Indie Wonderland: Owlboy

A few hours in

Well, so. The good news is, I found a cool gizmo in those ruins below Vellie: an ancient owl relic that allows me to teleport! By which I mean, allows Otus to teleport Geddy around. Which is a really very specific application of ancient owl technology, but I’m not complaining about cutting down on my Geddy Carrying Time.

BAMF

The bad news is, I didn’t catch that spider guy. And he sort of strung us up in the cave for a few hours. And when we got out, it was night. And also Vellie was under attack by sky pirates, who managed to get in without warning due to the appointed lookout for the day playing hooky in a cave.

It turns out lookout duty is *actually important*.

Things quickly went from bad to worse after that. But let’s not get into my personal failures as a lookout too much.

This is probably just a fireworks show.

At this point in time, several hours after these events, I’ve played through all of Owlboy. Ending credits and everything. My core take on it is that it is by and large a pretty fun game! It’s beautiful, fairly engaging and fun to play (if not at all what I expected at first), and well-written on the small scale with believable, interesting characters. It is a little mechanically light, however, and on the large scale the overarching narrative suffers a little from chasing two story beats intermittently. I have a few other quibbles, too, but that’s the main gist. And don’t worry, we’ll get to those quibbles.

While I don’t want to sound like a broken record punning on the wrong kind of animal, it bears repeating just how gorgeous Owlboy is. The pixel art in this game is nothing short of amazing. And while I could spend a hundred words talking about the why of this, I’ve decided to show instead of tell by just uploading a whole bunch of Owlboy gameplay cutscenes, scattered throughout the body of the rest of the text. Regular readers will notice that this is the exact same thing I always do, except this time I get to claim it’s in service of a particular point I’m making instead of just me uploading way too many pretty pictures.

They’re really pretty pictures, though.

It’s not just the static art that makes Owlboy beautiful. The pixel animation in this game is incredibly well-done, crisp and smooth to an amazing degree. It makes the game world feel alive and vibrant. Particularly when it comes to characters, the level of detail ranges from ‘just good’ to ‘astoundingly so’. It’s especially noteworthy that many of the characters in Owlboy, particularly Otus and Geddy, are incredibly capable of conveying emotion through body language and nonverbal behaviour. That’s something a lot of AAA blockbusters don’t even pull off well! But you’ve already seen on the last page how expressive the Otus sprite can be. Geddy, too, and Teacher (whose name I genuinely keep forgetting), and Solus… Without wishing to lean on the hyperbole, the character spriting and animation in Owlboy deserves all the praise it can get.

You can tell *everything* you need to know about this scene without a single word being said.

The sound design deserves credit too. I’m not normally one to comment on sound, usually because I just don’t remember it. Generally, if I don’t comment on the sound, that means it was passable enough to fade into background for me. But I do actually remember Owlboy‘s music in places, for good reasons. The upbeat chippy beat in the starting town Vellie stands out as a song that I just spent some time listening to. Until its vibrant energy made me want to strike out and adventure! That’s a good emotional reaction for a starting village song! Overall, then, Owlboy is just a treat for the senses.

Owlboy is pretty neat to play, too. Key to this is that the controls are (by and large) very swift, fluid and engaging. Particularly when it comes to flying, the game responds at the drop of a hat. And the flying is really fun! It gives you such a sense of freedom to just be able to fly around, no investment or cooldown or build-up necessary. And the game is well-built to allow and support a lot of neat flying: the levels are wide-open and roomy, with lots of verticality. Even in the more challenging, let’s call them ‘dungeon’ sections, there is almost no forced platforming. I remember one or two sections where flying was taken away, temporarily; otherwise, Owlboy seems to know better than to take away its best asset.

It’s interesting, though, that looking at this level design and these mechanics, you could be led to assume a certain mechanical structure or archetype for Owlboy. I figured it’d be something akin to a Metroidvania game, or maybe something Zelda-esque: exploring a large semi-open world, running through challenges and dungeons, and gradually opening up more and more world with an increasingly large set of tools. But it’s not really like that at all. While some areas seem to allow for more exploration and path-choosing, by and large Owlboy is a very linear experience. It’s split almost 50/50 between two kinds of experiences: one kind where you explore a more open ‘hub’ before proceeding down the correct adventure path, and one kind that’s really just a linear ‘dungeon’ experience. For instance, the second battle with pirates sees you — right out of an indoors dungeon area — navigate a confusing tangle of pirate ships and turrets to reach a pre-ordained ending. There is no freedom or exploration here, just challenge-solving and combat. And even the open areas aren’t really free: exploration only gets you treasures, collectibles, and paths you can’t go down yet / aren’t ‘supposed’ to go down yet.

I think this is supposed to be outdoors? But as you can tell, there’s not a lot of room for maneuvering.

Note that this isn’t a complaint in and by itself. I have no problem with linear experiences, and Owlboy acquits itself competently enough on the design. It’s not what I would have expected from a game focused on free flight and verticality, but life is full of surprises sometimes.

What does nag me a little is the fact that Owlboy is very mechanics-light. Like I said, I figured that the options I had at the start would be expanded over time. And that does happen, but… very lightly so. There are only a few added features beyond what I’ve shown you earlier. You pick up a spin move and an air roll early on, there’s that magical teleport doodad, and apart from Geddy you meet two more Carrying Friends, each with their own weapon and special ability. And… that’s sort of it. Save for one friend, you get all of this stuff in around the second hour of play. And from then on, your toybox is filled out. Instead of increasing your tools to create new challenging situations, Owlboy instead creates challenge by forcing you to apply your skills in different contexts and against different enemies. And that works, by and large. It certainly kept me going for long enough. But all the same, there’s a large segment of Owlboy where you will have acquired and mastered every gameplay mechanic the game is ever going to give you.

Rollin’ around at the speed of owl…

A coin-based upgrade system tries to help; basically, the coins you can collect in Owlboy (from treasure chests and the like) ‘clear’ you to receive a small set of upgrades from the one shop. You don’t actually spend the coins, you just get upgrades once you have enough. So there’s no reason for them to be coins. This system tries to make the game more interesting, but… One, it really doesn’t, beyond adding the extrinsic draw of ‘finding all the hidden coins’. And two, it by design can’t have a significant effect: the coins are optional collectibles, so tying progression upgrades to them really wouldn’t do. All ‘mandatory’ upgrades are narrative, instead. There’s nothing wrong with the coin hunt, it’s competently put together and fun enough to do. And I won’t claim the upgrades don’t make life better, or at least more hat-containing. But deepen the overall experience, they really do not.

Plus, and this is probably more of a personal quibble than anything else: a lot of the coins and treasure chests are ‘hidden’. And Owlboy is rather fond of using the old ‘a part of the level wall you thought was solid is actually permissible once you fly into it’ technique. On some occasions, it makes the good design decision of visually indicating which walls are and aren’t ‘fake’, with subtle things like colour shades or graphical details. But other times… Let’s just say that if you plan to find all the coins and things, I hope you enjoy the experience of rubbing your Otus against each and every wall on each and every screen, all the time.

Owlboy also tries to shake up its mechanical rut with ‘novelty’ segments sometimes, like a cannon flight or a worm-back race or stealth against overwhelming odds. These all… work, again, functionally, but I don’t think I have to tell you how much fun a novelty ‘forced stealth section’ really is in an otherwise free-roaming flight game. So, all in all, if mechanical mastery is your jam, Owlboy might shake out to not really hold up. It’s more about the enjoyment and experience of play than about systems mastery.

‘Fun’ minigame: play Red Light Green Light with a giant laser-guided cannon! If it hits you, you instantly die, regardless of remaining health! And it’s almost impossible to dodge!

And then there’s Owlboy‘s story.

On the small scale, I really really like this. Moment-to-moment, Owlboy often focuses on excellent character-driven storytelling. And its characters are written very well, with clear personalities, drives, ideas, and flaws. Teacher owl (no, seriously, I still don’t remember his name) is a proud man, too haughty to notice that he lets his pride stand in the way of being a good teacher and defender. Geddy is almost always the eternal optimist, but several events really force him to look at himself and evaluate who he is in the face of adversity. Mia puts on a brave facade, but confines all her inner fears and insecurities to her diary. Otus is a very nervous and insecure person, but takes the lead and presses on in the face of adversity anyway… because who else will do it, otherwise? And so on. Over time, you get to know a small cast of characters fairly well… and a larger cast of characters a little.

This culminates in some really good scenes, like the heart-to-heart ‘talk’ you can have with your teacher near the end.

On the larger scale, the story is… less great. Not bad by a long shot, but… The issue is that the narrative chases two plotlines intermittently. Which doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but Owlboy doesn’t really make it work. Most of the (early) time is spent on the first plot, which focuses on the pirate attacks and their leader’s quest for power. And then at one, ‘suddenly’ the second plot kicks off, which I won’t spoil the content of. This has been seeded throughout the first plot a little bit, but otherwise seemingly comes out of the left field. And just as you start getting into that, and following it to its ending… the first plot resurges again! And then the second plot still hijacks the ending, which really sort of comes out of nowhere.

The game frustratingly insists that the ancient owl concept of ‘The Loop’ is something nobody understands, even though they use the most obvious symbol possible to describe it.

I’m not opposed to concurrent storylines, but it feels like either plot would have turned out better if it’d had more time to develop on its own. The second plot ending in particular relies on world knowledge and a level of care about the setting that hadn’t really organically arisen, with important concepts being introduced five minutes before they became lynch pins. And while the pirate plot overall works as a straightforward story, some of the plot beats try to jerk the player’s heartstrings in unearned ways. For instance: one place in the world that the characters talk about a lot has something bad happen to it. This is a Big Thing. But the player has never visited this place before, has no prior connection or attachment to it. The characters have, so as player you get hit with a lot of Assumed Empathy: you should feel bad because this thing is obviously bad and your characters feel bad about it. But had we had more time to set up this storyline, maybe we could have afforded to actually visit and interact with the place ourselves. Making the Bad Thing later feel like an actual impact. Giving us an actual reason to care.

As it stands, Owlboy‘s stories were basically interesting enough to keep me going, but both of them could have been more well-developed and interesting. There was really no need for both of them to be there, to jostle for space: the interplay only ‘pays off’ at the very end, and even then it feels more contrived than anything. At least fully resolve the first story before moving to the next, I’d say. But then again, this could just be my experience. Maybe it really worked out for everyone else.

Maybe this confrontation felt like a proper narrative climax to other players, instead of a strange last-minute asspull.

Final thoughts

Let me take some time to reiterate that I had plenty of fun with Owlboy. I enjoyed the beauty of the world and the fluent crispness of the mechanics, the challenges were fun enough to overcome, and I obviously cared enough about the characters to see the story through to its (confusing) end. It’s important to note that it’s not for everyone; no single game is. So if you’re looking for mechanical mastery, expansive systems, stories with highly satisfying large arcs, or I guess games that are just not dazzling, maybe reconsider Owlboy. It’s also about 25 dollars on Steam, and I won’t deny that’s fairly price in indie game circles. But all the same, I’ll say on record that I think the production values — the art, the character writing, and the mechanical optimization — make Owlboy a solid game to sink your teeth into.

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Jarenth only accidentally dropped Geddy into the abyss like nine or ten times. ‘Accidentally’. Share records with him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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