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‘Owlboy’ – Don’t Pass up the Opportunity to Experience Such a Work of Staggering Imagination

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Owlboy, a love letter to adventure platformers of gaming past, is a game almost a decade in the making. It actually took the five-man team at D-Pad Studio nine years to finish the game before it launched on PC last year  – and while that may seem like an unusual amount of time to create an indie game (especially one that consists of roughly ten hours of gameplay), the hard work paid off in spades. For a retro 2D, Metroidvania-style indie game that places a heavy focus on exploration and combat, you would be forgiven to think that Owlboy has nothing new to bring to the table, but in fact, Owlboy at its best, boasts qualities that are usually missing in platformers: tingling observations, unforced comedy, an engaging story and quirky, enduring charm.

At its heart, Owlboy is a throwback of a genre gone by, and while it certainly has its roots in games like The Legend of Zelda, Kid Ikarus, or Castlevania, it feels, looks and sounds different than any of the games I’ve been told inspired the creators. There’s a fine line between imitation and inspiration and unlike say, Axiom Verge, a game which set out to fully emulate Super Metroid, Owlboy does its own thing.

Take for instance the incredibly detailed, luxuriously animated pixel art and lush palette with multiple layers of parallax scrolling. Rather than go with a retro aesthetic, D-Pad Studio’s art director Simon Stafsnes Andersen chose a style they describe as ‘hi-bit’. In other words, Owlboy’s visuals aren’t intended to specifically ape 8- or 16-bit graphics – but instead uses an art style as personal as an Utamaro painting, that perfectly adapts to its ever-changing themes and scenarios. It’s an amazing work, filled with a visual intelligence that’s meticulously composed and obscenely clever. Make no mistake, the game is absolutely gorgeous and it’s hard to play for more than a few minutes without finding at least one scene, that would make a stunning screensaver. Then there is Jonathan Geer’s soaring score, which puts most other video game soundtracks to shame. Against the slew of 8-bit chiptune retro soundtracks the indie scene has produced over the years, Owlboy’s orchestrated music is a breath of fresh air: lush, romantic and varied, and perfectly complements its shifting tone and atmosphere.

The original idea for Owlboy came about when Andersen heard rumors of Nintendo’s upcoming “Revolution” console (which would later be called the Wii) and saw an opportunity in making a game that calls back to the pixel-driven action games he had grown up playing. Of course, this was back in 2007 when retro-style games were once a novel idea, not part of an oversaturated genre, or worse, a cliché. Fast-forward ten years and things have change. Yet, against the barrage of retro-inspired sidescrolling platformers released since then, Owlboy is an outstanding example of how the genre can continue to flourish and still feel fresh.

The Owls Are Not What They Seem

While everything about Owlboy is done with extraordinary care, what really sets Owlboy apart is it’s the story and writing. What we have here is an exceptionally well-crafted coming-of-age tale full of really dark moments, and some heart-wrenching scenes. It follows the story of young Otus, our mute protagonist who studies under his domineering mentor Asio, a curmudgeonly owl who routinely criticizes our feathered hero and chastises his inability to speak. What at first seems like a simple 2D platformer quickly reveals an incredibly deep, plot involving ancient owl societies, dark secrets, abuse and a recurring theme of failure. When sky-pirates attack the peaceful surroundings of Otus’ world  – threatening to destroy the city and steal powerful relics in the process – he teams up with a military mechanic, Geddy, and other trusty companions he meets along the way to put a stop to the pirates before their home is destroyed. From its heartbreaking opening (a sequence of cold verbal abuse leaving Otus with his head bowed), to its equally devastating conclusion, Owlboy ends up being an extraordinarily intimate portrait of a life unfolding and an exceptional, unconventional game in which a boy with a disability must overcome his insecurities, find courage, and more importantly gain confidence to save those he loves.

Owlboy’s charm rests on the shoulders of its lead character Otus. There’s no voice acting, and even if there was, Otus can’t speak – but thanks to the expressive body language and facial expressions, Otus becomes a fully fleshed character by the end of the game. And while Otus himself remains silent, other characters around him fill in the blanks, providing a backstory and well-written dialogue, leaven with strong underlying themes. As an owl in training, Otus begins his adventure has an unusual protagonist – a vulnerable would-be hero, with no special abilities or weapons to use. He can’t even defend himself against the local owl bullies and progressing through the branching world map requires the help of his friends. And since his handicap is consistently highlighted throughout the journey, the game makes it easier for us to constantly care for him. That said, Otus is far from helpless. An early encounter with his best mate Geddy introduces the game’s central mechanic: flight. And unlike most games which give a character the ability to fly, Otus is able to soar freely without being held back by depleting stamina. It’s his first step in becoming the hero he’s meant to be. As the game progresses, you can cycle between his three buddies instantly using a teleportation device found in a dungeon early on. It is an interesting spin on the classic Metroidvania format and a convenient way of switching characters, weapons, and abilities on the fly. In various dungeons, you’ll need to swap between three characters to overcome obstacles — using Geddy’s pistol for disposing of enemies, and Alphonse’s fiery shotgun to burn through tough vines. Having these additional characters, each with their own ability, adds to Owlboy’s charm. It also helps Owlboy is blessed with a script that’s rife with emotion and nuance, and that Geddy, Alphonse, and Otus share great chemistry through their snappy dialogue. There are very few 2D platformers that allow characters to grow throughout the course of the game, but I felt invested in the personal growth and development of Otus and his friends. From the built-in mythology, character animations, well-written dialogue, tight controls, and a handful of plot twists, Owlboy does just about everything right.

Owlboy is one of the best games in years – consistently charming and surprising, with an ending open to interpretation that will have fans theorizing long after the credits roll. As I sat back and watched the closing cutscene, I couldn’t help but reflect on how far Otus had come.

  • Rikcy D

Side note: Over at iam8bit, they’ve got a pressing of the Owlboy soundtrack up for order that features art from Nicole Gustafsson (The Fountain OST at Mondo).

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and Tilt Magazine. Host of the NXpress Nintendo Podcast and the Sordid Cinema Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound on Sight. Former host of several other podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead shows, as well as Sound On Sight. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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