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Owlboy – The Switch Island Review

There are some games that manage to capture an elusive something. Owlboy is one of those games. My worry with this review is that I’ve failed to capture exactly what that is. Just know: this game is more than the sum of its parts. I’ll explain its parts here and I’ll point out a flaw or two, but there’s nothing I say that should prevent you from stopping reading this right now to buy it. Owlboy is special.

I’ve been puzzling about what type of game Owlboy is. It’s not a Metroidvania; there’s very little backtracking or levelling-up. It’s more of a side-scrolling action platformer but with the central hub of an RPG. And it’s not really even a platformer because you mostly fly around. And the combat is mostly twin-stick shooter style. I could list even more genres, but in thinking about this game, one game series kept coming to mind. For me, Owlboy, is a side-scrolling version of a Legend Of Zelda game. The adventure, the music, the lack of irony and snark (so common in indie games), the charming story, the characters, the puzzles, even the design of the menus; all of it combined gave me big Zelda vibes. This is quite difficult to explain, but I got much stronger Zelda vibes playing this than from the more obviously Zelda-esque Blossom Tales. There’s just something about the feel of Owlboy

Owlboy makes you care about the plight of its heroes. Otus is the hero, the youthful owl, and the story begins with him failing at his studies. His teacher is unfairly exacting. You immediately want to help Otus prove his teacher wrong. And as you’d expect, Otus can soon begin proving himself when pirates attack the sleepy village and he’s launched on an adventure, forming friendships and learning skills along the way. 

The gameplay is unlike anything else I’ve played. Otus can’t attack by himself, instead he can pick up friends to use their abilities to accomplish various tasks. Jarringly, and because of a teleport device, Otus can drop his passengers anywhere with no negative effect (I found it alarming the first time I accidentally dropped Otus’ friend into lava). It’s all a bit cumbersome at first, but the game doesn’t drop you in the deep end. And once you get used to switching between the characters on the wing and utilising their different skills, it becomes very fun. 

Owlboy’s world consists of a central village, made up of a series of floating islands, normally with a habitat or shop on them. From this village you can fly off to caverns and other areas, full of enemies and puzzles and secrets. Owlboy’s adventure is a linear one though; you have to follow the sequence of events as they’re told. In that respect, it’s more like the first half of one of the 3D Zelda games, where you’re encouraged in certain directions, rather than the second half, where you’re normally given more free rein. Incredibly, just like a Zelda game and not like, say, a Metroid game, Owlboy keeps changing things up along the way, so that you’re never bored or resting on your laurels. There are some genuinely surprising set-pieces too, which I won’t spoil. I was frequently surprised at the paths the game took.  

Apparently the game was a decade in the making. And it shows. The pixel-art is sumptuous. There’s a lot of that right now on the Switch, but this is one of the best examples of it. For fans of the style, there’s a lot to admire here. The music too is stirring at the right moments, without being invasive.  

The game has spikes of difficulty but on the whole is fairly consistently taxing without being cruel or unfair. It took me about ten hours to complete, which felt about right. I felt there was more that could’ve been done with some of the game’s mechanics, especially given the level of creativity on display already, but was happy to play ten hours with this story. But I do hope this isn’t the last of Otus, and he gets to fly again.  

Should you play Owlboy? Quite simply, yes. It’s not perfect, but it tries so hard to take you with it on its unique adventure and it succeeds in so many ways that it charmed my socks off. It’s a little bit old-school. It’s earnest. It’s full of heart. And it has a young owl as its hero. What’s not to love?!

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