I’ve decided to start my ‘proper’ 2017 review cycle by looking back at some critically acclaimed 2016 games that I missed. Because how many 2017 games are there out yet, realistically? Plus, 2016 was such a busy year for games: even with all the time and weeks that I had, I just couldn’t get to everything. Particularly since I just spent eight weeks limiting myself to visual novels, and all that. It’d be a shame to miss out on some of the actually good 2016 stuff, given how much terrible garbage that year has crammed down our throats.
First on the list is D-Pad Studio‘s strigine adventure, Owlboy, a game that was purportedly nine years in the making. That sounds like a lot of built-up hype to live up to, but luckily, I haven’t paid any attention to it. Far as I know, Owlboy is ‘just’ a pretty pixel-looking that involves boys, and owls, and boys that may or may not be owls. That it was seemingly well-received about almost a decade of waiting speaks in its favor, but just how well will this game do with a guy who for all intents and purposes learned about its existence two months ago? I guess there’s only one way to find out!
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low-medium. Mechanical, somewhat high.)
(Game source: Patreon funds.)
From the very first screen, it’s clear that Owlboy dresses to impress. The title screen camera slowly pans up over an expansive landscape of sun-dappled clouds and verdant floating islands and it is gorgeous. The audio really helps to sell the mood, pristine, but brimming with potential energy. There’s adventure to be had.
I’m almost tempted to rush forward and start playing immediately. But some traditions are important, my friends, particularly in this Year Of Our Luigi 2017. If I hadn’t taken the time to look through the options first, would I ever have found these fancy purple audio bars?
Or would I ever have seen Owlboy‘s three graphics options?
Okay, so Owlboy‘s options aren’t all that impressive. The most important lesson I take home from the menu exploration is that Owlboy really seems to expect me to play with a controller. Not because of intrusive button prompts or anything; far as I can tell, the icons switch between XBox and mouse/keyboard style fairly seamlessly. But I use a controller to navigate the menu anyway, because at first I can’t for the life of me figure out how to enter the menu with a keyboard. It’s not the Enter button! It’s not the Spacebar button. It’s not A, S, or D, or Z or X or C, or any other button you’d be drawn to try if you have any RPG Maker experience. It’s not Tab or Backspace. It’s not… anything. It seriously takes me like three minutes to work out that I’m expected to click the mouse to enter and exit menus. Which is to say, there’s no visible mouse cursor or anything, and I select menu options with the arrow/WASD keys as expected. But blind mouse clicks are what activate ’em. You’ll probably agree when I say this is unconventional.
Anyway. Controller works intuitively and fine, and I’ve got nothing else to say about this title. Let’s owl it up!
“Revered. Exalted. Wise.”
I prepare myself for a flat text intro accompanied by booping chip noises. Then Owlboy makes a good second impression by not letting the visually boring part last for longer than strictly necessary.
Let me set the scene for you. The area: a misty collection of grass-mottled rock spires, that look — I believe I’ve mentioned this before — gorgeous. The actors: one older figure with white-and-black hair and a bit of a goofy red nose, and one younger figure clad in browns, similar nose types. Actually, those are probably supposed to be beaks, huh? From the dialogue, and also the game title, I’m willing to infer that these are probably owl… I want to say ‘owlboys’, but the older figure is clearly more of an owl-gentleman.
“I can see you are already a fine young owl, Otus,” the older figure says, putting extra blue-font emphasis on that last word. “In time, I will mold you into the spitting image of myself.” This makes the younger owl, Otus, visibly nervous.
The older owl talks about taking Otus under his wing — which is an interesting figure of speech for owl people to use, I suppose — while Otus says nothing in return. This is because Otus was born a mute. So we’re looking at a silent protagonist game here, is what I’m inferring. But hey, at least it’s actually embedded in the lore this time. And you might as well get this stuff out of the way early. And it’s not like Otus isn’t expressive: I can clearly see him steepling his little owl fingers, and his ear twitches every now and again.
Suddenly, the scene shift, and we’re on a different island. Teacher Owl tells Otus that he’s not great at studies, but maybe he has other talents. Like, maybe, flying. “I bet you’ve been looking forward to this,” Teacher says, and I can tell from Otus’ face that that’s not far off the mark.
“All you need to do is jump off the ground,” says Teacher. Really? That’s… that’s it?
What actually happens is that I press A to make Otus jump, then press A again to unfold his ‘owl cloak’. This is actually interesting; I would have figured that Otus would use his own owl wings to fly. But no, once he’s in the air, I can clearly make out his mostly humanoid physique. Human arms, human legs, you get the idea. But once airborne, the unassuming cloak he wears folds out into a pair of cloth things.
Apart from the initial lift-off, flying is actually really simple in this game. Otus just… does it. There’s no need to tap A or anything. Using the left stick, I can navigate around and fly at will. It feels good. I like flying! Teacher seems okay with my progress, but they have a challenge for me: fly up to the highest island. Obviously that’s not gonna be a problem for Otus, high-flyer extraordi-
Uh-oh. Otus makes it to just below the island, but then visibly gets tired. His flapping slows down, and I lose upward control as he slowly starts drifting down.
The scene shifts again. Suddenly we’re on a different island, running, as columns of smoke twirl in the distance. Some place called ‘Vellie’ is short on water, and it’s up to us to help! Teacher owl berates Otus, who isn’t carrying his water jug.
This might just be my imagination, but I’m starting to think this place might not be entirely lucid.
“Pick up the jug, Otus,” Teacher says, so I run over to it and press Left Trigger. Otus yanks the massive jug off the ground, flying up as he does so, because how else is he gonna carry that massive thing? “Now carefully position it over on this place.” A handy arc and button prompt appear to help me with this process.
Now, I’m honestly a little confused by this. Teacher says ‘put it down’, but the buttom prompt says to push Right Trigger. But the text on the bottom clearly suggests that RT is bound to ‘throw’. Is that right? I don’t know, but I don’t see anything else I can do. And hey, teacher knows best, right? I hit RT, and Otus hurls the jug along the dotted line, onto the target stone. Where it shatters into a hundred pieces, breaking the stone and spilling water everywhere.
Teacher is not amused.
Scene shift the third. No lessons today: Otus is only to talk to the other villagers, so they can tell him how much he sucks. Except it’s star-lit dark out. And the wind howls eerily. And there are no ‘villagers’, just spiteful blobs of ever-shifting shadow.
Yeah, okay, let’s just speed this along to the inevitable conclusion.
Good news: it was all a dream. Bad news: looks like Otus’ anxiety re: Teacher owl is rooted in at least some truth. Teacher comes off as a bit of a jerk. They exhort me to follow, and I do, taking only the briefest moment to grab a tea pot on the stove and chug it down directly.
I emerge outside in the beautiful village of Vellie! It’s made of flying islands, somehow, and also flying circles of branch and leaf. Somehow.
“Otus, don’t zone out!” Teacher yells, as the camera is totally busy zoning out. They then exhort me that today, I will be ‘keeping watch over Vellie’. There might be pirates about! I’m to fly around, watch the skies, and report to Teacher or ‘the guards’ anything suspicious. So, play with the flying mechanics, and chat with a bunch of NPCs? I think I can do that.
The flying mechanics in this game feel really good. You just… jump up, and you’re gone. I spend a significant amount of time flying around my little corner of Vellie. Of course I try to fly through the wooden rings, of course, they’re practically asking me to. They disappear as I do, rewarding me with… coins? Somehow?
I also grab a bunch of stuff on the ground, because idle talons are the dev-owl’s plaything. There are beets and roots growing here and there, and I happily dig those up and just chow down, immediate. I find a few buried vases and stone boxes, which I shatter on the ground to get to the coins inside. I even find a few treasure chests! I have no idea what unopened buried treasure chests are doing in what’s supposed to be the Vellie village limits, but hey! Free treasure!
The higher I fly, the more Vellie I find. Including some actual other inhabitants. Like Geddy, a green-clad guy with a doofy hat keeping watch over a very large cannon. He’s the first character in this game genuinely happy to see Otus, and I’m so caught up in this that it takes me a few seconds to register that he’s human. Like, totally entirely human. No owl cloak, no antenna-like hair, no beakish nose… his is more of an orb.
I find more humans living in the village. Or are they owls? They all have the distinc orange-red noses… just most of them look like actual noses. I talk to them, and again get a much warmer reception than from Teacher. Mia the musician tells me about pirates and troublemakers. Toby the spring-keeper shares his hot waters with me. And Bombo the bongo-player (no, really) tells me that I should go check Lookout Point, to the west. Which I will… right after I find all treasures and hidden vegetables around town.
At scenic Lookout Point, I get bullied by two owl kids. They’re called Fib and Onacci, which makes my eyes roll, and they’re also very obviously owls. So now I really don’t know what to believe anymore. There are humans in this town, and owls, and also people like Otus and Teacher, who have owlish features but also human ones. Are they half-breeds? Is that what’s going on?
But enough about all that! After a little bit more bullying shenanigans, the cry for help goes out in the village! Someone — the mysterious troublemaker! — has stolen one of Mia’s instruments! Otus could go report this to the guards, or Teacher… but the troublemaker’s getting away! So Geddy suggests a radical alternative: Otus should chase the troublemaker… while carrying Geddy around.
You might be wondering what Otus gets out of all this. But apart from companionship, Geddy has one more cool trait: he’s a trained soldier, and carries a blaster pistol around, that I can now aim and fire at will! At long as I carry him around. I can totally drop Geddy and throw him around, like some sort of cool friend. But given that Otus isn’t actually slowed significantly, I don’t see why we wouldn’t always be the Cool Friend Team.
We quickly spot the spidery shadow of the troublemaker, and set off in pursuit. We’re fast, but they’re faster. We shoot at them, and throw the occasional vase or root vegetable, but they just keep going… down, and down. They even bypass a barrier of vases and boxes at the bottom, that Otus by himself can’t get past — there’s no room to pick any of them up, and that’s kind of his one trick! But again, teamwork saves the day: Otus can’t dismantle this barrier, but Geddy sure can.
Geddy and Otus chase the spider thief into a mysterious cave. It looks small from the outside, but quickly opens up into a large network of rooms and passageways. There are ancient-looking owl statues, and stone coin rings, and flying eyeball bat monsters, and button-operated doors…
…and I recognize a ‘first dungeon’ when I see one, I guess. Let me stop the play-by-play right here. I’m gonna play ahead, see if I can’t help Otus and Geddy catch this troublemaker, earn the respect of Teacher and the guards, show up those asshole birds, and prove the power of teamwork once and for all.
That’s probably how this is going to shake out.