Spend just a few minutes with Owlboy, and it quickly becomes apparent that the majority of the game’s decade long development cycle went into creating a fantastical 16-bit inspired pixel world that is vibrant and detailed. It’s possible, however, that all of the game’s attention to visual detail meant that some of its gameplay mechanics were put on the back burner. Owlboy opens with a nightmare sequence where our muted protagonist, Otus, is being openly berated by his mentor. As punishment for not being a good enough owl, Otus is sent to visit all of the people of the town and get their opinions of him. As it is a nightmare sequence these opinions end up being even more abusive. Once awakened from his nightmare, Otus is approached by his mentor who is every bit as grumpy in reality as he was in Otus’ dream.
Thankfully, players will discover that the townspeople are not quite as cruel to Otus as he had imagined in his dream. Still, they’re quite forgiving of the abuse dished out by Otus’ superior – justifying it that he’s only trying to ensure Otus turns out to be the best he possibly can be. Otus then teams up with his friend, Geddy, and this serves as a segue to introduce the game’s companion system. When Otus is carrying Geddy the player is able to use the right thumbstick to aim and shoot. The default setting for the game has a very limited HUD and there can be a bit of a learning curve as to ensuring Geddy hits your target. Some players may find it beneficial to access Owlboy’s settings to turn on aim assist. Besides shooting down enemies and obstacles, Geddy can also be dropped on switches to help Otus open doors when necessary. After finding a special relic early in the game, players gain the ability to teleport Otus’ companions to him, eliminating the need to retrieve them when moving from one area to another.
Shortly after Geddy and Otus team up, the floating town of Vellie the plucky duo calls home comes under attack from pirates. Otus is inevitably blamed for this attack, as he is supposed to be one of the owls keeping an eye on things. Despite doubting Otus and berating him as being incapable and clumsy, the mentor sends Otus and Geddy off together on an epic adventure to stop the pirates from destroying the floating continents. This leads us to the first grievous error for Owlboy’s gameplay. Otus’ adventure leads him on a chase for the pirates that have been tormenting his home that spans several large areas such as Vellie and the Floating Continents, but at no point in time in the game is possible to acquire a map or unlock any sort of fast travel service. If you accidentally bump the button and whiz past a NPC telling you where to go you’re just out of luck until you stumble upon it on your own, as there is no objective or navigational markers as part of the HUD, either.
This lack of directional assistance is even more frustrating when combined with the fact that each location Otus can visit has anywhere from two to four hundred “coins” scattered around. Collecting these coins leads primarily to health upgrades, but collect them all and you can unlock a nifty new cape that allows Otus to move much more quickly than his standard issue cape allowed for. Unfortunately, by the time you’ve managed to collect all of the coins in order to acquire this cape you are near the very end of the game having completed every possible objective. You’ll have already slogged your way through the various locations, repeatedly mashing the ‘roll’ button in hopes of making Otus move just a little quicker to the extent that there’s literally no point in having the new cape by the time you can receive it.
While Owlboy’s story is a heartfelt tale of overcoming the odds that is nothing short of inspirational, the gameplay itself at times feel more like a chore than an accomplishment. Sluggish, clunky controls are intentional to illustrate the plot’s point that Otus is amateurish and clumsy but they do not make for fun or interesting gameplay, unfortunately. If you’re not frustrated enough with the slow pace of the game itself, you might finally want to pull your hair out when the final boss sequence crashes multiple times, making it next to impossible to finish the game. A patch is expected to be in the works, but it is saddening that a game with a decade long development cycle is plagued by so many quality of life issues. At least it’s a pretty.