For all intents and purposes, it’s a twin-stick shooter with vertical platforming.
I think this is where Owlboy actually outshines its predecessors in the genre. It’s innovative enough to offer a fresh take on a tried-and-true genre that manages to both satisfy expectation and surpass prediction. It offers a few surprises while still relying on old-school conventions to deliver this weird blend of an old-meets-new adventure-platformer. And it does a great job doing so!
It is a wonderful experience, and D-Pad Studio’s passion for video games seeps through every pore. Was it a game that was worth the wait, given its near-decade development cycle? You bet it was.
This is pretty critical, as the vast majority of the game requires the player to keep moving up. It is without a doubt a platforming game, however, rather than moving from one side of a screen to the opposite, a la something like Mario, the objectives in Owlboy are at the end of large maze-like areas that almost always require the player to keep moving upwards.
At first glance, I honestly thought I was playing a Metroidvania game, but it soon dawned on me that the only thing the two have in common is the fact the levels are slightly more complex than going from point A to B. Owlboy doesn’t require item pickups to unlock new areas. It doesn’t require a great deal of backtracking. Each of the three companions that you get over the course of the game offer different sort of weapons, but these, too, are used to solve puzzles in the game’s dungeons. Alphonse, for instance, has a powerful fire-shooting shotgun that does a great deal of damage in an arc, but it can also be used to clear the underbrush and thick vines of some areas, as well as provide some light in dark tunnels.
In fact, the game’s emphasis on environmental puzzle-solving leaves me with the impression that I played something more akin to an upwards moving Legend of Zelda game, though with smaller and much less complicated dungeons, while still retaining some very clever and memorable boss fights. It’s an approach that works very, very well, as new areas offer different tricks as to how companions are used to solve these puzzles, both individually and in combination with one another. On top of that, this approach keeps the pace of the narrative going smoothly and in tandem with the individual story arcs of not only the unlikely heroes, but also of several of the villains, creating memorable characters and a very good story, especially for the fact that Owlboy is, in essence, a platformer.
This all wrapped together in a package that is just beautiful to behold. The game looks absolutely gorgeous, with beautiful high-resolution pixel graphics and a soundtrack is wonderful throughout. There isn’t a single sound effect or song that seems out of place or is poorly done. If Shovel Knight perfectly captured the essence of the 8-bit era, Owlboy does the same thing for the 16-bit era. It takes the idea of retro and runs with it in a direction that blends old with new in a way that is masterful.
Perhaps the biggest flaw is the game’s (over)use of cutscenes. I say “over” in parenthesis, because as a stalwart defender of the narrative presentation of Metal Gear Solid 4 I can’t really say that I felt there were too much of them. But, I can say that there certainly were a lot, a fact that sticks out considering the genre of the game. Had this been an RPG, for instance, the number of cutscenes wouldn’t have been thought twice of. Nonetheless, Owlboy has a tendency to rely on them very heavily to move the plot along. There are too many instances where these cutscenes only give control back to the player long enough to move off of the screen before immediately triggering another bit of passive narration. Again, it’s by no means a major problem. It is something that has the potential to be very grating for some players, however.
Aside from that, there really isn’t much else. The keyboard and mouse controls aren’t fantastic. They’re perfectly serviceable despite being a bit awkward, but like I said before, you’re probably going to want a controller for this one, as it, to me at least, offers a smoother and more fluid experience. There are a few stealth sections that, like the bit with the cutscenes, comes down to personal taste. They can be annoying for some, with one, in particular, being a rather lengthy sequence and feeling a little bit odd for a platformer, but again, it’s something that I took no issue with. What is present in the game is done well enough to not feel tacked-on or rushed or lazy, which I think is the biggest thing to keep in mind when pointing out the game’s flaws.
At the end of the day, I really don’t have anything bad to say about Owlboy at all, which I think is a testament to how well-made of a game it really is.
After ten years of toil and labour, I can say that D-Pad has released a gem. One that they should be proud of.