An empty-handed Otus will also automatically summon his last-used friend into his grip the second a player tries to make use of one of those friends’ weapons, and the shoulder buttons on an Xbox 360, Xbox One or PlayStation 4 controller swaps between them.
Yet as much as Owlboy lays out the tricks and tools for you to use and sets you in environments that hint towards one solution in particular, that particular solution isn’t always most efficient route forward. There are many occasions where a hostile environment seems like it demands pure timing and skill but you can still get by just as well cheesing it in the cheapest ways possible. Hugging walls, spamming Otus’ roll action rather than fumbling with a grapple, ducking into corners — these are strategies that I would expect to develop over time spent repeatedly playing a game and honing my skills. But loopholes and cuttable corners come easily and often enough that some sequences just feel loose as a result.
Elsewhere, Owlboy can seem unnecessarily harsh. A good example of this is seen in one area near the end of the game where healing items (plentiful up to that point) vanish entirely. In the stealth-oriented sequence in question, poisonous smoke fills the rooms whenever Otus is detected by the enemies in the area, making healing items even more important. Either you’re meant to evade detection for the entire sequence or else die and return to a checkpoint often enough that the presence (or absence) of those items doesn’t matter, but pivoting so suddenly from abundance to absence is as jarring as it is irritating. Then there are the times where a single misstep, a single mis-threaded needle is a death sentence, when accidentally triggering the flight mechanic — something blissfully easy to do, much to the benefit of nearly every other segment of the game — is a mortal error. When Owlboy is at its most punishing, it’s often at its most flawed.
Checkpointing is at least relatively generous, with the exception of the occasional high-risk environmental puzzle that goes on just long enough that I could have done with an additional mid-way checkpoint or two. And sometimes the game marks a save just before an unskippable not-quite-cutscene before certain boss fights or challenges. A striking moment in the story or staging the first time I saw it grated the fourth, sixth, tenth time over.
This is frustrating, because Owlboy is damn charming. Its story makes some deeply satisfying swerves, for one thing; what initially seems like a rote story of sky pirates and sky peasants goes in an unexpected direction. Moreover Owlboy is full of beautiful art that’s lush and dimensional, painted with a palette of sun-dappled stone and cloud sometimes seeming to extend into the distance forever and other times perfectly evoking dark, claustrophobic constriction. Even if you’re slightly desensitized to the full glory of good pixel art it’s hard to leave without finding at least one scene, one animation, or even one lore-captioned still to admire. Even the music manages to meet the bar that both the story and the artwork set, filled with orchestral pieces and an occasional nod to the chiptune.
As much hair-pulling as I’ve done over the course of completing Owlboy for review, as skeptical as I was that it could pull itself together for a satisfying and redeeming conclusion, in the end it still won me over.
Owlboy is a game about making mistakes on the way to success.
I can lean back and pick out plenty of things about Owlboy that frustrated me, but its failings shrink in the face of its triumphs. I have no excess of affection for the 16-bit genre retreads but even as Owlboy lacks the tightness or consistency of many of the games it sits alongside, it’s far more approachable, far more endearing, and far more unique.
Owlboy was reviewed using a pre-release Steam key provided by D-Pad Studio. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews