It has been a hell of year for Indie games, Hyper Light Drifter, Inside, Stardew Valley, I mean shit. This year’s Indies have surpassed 99% of AAA games for me, and sending 2016 off into a blaze of glory is Owlboy. D-Pad Studios “Hi-Bit” adventure game has been in the shop for the better part of a decade. I actually had no idea it existed until a friend hit me with the trailer. Immediately I knew Owlboy was right up my alley. Ori and the Blind Forest absolutely blew me away last year, and Hyper Light Drifter earlier this year scratched a similar itch, but Owlboy? Owlboy seems to scratch a familiar, but different itch.
There are several things that really raise Owlboy above its fellow indie brethren. First is the “hi-bit” style that D-Pad coined as a result of the media having such a hard time classifying the look of Owlboy. What this “hi-bit” style gives Owlboy is an incredibly detailed, and extensive, library of animations and textures. From area-to-area backgrounds pop, and the detail of main character Otus and all of his buddies is both adorable, and complex. The range of emotions and body language the sprites are able to convey is totally unheard of for similar games of this style.
Owlboy backs its lovable paint job with a shockingly beautiful orchestral score. I figured the music would be good, but If “The Music of Owlboy: Live” was in town, I would be there at the first showing. I am a sucker for a good soundtrack, highly regarding Furi as the best soundtrack of the year, yet with its profound and moving score Owlboy usurps it. Each scene is masterfully backed by a poignant and wandering song, with the Strato theme probably being my favorite. I would be lying if I said the ending scene didn’t draw some tears from my eyes, and without the excellent score those scenes might not feel as heavy.
From an audio and visual standpoint, I would already recommend Owlboy to any fans of the era, but Otus and the gang really sealed the deal. Otus is an owlboy and he is also mute. With these things comes a struggle, not unlike many people face today – the constant struggle to be accepted and appreciated that is. He’s picked on, and made fun of, ridiculed and underappreciated to no end. His mentor thinks he is a bad owl and a disappointment, some of his classmates laugh at him for being mute, but Otus is a strong owl, and he just might surprise you. The power of friendship is a powerful and prominent theme throughout Owlboy, together they can do anything.
I wasn’t sure how Otus, Geddy, and company would get along right out of the gate, especially with Otus being mute, but from the start the group works. They work through some real struggles you might have when dealing with people with different ideals, which seems so fitting for where we currently are as a society. I imagine Otus and crew like the thrown together bunch of heroes from some of my favorite movies as a kid, like Hercules and Mulan. The unlikely hero. It’s not a new concept by any means, it’s been around for centuries and probably longer. But something about Owlboy just works. If this was a movie, I would have forced my parents to watch it on repeat for months, like kids do. If DOOM was the 80’s gory action flick of 2016 Owlboy is undoubtedly the Disney Classic.
If Owlboy is a Disney Classic it’s only fitting that Owlboy’s combat is a bit simplistic, almost made for kids. Not bad by any means but just dull. As Otus you’ll hoist up and carry around your buddies and hot swap them depending on the situation, they all have different uses of course. For the sake of spoilers I won’t name characters, but one character wielding a blunderbuss can burn down brush and light bombs, and one character with rope can snag objects and yank down obstacles. One of my big problems was I never felt challenged, or even slightly flustered, aside from the handful of times when my biggest enemies were the controls themselves. Perhaps I was spoiled by Ori and Hyper Light as both somewhat challenging experiences. Or maybe I’ve saturated my brain with these games so long I’m just pretty damn good at them by default. The area that gave me the biggest trouble was at the very end of the game where the air is thin, and as a result Otus can’t fly, forcing you to hop from spot to spot in order to descend this area. But on dozens of occasions when I just meant to jump upwards instead it triggered flight and in turn sending me to my death, again, and again, and again. At least with a controller, pressing upwards while in the air triggers Otus to spread his wings, but in order to jump up and to the right, I had to press up. This was an area I shouldn’t have struggled with, but the controls kept causing me to fail, and I couldn’t remap them.
Even then the puzzles just felt simple, it never took me more than few seconds to pinpoint the solution and blaze through it. It didn’t bother me all that much though, sometimes it’s nice to have a feel-good game that isn’t very challenging, but is fun to play and has a fun cast and an interesting story. For the most part Owlboy nails it, except for some strangely dark subject matter. I kind of expected a nice family friendly story about how friendship is triumphant and love conquers all and such, but Owlboy dips its toes into some shockingly dark areas, but I’ll let you see those for yourself.
As I write this final paragraph, listen to the Strato theme, and think back to how much I love Owlboy and how a little game just ten or so hours long could be so superb. It’s a game that drew on things I adored as a kid and now cherish as an adult. It is profound, moving, gorgeous, and an all around example of what makes games art. It’s a game I knew little about, but after a few short hours, loved down to every pixel. Owlboy is a passion project and it shows, it’s got so much heart and love woven through every moment. Its charming cast of misfits is one I won’t soon forget.