An adventure 10 years in the making.
When one thinks of the great animal-based heroes of our time the same names always appear: Batman, Spider-Man, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Now there is a new name to add to the mix: Owlboy. It may sound less impressive than the others, but this adventure-platformer teaches us that with a bit of self-belief, you can make anything work.
Debuting on the Nintendo Switch this week after its initial PC release over a year ago, Owlboy is a story of trial and error. It centres around a small mute owl called Otus and his attempts, along with the help of friends he finds along the way, to save his home town and the world surrounding it. In a world that is both falling apart (literally) and under siege by pirates seeking the lost relics of ancient mystical owls, Otus has his work cut out for him.
Owlboy’s first act throws us into the thick of the action before we can so much as hoot. Abandoning his pirate lookout post in pursuit of the village-troublemaker, Otus and his best friend Geddy set off into the first dungeon level.
With Otus only able to perform a simple spin attack, combat is left to Geddy, a little green mechanic Owlboy carries in his talons. While the player moves Owlboy into position, Geddy’s long-range gun destroys obstacles and enemies in our path. This symbiotic relationship between protagonist and companion takes place with several different allies through the game. Rotating between each ally for different attacks is seamlessly mapped on the Switch’s controls – just make sure you don’t accidentally launch them across the room whilst trying to shoot.
While we’re getting to grips with not dropping Geddy in this first level, your village of Vellie has been left unprotected and is under siege. This is the first in a series of errors that the pair find themselves rather unfairly responsible for, and it is under the weight of making things right that the pair set out away from their home to attempt to stop the sky pirates from causing more destruction.
Guided by the fairly narrow remits of the story, progression from then on is a mix of exploration and dungeon levels, each sporting a new environment type. To stop the pirates and their evil plan Otus and his friends travel to floating cities, an owl temple and lava-ridden caves, all beautifully represented by the artwork and accompanied by the sweeping score.
The levels themselves show an impressive breadth of puzzles and a real mix of gaming styles to engage in. Some require simple door switches and stealth, while one excellent section sees you riding a massive metal sandworm while trying to avoid falling rocks and hard walls. With the introduction of new characters throughout the game, all with different attack styles, new and more complex puzzles keep you on your talons.
As well as his friends, Owlboy’s nemeses are also a creative mix; all are rendered in the pixelated art form that provides a surprising amount of expression and nuance. Every figure is brought to life by the small range of animations that characterise them, meaning that even the briefest of encounters brings emotion to the game.
Even the plentiful boss fights have personality, a hard task considering how liberally they are peppered throughout. Requiring the same rotation between companions as the puzzles, multiple different attacks are often needed to defeat any boss and half the fun (and frustration) is in working out which, and in what order.
However, Owlboy’s biggest asset can also become its hindrance. The unpredictability and lack of formula when it comes to both dungeons and bosses begins to tire towards the later levels of the game, and with it, the previously tight storyline loses shape.
Yet, what had the greatest impact on my enjoyment of the game were the bugs and crashes that occurred whilst playing. On multiple occasions the screen went black during combat and flying, only fixable through rebooting of the software; a small annoyance, but a needless break in the momentum of the game. One bug in the last chapters even made a level impassable and rebooting the software resulted in the level progression being pushed back to an early save.
Moving onto the Switch may give the game a new lease of life, but these errors need to be addressed if a new audience is to keep playing the platformer. Even so, these feel like minor gripes in the face of a game with so much joy infused within it. With characters and a protagonist that you will actually care about, Owlboy is a game worth diving into more than once, especially to hoover up missed collectables. Although a few pounds short of a prize bird, this is a game worthy of its new platform (just as long as they sort out that ugly placeholder logo).