When Owlboy was first shown over a decade ago, pixel art indie games weren't all that common, but over the course of its lengthy development, they became increasingly numerous as independent development grew more popular. Nowadays, it feels like there are almost too many of them, to the point where a lot of players will write off games like Owlboy just on its art style alone. To do this would be a mistake, however, as D-Pad Studio's beautiful pixelated adventure is probably one of the best examples on PS4.
You play as Otus, a mute owl student who's struggling to meet the expectations of his mentor. An increasing conflict between the owls and the sky pirates means your home, Vellie, is on alert, and when a troublemaker begins to terrorise the village, Otus begins his adventure. We don't want to delve too much into the story, but it sees the young owl travel far and wide, meeting new characters, and doing his best to help in a fight that ties into the world's mysterious history. Where some games of this ilk might struggle to tell a cohesive, engaging story, Owlboy excels with a cast of well-written characters and an easy to follow plot that goes to some surprisingly dark places.
The story seamlessly ties into the level design, as well, which is a mix of wide open spaces and more enclosed areas that carry most of the challenge. This being a game featuring a character that can fly freely, the levels are as tall as they are wide, and act like miniature sandboxes that you're free to explore in any direction. Calling Owlboy a platformer is tricky, as there's not much platforming to be done; instead, the game is more concerned with defeating enemies and solving environmental puzzles. Though Otus can fly, his abilities in combat and navigation are limited, which is where his allies come into play.
You'll unlock three buddies throughout the 8 to 10-hour story, and each one brings a new set of moves that either aid in fending off enemies or manoeuvring through the world. Otus can carry one of them around as he flies, and you control his friend with the right stick and right trigger, turning the game into a sort of twin-stick shooter. Otus’ best pal Geddy, for example, has a short-range blaster that can kill most enemies and destroy certain obstacles, opening up new paths. Because you end up relying so heavily on Otus’ friends, and because they also play integral roles within the story, you quickly grow attached to them.
The characters are nicely fleshed out, and you can speak to almost every NPC you find, but their designs are all impressive as well. The sprites are all lovably animated, right down to the shopkeeper and her minions who provide you with upgrades. There’s an attention to detail in Owlboy’s presentation that puts it one step ahead of its pixelated peers. Small things like the trees and the grass swaying in the wind or clouds blowing by in the distance make the environments feel more alive, and meticulous backdrops offer up some gorgeous, and at times ominous, scenes. The soundtrack, too, is equally strong; tracks range from melancholy piano pieces to triumphant strings, and there’s not a dud amongst them.
While you’re enjoying the game’s audio and visuals, there’s plenty to do. The main thrust of the game is fairly linear, taking you through various locations filled with fairly simple key-and-door puzzles, as well as unique environmental quirks. For example, one segment takes place in a dark cave, and you need to consume bioluminescent fruits to light your way forward. However, you’re free to veer off course most of the time, and doing so rewards you with coins to exchange with the aforementioned shopkeeper for health boosts and other upgrades. There are even some areas that are initially inaccessible, Metroidvania-style, that you’ll need to go back to later. There are other collectible items that, if you find them all, will reveal even more of the world’s backstory, which is well worth seeking out.
The problem is that it can be quite laborious finding all of these things. There’s a reward at the shop for finding every last coin in the game, but some of the chests are very well hidden, and areas are relatively sizeable, meaning it can take a long time to fully explore one, and then making your way back out becomes a bit of a drag. We were a little surprised that a quick way to go between each major area never materialised. Otus’ flying isn’t slow, but hoovering up those last few coins or searching for other secrets becomes a bit of a chore. The game does at least keep track of how many coins you’ve collected in each area so you know where to focus your attention. In the grand scheme of things, though, this isn’t exactly a deal breaker.
All told, Owlboy is a delightful game full to bursting with character. Otus’ bittersweet tale is engrossing, the supporting cast is consistently charming, and there’s an admirable level of polish across the board. From its stunning visuals and soundtrack to its fun, responsive gameplay, Owlboy is rock solid from top to bottom. It took them 10 years, but D-Pad Studio has created one of the best 2D adventure titles in recent memory.