What the hell happened?
Owlboy had me going. For the sweet first half of the game, I appreciated its steady learning curve, interesting puzzles, fantastic visuals, great sounds…I could go on. This was going to be an unmitigated recommendation…and then something happened. Owlboy made a slow steady descent into bad design choices that don’t ruin the game, but do make me wary to give it an unreserved recommendation. Make no mistake; this is a good game.
It could have been a great one.
The interesting bit starts right from the beginning. The player is introduced to Otus, an owl boy under the tutelage of his owl mentor Asio. Asio is hyper critical of Otus and his strong, almost cruel, berating of the boy sets up the first of the game’s interesting characters. Pirates attack Otus’ hometown while Otus is away forcing him to join with Geddy, a human solder, in an attempt to stop the pirates’ dastardly deeds. The story starts incredibly strong with impactful moments that seem to have an important effect on the characters. Otus, Geddy, and others who join later seem genuinely changed by the events. Even side characters undergo trauma, exhibit bravery, and hint at greater development to come. It’s all very compelling except that it never really pays off. Most events happen as you would expect or just don’t happen at all. At one point Geddy leaves the party due to a conflict with one of the new party members. The other characters comment that he’ll come around and, well, he does. The player doesn’t see his character develop which is shocking given the delicate handling of the emotional scenes in the first half of the game. Nothing is particularly wrong with the story and characters during the second half, but they devolve into industry standard heroes rather than the complex elements they started as.
Sadly, the level design does the same. Owlboy’s Metroidvania style action platforming stands out in the beginning as a fun, puzzle-focused romp through lush lands. Otus can fly and use his compatriots for their abilities by picking them up. The flight controls bleed over to the walking controls causing periodic frustration when Otus doesn’t do what the player intends, but the controls are tight enough and the levels are permissive enough that it doesn’t matter. Owlboy also has reasonable check points, cut scene skipping, and a way to skip death animations showing considerable respect for the player’s time. This all slowly degrades as developer D-Pad Studio sought to increase the difficulty of the game. D-Pad introduces ever more frustrating mechanics that make the game harder, but less fun. The mechanics devolve until the final level wherein Otus can only glide, not fly. The confused control design between flying and platforming results in the player accidently engaging gliding when they need to get the most from their jump. Other mechanics degrade as well such as unfortunately placed checkpoints and unskippable cutscenes in the middle of boss fights. None of these ruin the game (after all, they are staple problems of the genre), but they seem completely unnecessary in a game that looked like it fixed them as problems. It’s this decline in level design and mechanics that undermines the game most of all.
If anything makes up for the slow decline in quality, it would be the sound and visual design. The songs are gorgeous and match the mood of each level. They periodically combine with the detailed hi-bit visual design to craft a truly magical moment. Environments get repetitive at times, but it’s always a pleasure to see the leaves rustle through the forests, watch a waterfall, or enjoy a well-positioned scene. Unlike the other aspects of this game, the quality of the aesthetic design never fades.
It’s hard to not miss the great game that Owlboy could have been instead of the good game that it is. The decline is noticeable and frustrating, but never wrecks the experience. Fans of Metroidvania games should get their money’s worth and even those who general enjoy the genre should have a good time. Owlboy doesn’t transcend the genre the way it could have, but you’ll still have a fun time playing it.