It’s a fascinating time to be a gamer. Collectively we’re more aware of the production process and through initiatives like Kickstarter many of us feel involved in a game’s lifecycle. And through the 24/7 gaming news drip, we’re also in the loop on troubled development of anticipated titles. Some suffer too many evolutions and end up forgettable or broken like Duke Nukem Forever or Daikatana. Others simply disappear into the abyss like Full Throttle 2 or Silent Hills (we’ll never delete you, PT!). This year we finally get to try The Last Guardian after nearly a decade of problematic development. And while most of the press will focus on a AAA title like that, an indie developer, D-Pad Studios, recently had a very similar experience releasing Owlboy for the PC after nearly 9 full years of development. Was it all worth it? Here’s our review of Owlboy.
Owlboy is the story of mute protagonist Otus who is, well, an owl boy. He spends his youth trying to impress his trainer and working with his fellow owl-human hybrids to maintain society in a world of floating continents over an ocean. An early call to action in the form of air pirates raiding your village sets off a chain of events sending Otus off a quest to collect mystical items hidden in various temples and save the world on the brink of collapse. Inspired by retro games like Kid Icarus, Mario 3, and The Legend of Zelda, Owlboy reminded us more of a recent 2d platformer we played, Ori and the Blind Forest, although with a discernably lower production value.
Don’t misunderstand, D-Pad Studios does some impressive work in this game – especially considering you can nearly count the development team members on one hand. The game’s visuals defined by meticulous pixel-art animation is top notch throughout. We frequently stopped in our journey to appreciate the parallax scrolling backgrounds or the detailed character animations (though Geddy’s crazed wavy-arms freakout animation is used way too much). The score is also top notch whose title theme will, after a few play sessions, become an earworm you won’t soon forget. The story is thin and there are only about a dozen characters in the game, so it’s pleasantly surprising that dramatic turns such as losing a character or the revelations at the end can be a narrative gut punch.
Where the game falters are areas that would no doubt be improved with a larger team. With no minimap and the need to backtrack on occasion, it’s easy to get lost on objectives so you’ll spend more time than you want aimlessly wandering to find the next unlockable area. Cutscenes that bookend challenging sequences aren’t always skippable is a frustratingly bizarre development omission. Gameplay occasionally reverts to stealth scenes that don’t work that well in a 2d platformer like this – one of which happens wildly too early in this game before you’re used to Owlboy’s sensitive flying gameplay. The final chapter significantly switches mechanics on you forcing you to rely strictly on platforming capability in a game designed for flying. It sounds like an interesting challenge but you’ll likely hate replaying so many of those jumps when a simple ledge grab (present in games since 1989’s Prince of Persia but remarkably absent here) would have saved the day.
Again, these faults would no doubt be ironed out with a larger development team taking feedback from regular playtesting. Here they exist as noticeable defects that hold back an otherwise great 8-10 hour experience.
The animations, background graphics, and music are outstanding and make you want to get back into the game when you’re not playing. And, while it isn’t a polished as Ori and the Blind Forest, the game’s story is significantly more powerful here.
What Doesn’t Work
Wandering aimlessly gets frustrating fast – especially when enemies can respawn like Metroid when you leave a room. Also I’d argue the scores this game is getting may affect your opinion. It’s worth trying, but it’s not a 90 out of 100 as Metacritic suggests. It’s not as good as The Witcher (92), or Dark Souls 3 (89), or even Doom (85?). If you go in with high expectations, you will be letdown.
Overall: Worth a Rent
It doesn’t quite merit a $20 price tag but is a solid game and if it went on sale we’d recommend buying it for a rainy weekend.