Originally published in November of 2016, Owlboy has finally nested on console with its release on the Nintendo Switch. Continuing the trend of astounding Nindies, D-Pad Studio’s pixelated open-world adventure has exceeded my expectations for the already highly-anticipated title.
Owlboy’s story puts us in the cloak of Otus, a young apprentice of the once highly advanced civilization, the Owls. From the games start, it’s made clear that Otus is struggling to live up to expectations in comparison to his peers. As a chance for redemption for his poor classroom performance, Otus’ mentor Asio takes him out to the land of the sky hoping a practical lesson might be more effective – it wasn’t. After Otus fails his first flight lesson, Asio chides him going as far as saying he’s never seen such inept flying in his life. Since Otus is a mute we can only sit and watch as the beratement continues. Otus’ eyes lower and shoulders begin to slouch in a heartwrenching scene where Asio seems determined to make Otus feel incompetent.
While Asio’s reaction was over the top and propelled him up my list of most loathed characters. I have to admit, on his own, Otus truly isn’t anything special. Otus’ skillset is rather uninspiring, consisting of abilities allowing him to jump, fly, roll, spin, pick up objects and… that’s about it. Surprisingly, this lack of a compelling move set is actually what makes Owlboy special, allowing friendships to take center stage.
Otus’ only attack is a quick spin move which he uses to reflect projectiles and knock back unarmored foes. This attack quickly becomes inert as more complex creatures are introduced, bringing a new set of quirks to counteract. Otus’ only way to battle against these increasingly difficult foes is through the assistance of his friends. Otus first enlists the assistance of his best friend, Geddy. A goofy man with a kind heart who’s not afraid to stand at Otus’ side when protecting his friend.
Drawing from his small pool of talents, Otus fights back by carrying Geddy through the world positioning him to shoot down enemies with a fast firing pistol, transforming the platformer into a twin-stick shooter style gameplay. The lenient lock-on system makes aiming a breeze, as Otus soars through dungeons dodging incoming attacks. As the game progresses Otus will make new friends along the way, presenting new ways of combat and opening up new areas of the Metroidvania-style map.
Controlling Otus through the air was a pure delight, flying was true to expectations and his mid-air roll provided a precise escape whenever I felt cornered. However, in circumstances where flight isn’t an option, I did run into some issues; notably, a sequence where Otus is attempting to sneak past a village of blind Gnomes. Geddy warns that the heightened sense of hearing possessed by this tribe of gnomes allows them to hear even the slightest wing flap from miles away. Placing further constraints on the already limited Otus. Without the flying Otus’ jump had an unsatisfying amount of floatiness to it. I found myself rarely landing where intended, often drifting into the detection zone of the gnomes, spurring their difficult to escape one hit kill attack. If not that, Otus would prematurely switch into flight mode whenever the jump button was held down for an extended time alerting the gnomes of my location, an issue which is possibly exclusive to Switch.
The creatures introduced were varied enough to consistently pull me back into the mechanics, just before I would start to bore. Starting with the fleshy floating eye monster, which can easily be overcome with a spin attack. Or the relentless swarm of sentient plants, which chase after Otus in Galaga like flight patterns. The mechanics of Owlboy are introduced at a balanced pace which prevented me from being overwhelmed or bored, providing just enough puzzles and new abilities to remain engaged.
I should note that this port to the Switch isn’t bug-free. Over the past few days, I’ve seen Owlboy crash on my Switch at least three times, something that I had not experienced prior. I even clipped through the floor twice, an extraordinarily upsetting experience when already impeded by limited visibility.
While Owlboy’s exciting gameplay and stunning pixel art world bring so much to uplift the adventure, at the end of the day, Owlboy is a game about support. Through the compelling story and innovative gameplay, D-pad Studio drives home this point in a spectacular fashion. Otus’ connection to his friends succeeded in making the character more important than the ability they provide. At one point in the story, one of Otus’ friends departs from the group after a disagreement among the party. Rather than being upset over the loss of a critical ability, I had at this point spent hours to perfect. I found myself more affected by the loss of a friend who had already done so much to support me.