How Metroidvania is it? Barely Comparable. You do get characters that give you access to new areas, but there really isn't any autonomy on where you go next, and there are no optional pickups that change how you play the game in any significant way.
Primary Challenge: Ranged Combat, Spatial-Reasoning Puzzles
Time to beat: ~8 hours
Review Info: Owlboy was played on Windows PC using the Steam version.
Buy Owlboy if you like…
- Touching Character Stories
- Cinematic Setpieces
- Gorgeous Pixel Art
▼ Review continues below ▼
Video games as a medium are about as broad as it gets when it comes to what they can offer. Some of the the attainable benefits of games could be giving the player a challenge to expand their minds, a story or narrative to enlighten their thought, or a social outlet that they can share with their friends. I think many Metroidvania fans would agree that the primary appeal of the genre is the gameplay; that is, the exploration, the challenge of skill, and sometimes the puzzles. Thus when a game like Owlboy comes along where the story not only takes the front seat, but is also the only real thing that makes it stand out, I feel like I have to be very particular when describing it. There’s a lot to love about Owlboy, but most of those lovable elements fit squarely into the emotional resonance its narrative presentation provides, and players looking for a deeper gameplay experience might find themselves a bit disappointed.
As the story in this game goes on, Otus, the titular owlboy, never seems to catch a break. The game starts out with him waking up from an anxiety fueled dream only for him to be immediately thrust into a cataclysmic series of unfortunate events where he never gets any credit for his efforts to stop it. Part of the misunderstanding stems from Otus being a mute, which has caused him to live a marginalized life, with him never being able to properly stand up for himself. His best friend Geddy will instead act as your voice for most of the game. Along your journey you will also be picking up other surprisingly deep characters, and together they make up for each other’s weaknesses as they face the conflicts of the story. It’s all a common setup that drives the plot forward in many video games, with the silence of the protagonist allowing the supporting cast to shine in ways that they may have otherwise been overshadowed.
While Otus brings flight to the party, he’s sort of useless without the actual gameplay tools his friends provide – you might even say that his lack of voice and lack of meaningful attack options are symbolic of each other. Otus can spin, fly and hover with perfect precision, and pick up various objects, but this will only take him so far. Pick up a friend, like Geddy, and you get access to their gun – able to fire bullets in 360 degrees using the right analog stick if you’re playing with a controller. Many of these friends add their size to Otus, making the duo unable to fit through certain passages, so juggling bodies and other carry-able objects makes up the core of the gameplay.
It may just be me, but switching back and forth between carrying your buddy and interacting with level objects never stopped being awkward. Your buddies just kind of cling to you – press what would be their fire button and they’ll magically appear occupying your arms and taking up space where you drop them, whether you like it or not. You can dismiss them by spinning, but that just adds another button to the over-complexity. I used the word “juggle” in the previous paragraph, and it often literally looked that way as I comically threw my friend’s bodies aloft when what I really wanted was to just grasp a switch or pick up a rock.
The controls in Owlboy definitely aren’t bad, they just take some getting used to, but part of the problem is that the game was never challenging enough to force me to reach intentionality. Almost every activity you perform feels more like busywork padding, with it rarely reaching the potential each gimmick provides. Every dungeon introduces a new mechanic, and then it’s quickly thrown away for the rest of the game, with any returning mechanics being perhaps more unwelcome than they are pleasing. Stealth sections are fairly forgiving in this game, but are nevertheless a potential point of frustration. The “puzzles” you’ll mostly be solving are usually just a matter of finding the right switch or spinning on a nearby button, making them merely a hiccup in what could otherwise be a straight line between point A and point B. The diversity of activities does help to keep it from getting completely dull, but if these mechanics were nested in a game with less visual and narrative appeal they would be as bland as it gets.
The bosses in Owlboy are a bit better. Each of them has a distinct personality, and some of them actually offer up a fun challenge, with the final boss thankfully being one of those experiences. It’s pretty hit or miss though on whether these bosses will actually give you any sort of trouble, with the bosses I enjoyed the most representing a possible spike in difficulty a more inexperienced player might be blindsided by. At their worst though, they at least bring a nice spectacle to behold.
Part of the challenge Owlboy faces in making its mechanics interesting is that they must be based around the idea of you switching characters to access specific powers and movement abilities. A good example of where this becomes a problem is with a late game ability that lets you dash across the screen without taking damage from anything. In order to use this dash you have to swap through one or two characters, then hold down the right shoulder button, aim, and then let go. By the time you could use it as a dodge – which would otherwise be a natural evolution of its application – you may have spent too much time fumbling with the interface to avoid the damage you were trying to avoid. This clunky swapping issue applies even to choosing which attacks you want to shoot at your foes. One character wields a powerful shotgun that functions on a cooldown using the same button as every other ranged attack. Throw the swapping system out and this shotgun power could have just been a charge attack or a secondary weapon on a different button, and it would feel much better to use. The limitations the as-is character swapping design weighs down on the gameplay makes me almost grateful that Owlboy never ascends beyond the shallow challenges it ultimately presents.
Combat and puzzles aside, Owlboy is also regarded by many as a Metroidvania game, and unfortunately while there are elements that make this relationship understandable it also represents another shallow aspect of the game. In my humble opinion, Owlboy is less “Metroidvania” than Cave Story. You will find no staple power-ups that are similar the missile or E-Tanks from Metroid. Instead there are coins hidden throughout the world which can be traded in for health upgrades, cosmetic hats, and a few weapon upgrades. These upgrades are obtained in a linear fashion though, so it functions more similarly to leveling up with experience points than it is comparable to finding a meaningful reward like in a typical Metroidvania. What could be called ability gating is more just blocking off the next dungeon from being accessed too early, with little reason to go back to them once you’ve accessed them. You could backtrack to older dungeons to find coins that you missed, but Owlboy lacks a mapping system or any other tool that might point you in the right direction for where you haven’t already looked – making that particular process slightly tedious. All of these observations aren’t necessarily assessments of Owlboy’s overall quality, but if you go into this game looking for a Metroidvania experience, it’s probably not going to scratch the itch.
So in my opinion the game part of this Owlboy game is pretty much outclassed by other options – the rarity of flying Metroidvania games aside. Yet, I totally recommend this game if you’re okay with everything that I just said. Owlboy isn’t about the gameplay, it’s about the story, and sometimes going through the motions of a game can enhance a narrative experience. There are definitely games that do it better, with better stories to tell, but that doesn’t detract from Owlboy still being worthwhile for what it is.
For me collecting coins in the game’s world was less about getting a health upgrade and more about seeing the zany animations of the shopkeepers as they fetched you the trinket that you earned. This kind of emotive expression is really where Owlboy excels, and it’s the one part of the game where I think it goes deeper than the surface level. From the very first moment of the game, I felt a kinship with Otus, and that theme persisted all the way to the game’s ending credits. Even small minute-long cutscenes embellishing on the minor background details of your companions stuck with me. Looking at the plot from a strictly logical perspective, some characters act irrationally which drives some pretty important conflicts that could have easily been avoided, but I still sort of understood the motivation on an emotional level. Of all of the aspects of any game I can talk about, story seems to be the one that players are the most worried about spoiling, so I can’t dive too deep into the analysis of the details in a spoiler-free review. I do however think Owlboy has a story worth analyzing. There are games out there that have nailed both the gameplay and the narrative experience together, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that Owlboy does a great job with its narrative presentation.
None of the gameplay in Owlboy is bad, but if you’re coming into it with the experience of having played so many other games, it may come off as shallow and possibly even boring. If you have no interest in another story about an underdog overcoming insurmountable odds though the power of teamwork, then I can’t really say Owlboy has much else to offer you. Putting the use of tropes aside though, Owlboy does a fantastic job resonating on an emotional level, and anyone who has dealt with anxiety, social alienation, or discouragement may find something special here. Owlboy is indeed more than just the pixel art eye candy, and it deserves credit for that.
There are one or two really well-done bosses, but for the most part combat is pretty straight forward
You fly in this game, the game does require you to deftly weave between obstacles. The gimmicks never really reach any level of meaningful challenge however.
You can find coins hidden everywhere in the game's world, but there aren't any tools that help you know where you've already looked making the process somewhat tedious outside of just being thorough the first time.
Most puzzles are just contraptions where the player plays a minor role, rather than being anything that takes a concerted effort
Characters convey real emotions well, and while the main plot might be somewhat lacking, the individual stories of the characters is something I think could be meaningful to many players.
The pixel art is nothing short of incredible
The live orchestrated music is magnificent, although occasionally the direction in-game cuts off tracks at awkward times, and the regular sound effects are lacking.
There are few reasons to play the game again from a gameplay standpoint, but I can see this being a sort of ''comfort food'' game thanks to the world it creates.
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