Tuesday, February 13

Review: Owlboy [Nintendo Switch eShop]

Throughout history there have been two very different traditional types of hero: Those that are born and those that are made. In the case of Otus, the mute protagonist you’ll control in the charming puzzle platformer Owlboy, the road towards merely being given a shred of respect by his peers is a long one. Though his journey, and by pairing with some companions who have identity issues of their own, he’ll save his people and help them understand his hidden strength.

The main stand-outs about the game, without a doubt, are the gorgeous 16-bit style pixel art and the varied action. The characters and environments are all colorful, lush, and distinctive, helping make Owlboy look terrific even among its many indie peers. The story will move you through multiple locales that help to keep things fresh both in terms of the look and the gameplay. While you’ll begin with only one companion, Geddy, over the course your adventure you’ll take on two more characters that will aid you in solving puzzles and getting yourself out of trouble. You’re able to carry one companion at a time with you, allowing you to use their signature ability. In some sections this can require you to change out which one you’re using quickly and to that end the game equips you with a teleporter early on to explain how this can happen so rapidly. It’s a bit silly but I suppose offering an explanation where most games would just have you accept that it can happen blindly is a nice touch.

The other noteworthy element of the game from start to finish is its design. Making clever use of your companions’ abilities, Otus’s ability to fly, and on occasion mixing in some platforming elements Owlboy does a superb job of changing things up regularly. You’ll move from an extended passage of more organic puzzles to a mini-boss fight to a quick action sequence in the span of a few minutes and in that regard the game never begins to feel too stale over its surprisingly lengthy running time. Right at a point where you could almost believe the game could be wrapping up it turns out things are just getting started, bringing new revelations to the story, a new companion, and even more variety to the action. Whether making use of platforming, stealth, running and gunning, or working your skills to solve an action puzzle Owlboy doesn’t let you get comfortable very often and, for the most part, handles these varied styles of play well.

That’s not to say that the variety doesn’t have some casualties. There are certainly sections of the game that work better than others, and particularly some fast action sequences that can be frustrating for exposing the somewhat clumsy nature of the control scheme. Frequent auto-saves are truly a blessing to help compensate for this though, so at least when you have problems you won’t have to lose too much progress. The regularity of saves also helps make up for the overall lack of opportunity to get healing. Places where you can heal up are scattered and I’d even say a bit haphazard in their placement. You don’t tend to be penalized by it too much because of the save system but it is oddly inconsistent. Coins that you collect to buy upgrades fall into the same category, present almost everywhere early on but then almost completely disappearing for entire phases of the game. It all works out in the end but at times the lack of continuity in the design is puzzling. Considering that, if you want to find everything the game has to offer, you’ll need to return to previous areas to get at some particular collectibles a map would have been appreciated as well. Returning to areas that you changed in order to progress can feel unfamiliar, adding to some confusion when returning to them.

Overall I had a fabulous time playing through Owlboy, and the fact that it surprised me with some regularity was a huge bonus. While most indie titles tend to move in the direction of a very specific style of play it manages to be a little more diverse, helping it stand out among its peers beyond its good looks. Throw on a non-traditional story and hero and you have a game that doesn’t get everything right but that, without question, invested a great deal of effort in being notable.

Score: 8

  • It looks fabulous
  • Varied gameplay helps keep it fresh throughout
  • Frequent auto-saves help keep the frustration level low

  • Some quick action sequences expose the limits of the control scheme
  • Not all styles of play are equally well-implemented
  • Collectibles and coins feel like an afterthought and trying to find them without a map can be needlessly time-consuming

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