Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Owlboy Review

Owlboy is a side scrolling action adventure game from indie developer, D-Pad Studio. It features beautiful 2D graphics, and gameplay inspired by games like Zelda and Kid Icarus. Development on Owlboy started in 2007, and lasted nearly 10 years. Owlboy came out on PC in November of 2016, after multiple delays and development reboots. It's now on the Nintendo Switch eShop for $25, coming soon to PS4 and XBO, and will get a physical release for PS4 and NS on May 29, 2018.

Owlboy takes place in a world where people live on floating islands, and Pirates terrorize the skies on airships. You play as a young Owl named Otus, who was born a mute. The Owls of this world are the remnants of a highly advanced ancient civilization. They're kind of like the Chozo. Lately, the floating islands have started to drift even higher into the sky, and the people believe the technology in the ancient Owl temples is the cause. To make matters worse, Pirates have begun attacking the towns and raiding the nearby Owl temples for their ancient relics, which they plan to use to gain great power. As a result of these attacks, war between the Pirates and the people on the floating isles has broken out.

All this conflict is really just the backdrop for the real story of the game, though. The story of Owlboy is a much more personal one about bonds, living up to other's expectations, and redemption. The characters in Owlboy all have a purpose, and a backstory that has led them to this point. Owlboy is about more than saving the world. These characters have things to prove. It's not often you see a story like this in a Metroidvania. It's more like the kind of story I'd expect to find in an RPG.

Besides having the ability to freely fly all over, the main mechanic that sets Owlboy apart is the ally system. Different characters will join Otus during his quest, and each new friend brings new abilities you can use to attack, solve puzzles, and overcome obstacles. Otus’ friends also do all the talking for him. Because he's mute. One ally has a fiery shotgun, Geddy has a handgun, and another ally can shoot Spider-Man-like web balls and zip around using his web like a hookshot. You can use their abilities to light torches, zip to previously inaccessible areas, and break obstacles in your way. You can also drop allies on top of switches if you need something to keep them pressed down. Allies don't take damage, you can switch between them with the press of a button, and you get an item that teleports them to you at the end of the first dungeon, so you never have to worry about where they are after that. This isn't an Ico or escort mission type of thing.

You start the game in Vellie, Otus’s hometown and main hub area of the game. After talking to a few NPCs, and meeting your first ally, Geddy, you head off into an Owl temple, which you can only get to with Geddy’s shooting ability. These Owl temples are the dungeons of the game, but there are dungeons in places besides Owl temples, like one inside a Pirate airship. The first dungeon is the tutorial, so it’s mostly teaching you how to use your ally to press switches, how to stun and attack enemies, and how to grab, carry, and throw things. I thought most dungeons were pretty good. Nothing mind blowing, but good. There was one I really didn't like, though. One of them takes place in complete darkness, except for a circle of light around you, for about half the dungeon, and you have to go around lighting torches with your ally. The main challenge of the dungeon is not running into hazards outside of your circle of light. I don't think this is clever or interesting level design. It was just annoying.

There is a boss at the end of every dungeon, and I didn't think any of them were bad, but none of them were amazing either. They just weren't very clever or challenging. Every one of them was pretty easy and straightforward. Aside from their big beautiful sprites, none of them were especially memorable.

There are a lot of indie, 2D, pixel art games on digital game stores these days, but few look as good as Owlboy. The backgrounds in Owlboy are beautiful, varied, and full of details that tell the story of this world. The characters are full of personality, and have a bunch of different animations for attacks, movement, and even facial animations. You can always tell how Otus is feeling, because of the look on his face, or the way he walks. Owlboy's graphics are on par with those in games from studios like Inti Creates and WayForward.

The soundtrack in Owlboy is very ambient and subdued. Sometimes, there isn't any music at all, and all you hear is the wind and your wings flapping. You can tell that a lot of thought was put into when music plays, and I like that, but besides a couple of tracks, I just didn't think the music was very memorable. It just kind of blends into the background and doesn't stand out to me.

I must mention that the game crashed on me 6 times during my playthrough. Thankfully, the game autosaves often, so I never lot much progress, but it did kind of ruin the mood. I asked D-Pad Studio about the crashes on Twitter, and they said there's a memory leak, and that there's a patch coming, so hopefully that'll be the end of that.

I was weary coming into this game. Some reviews rated it very highly, but I’ve also seen a lot of people say they were disappointed with it. I guess they were expecting something else. Owlboy is not a fast-paced action game or a super challenging platformer, it's a relaxed, easy to play, story driven game, and that's what sets it apart from the Metroids and Shantaes. The gameplay is good, but the beautiful 2D graphics, bittersweet story, and relatable characters are the real highlights of the game. I could have done with something better than the dark dungeon, but besides that, and the crashes, I had a good time with this game. It's not the masterpiece that some reviews make it out to be, but it's worth checking out if you want to play a different take on the genre.