Developer: D-Pad Studio
It's been quite a while since I played anything on my Switch that's not Animal Crossing, but a recent short trip to see family allowed me to get back to some handheld gaming. I actually started Owlboy about a year ago, when I rented it from GameFly and decided to buy it. I played through the first 10 minutes enough to know I would probably like it, but put it aside since I was busy with other games at the time. It's actually the only indie game I own in "physical" form, and it's been sitting there collecting dust until I decided to bring it on this trip. Owlboy is a pixel-art action-adventure "Metroidvania" game about a young owl who has to save the world alongside his friends. Owlboy is gorgeous game visually and auditorily with a very different take on platforming.
In a society of highly-intelligent anthropomorphic owls who coexist with humans, you play as young Otus, a young student owl who is being individually trained by his mentor Asio. Silent protagonists are definitely a commonplace thing in games, but in Owlboy, the protagonist Otus is actually a mute. This is made clear to you within the first minute of playing and throughout the game you can see people treat Otus very differently for it. Also within the first minute, you will likely realize that wow, Asio is an asshole. He constantly berates Otus for any little mistake he makes, calling him a total disappointment and a failure to his people. His words and anger clearly have a strong effect on sensitive young Otus, who in turn has a low self-image as well. However, a little bit further into exploring Vellie, the town where Otus lives, we find that Otus does have a good friend in his life named Geddy. Geddy and Otus travel together when Otus has assignments from Asio and helps speak up when Otus can't. Somewhere along their adventures, they discover that the "Sky Pirates" are on a mission to steal ancient owl relics and will destroy anyone in their path to do so. Geddy and Otus fight the pirates together, flying to different dungeons to stop them from reaching the relics. Along the way, some characters will remind you that you're not supposed to be a hero, and you should know your place. Owlboy reminds me a little bit of Wandersong in the protagonist's determination despite his the world's lack of belief in them. Yet, many of these characters grow and change in very organic ways throughout the story, and all the characters are strongly affected by the pain and tragedy that befalls them.
The gameplay is Owlboy is very unique, especially for a platformer, because you can essentially always be effortlessly flying through the world. Otus doesn't really get tired nor is there a height limit, so it feels pretty limitless to start out with. However, the world is crafted in such a way that flying around doesn't mean you can get everywhere you need to go, as there's gates that can keep even the owls from getting by. It is really fun to fly upwards through Vellie, a town that spans vertically and is more like a series of small floating islands. Also, it makes it especially interested when you have to fly through obstacles that will impair your flying, like waterfalls. Interestingly enough, Otus doesn't actually have any fighting abilities of his own besides a flying spin. Most of the fighting is done by his friends who he carries around with his talons. Owlboy is thankfully not as challenging as I expected it to be, but some boss battles definitely took me several tries. Not only do you have a fairly small health bar, but getting hit in this game feels much more consequential. A hit means you get knocked across the screen, usually slammed against a wall and falling to the ground, dropping your comrade who you were carrying. At times this can feel a little frustrating, especially since the controls are sometimes a little confusing and you'll end up switching through your fighting characters on accident. However, for the most part, I enjoyed the intensity and challenge that this added. In battle, Owlboy is actually a twin-stick shooter, which I'm not experienced with very much at all, so I had to really learn how to focus on getting that right.
During my playthrough, I was repeatedly blown away by the environment art of Owlboy. I would go as far as to say that this is the most beautiful pixel-art game I've ever played. My love for pixel art has grown in last couple of years and I follow many pixel artists on social media, but this is the pinnacle of what I've seen in a game. In my opinion, this is one of the few games that looks better on the Switch's screen that on a TV screen - when I tried docking and playing on TV for a short bit, I just wasn't able to appreciate the incredible details as much. It probably wouldn't be a downgrade if you were up close to your TV, though, or playing on PC.
If you've heard of Owlboy before this review, you've likely heard of its famously long development period. The developers started working on the game in 2007 and the game was released a whole 9 years later. Although this is truly a wild amount of time, I can definitely see the amount of polish and care that this game was given in that time. Everything about Owlboy feels precise and perfected. This includes the art I mentioned, but also the soundtrack. The music in Owlboy is purposely very reminiscent of SNES-era soundtracks, but also very orchestrated and instrumental. The soundtrack ranges from fun adventure themes to heavy epic finale tracks. Check out the soundtrack on Steam or on Bandcamp, it's a good one to listen to while working or studying (although a few tracks have some intense and exciting string sections for boss fights).
Owlboy is not only a beautiful piece of art but is also unique and challenging in its gameplay. The story has some surprisingly emotional and heavy moments, as well as some unexpected turns. I felt strongly for the cast of characters and the struggles they went through. I didn't cover too much of the story in this review since there's just a lot of development and backstory. I highly recommend it especially for fans of platformers, but it's also a great entry point for those less familiar with the genre. The controls might feel confusing at first, but it works pretty well once you get used to it. It's such a perfect game for the Switch and feels just right on the go.
Owlboy is available on PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4, and Xbox One.
Played on: Switch
Playtime: 10 hrs
I usually only include my own screenshots and videos, but I had to throw some official art in here of my favorite characters in this game. These are the Boguins, rambunctious little penguin creatures that are always down for a fun time.