Owlboy is a retro-inspired, 2D adventure platform game in which you play mute apprentice Owl, Otus, on his journey to save a dying world and prove himself in the eyes of his fellow Owls. After nine years since its initial announcement, D-Pad Studio's vibrantly crafted pixel world clearly pays homage to the retro classics it was inspired by. There are definite influences from Mario, Sonic, R-Type and Zelda, just to mention a few, although it somehow seems to encapsulate the entire 8-bit era as a whole and present it in this new visually stunning hi-bit package. The fusion of mechanics is ambitious and could have left it feeling like a Frankenstein's monster of stitched together play-styles, but instead Owlboy transitions from 2D shoot 'em up to adventure platformer with ease.
Owlboy is set in a future where the land has drifted into the sky after being separated by a cataclysmic event. You take control of Otus, a shy, mute member of an owl-human hybrid race known as the Owls, the so-called protectors of these floating islands. When Otus' village, Vellie, is attacked by pirates he sets off with his friend and companion Geddy on a grand quest to save a dying world and stop the pirate overlord, Captain Molstrom.
Owlboy's story slowly unfolds at a comfortable pace, revealing hidden depth and a tale that is not as straightforward as you might think. In some ways Owlboy echoes D-pad Studio's previous game, Savant: Ascent, in that it contains similar shooting and platforming mechanics, although Owlboy greatly improves on the formula by adding a fully realised and compelling story with emotional range. One thing that may surprise you about D-Pad Studio's long-awaited adventure is the presence of serious undertones woven into the narrative. Through the characters portrayed in the game and how they interact with each other, the player is exposed to experiences such as bullying, loss and forgiveness, and how these issues can affect people. Ultimately it seems the game is about acceptance, as many of the companions and friends Otus makes throughout the game were once enemies, but when he comes to understand them and their stories he accepts them for who they are and the choices they have made, as they do him.
The game introduces us to host of vibrant and quirky characters along the way. The cast has an interesting mix of personalities with Otus, the protagonist of the tale, taking centre stage. The fact that he is mute somehow gives all the other characters in the narrative room to express themselves through him, almost speaking for him at times. It is this subtle dynamic that gives Owlboy its charm, as it's evident most of the cast clearly care for him and value him as a friend, but with a lack of two way dialogue have to instead outwardly show it through their actions.
Mechanically, this colourful tale of friendship is deserving of praise. The premise is quite simple on the surface. Otus is an owl-human hybrid and therefore can utilise the power of flight. He then uses this ability to pick up his friends and carry them around the vibrant 8-bit inspired landscape. Otus' companions also have various unique abilities and depending on which one he is carrying, his offensive capabilities change, although you can switch between them in real-time. Building upon this mechanic it blends what you would usually expect from a Metroidvania-style game, but breaks out of the expected tropes of this style by adding straight puzzle elements, R-Type style shooter sections, and at times seamlessly switching back to straight platforming action. What sets Owlboy apart from similar hi-bit, 2D inspired games is it mixes these styles in a smooth, effortless way that seems to fit the characters and the story, which is no easy task with so many gameplay styles at work. Of course what is really important in any homage to retro platformers is the boss battles, and Owlboy does not fail to deliver here either. The bosses offer interesting, well thought out engagements that find that perfect balance between challenging to a certain degree, yet not frustrating.
The soundtrack offers a nostalgic 8-bit romp all backed up by an orchestral score that fits the tone of the game and pays homage to its classical inspirations. Composed by Jonathan Geer, the album contains 67 tracks with a total of 94 minutes of music, which is more than enough to stop you from feeling any repetition throughout the campaign. Another interesting element is the beautiful, stark art style and overall aesthetic. D-Pad Studio describes this visual technique as hi-bit and a love letter to pixel art for a new audience. It's games like Owlboy that show the 8-bit platform/shooter genre is still very much alive.
Some modernised 2D platformers/shooters struggle to live up to the classic inspirations they draw from, adding nothing to the genre they seek to revitalise, Owlboy doesn't suffer from this fallacy. In this way an analogy could be made between Owlboy and Shovel Knight, in that they both add value to the aged genre they were inspired by, beyond just nostalgia, and in fact move the classic formula back into the modern world of gaming.
Overall Owlboy accomplishes what it sets out to achieve. It gives players an engaging, fun and charming 2D platformer/shooter with a compelling storyline featuring lovable characters that will entertain fans of the genre and newcomers alike.