Every day it seems like another pixelated, 2D platformer game graces the digital storefronts. While many of them can feel like low effort and offer low returns, sometimes a platformer with pixel art comes along that doesn’t just choose that aesthetic for the ease of it. They choose that aesthetic to pay true homage to classic video games, and capture a sharp, distinct visual identity only possible with flat pixels. Owlboy is the perfect example of a game that could truly only be painted in pixels.
Owlboy took a whopping 10 years to get made, and a single glance at the games gorgeous art will tell you that time was well spent. Environments, characters and set pieces are rendered in beautiful and painstakingly detailed pixel illustrations. The game doesn’t adhere to a specific old-school pixel limit, either. The color palette is varied and delightful, and as the camera zooms in or pulls away from environments, you’ll see them dynamically rendered in smaller or larger pixels to give off an incredible illusion of depth and distance.
The gorgeous art style of Owlboy would be wasted on a generic or unoriginal setting, and thankfully, the world of Owlboy is anything but that. People of various cartoonish shapes and sized inhabit various floating islands, while lava lizards and gnarly gnomes populate the caves and abandoned ruins. Nothing about the setting of Owlboy is typical, especially not the titular protagonist and the race of humanoid owls he comes from. Owlboy takes the rarely-explored idea of anthropomorphic owls, and crafts a deep and engaging lore around the world of these flying folk.
It’s especially interesting how each of these owl people and their personalities goes against the common tropes of owl characters. The protagonist, Otus, is a mute owlboy who, despite his courageous heart and powerful dedication, is seen by his village as a failure. His strict and hotblooded mentor Asio constantly berates Otus for his failures and weaknesses, and sees no hope in him as a true owl. When pirates attack their village, though, Otus finds himself at the center of a grand adventure to battle the bad guys and prove himself to everyone.
There’s only one problem: Otus sucks at fighting. He sucks at a lot of things, besides flying and carrying stuff. What’s a fight-less owlboy to do? Carry someone around at all times who can, obviously! In Owlboy, your enemy-shooting and barrier-blasting is done by the companions you carry around in your arms, not yourself. Sure, you can drop them if you need to maneuver around solo for certain puzzles or tricky segments, but a simply teleport-button and easy shoulder button presses let you instantly pop your ally back into your arms or swap them around for an ally that better suits the current situation.
One of Owlboys strengths is the way it continuously introduces new mechanics and elements to the gameplay. This comes at the cost of a slow and rather uneventful opening for the first couple hours, but once things begin kicking off, the constant flow of new enemies or abilities keeps things fresh and frenetic. At first, your only ally is best friend Geddy and his basic medium-range blaster. As you progress through the game, you’ll recruit new allies with different abilities that can open up new paths, take down previously unconquerable enemies, or help you solve new types of puzzle.
Owlboy is more about puzzles and exploration than damage numbers or twitchy platforming. You’ll encounter a bunch of enemies, sure, but most of the time you can conquer them with more than just a press of the attack button. Thinking outside of the box like this will even reward you with coins that can be exchanged for health upgrades and accessories.
I felt like the general gameplay segments of activating puzzle switches or navigating rooms of enemies were well done, but not addictive or especially gripping. It was only when Owlboy presented truly oddball, unique encounters that I found my enthusiasm for the gameplay matching my enthusiasm for the art and story. Deadly gnomes will require you to navigate stealth sections in order to escape a cave without them hearing you fly, while gargantuan enemies will initiate exhilarating chase sequences. Best of all were the boss fights. I’m a sucker for a good boss fight, and almost every encounter in Owlboy presents a perfect combination of combat depth and puzzle solving that challenges your muscle reflexes just as much as your critical thinking skills.
Still, the gameplay often felt like it was just the rope connecting story segments together, and in the end, the narrative left much more of an impact on me than any of the dungeons or puzzles. Otus, Asio, and every member of the cast serve to deliver a melancholy story of sadness, triump and growth. Otus goes on a journey that changes everyone around him as much as it changes him, and the way all of these characters grow to become more than simple archetypes was equal parts satisfying and tear-jerking. The ebb and flow of the story is complimented by a beautiful orchestral soundtrack, although it was sometimes so soft that I barely managed to hear it.
If you called Owlboy a piece of art, I would nod my head and agree wholeheartedly. This game, in visuals alone, is a masterful achievement. For those breath-taking visuals to be matched by equally beautiful characters and unique gameplay moments just elevates it even further. The beginning of the game is a bit too slow, and sometimes the gameplay was merely okay, but those are minor blemishes on a video game experience that is absolutely worth your time, and definitely worth the decade that it took to bring it to life.
Version tested: Nintendo Switch
Also available on PS4, Xbox One, PC, Mac & Linux