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Does a game need to be upbeat to be fun? Certainly not, as titles like Inside or The Cat Lady will tell you. But melancholy must be managed carefully, lest it drag down a game in ways not intended. Owlboy is a game that would appear at first glance to be entirely outside such considerations, what with its bright graphics and lush environments. But the story woven through this story-driven adventure is one chock full of sadness and disappointment, and it’s just as jarring as you’re thinking. It might be forgivable, too, if the gameplay was half as compelling as the art.
Otus is a young owl, living in the floating village of Vellie under the tutelage of the local master Asio. He’s conveniently mute, which makes it all the easier for his perfectionist mentor to blame him for anything that goes wrong. And things go very wrong when pirates show up in their peaceful burg to nick an artifact of great power. Otus knows something is afoot and flaps off to stop the pirates, along with some pals he can carry along to help him out. The journey takes him to a massive aerial city, a forgotten stronghold of the ancient owl civilization, and further as he struggles to redeem himself and uncover the secrets of the pirate assault.
All of that should sound like the makings of a fine adventure, except that bit about being blamed for things. I wish I could downplay this aspect of the game but it’s actually a cornerstone of the story, and something that soured me on the game right from the start. The opening tutorial is posed as Asio teaching Otus how to handle basic skills as an owl and help out around the village. But it’s designed so that you’ll fail everything you’re instructed to do, and earn some withering disapproval from your mentor. That’s just the tip of the iceberg though, as Otus ends up bullied by the other village residents, blamed for events he has no control over, discouraged from assisting during a crisis, and ignored when sharing information. Worst of all he gets guilt-tripped for a catastrophe where he was the only individual anywhere close to stopping it, and which proved to be absolutely inevitable.
Does that sound like a good time? Of course not. Talented storytellers know not to beat down their protagonists without some kind of hope or relief, but here there is neither. Just as I thought Otus was getting out from under all the pressure and assumptions about his competence, one of his friends turns on him. You spend an hour on the trail of a key item and keep it out of the hands of your foes, only for them to steal it away off-screen. For every step of your journey, someone is going to doubt you or discourage you or straight-up blame you for something out of your control. It starts out tiresome and only becomes moreso, and distracts mightily from what could otherwise be a pretty interesting story.
The gameplay at least provides a little levity from the ball and chain of the story, but only temporarily. As the titular owl-boy, Otus can fly freely across the airy realms and carry items to huck at enemies or drop on switches. He can also carry allies, and you’ll meet up with three who provide useful attacks and powers for overcoming challenges along the way. Most of the game is spent puzzling your way to destinations, using switches or strange creatures to clear the way. There are enemies to fight, however, and while they start out simple enough they soon become greater annoyances than your mentor. Late-game enemies will swarm you, juggle you to death, and block attacks from the easiest angles. Their gimmicks are poorly telegraphed too, which can lead to some frustrating deaths just from trying to learn what they do. I lost entirely too much time to a group of monkeys in a lava cave because they moved swiftly and getting hit at all meant being bounced into magma and dying instantly.
Put simply, nothing in Owlboy is designed even half as well as the art. Enemies move and attack too fast and can easily knock you into other hazards or deathtraps. Gimmicks like stealth sections or having to stay in the light have ill-defined rules and consequences. One of your key attacks is on an absurdly long cooldown and must be used to solve some common puzzles. The camera follows you until you reach the edge of an area and then waits for you to push past the transition, but enemies can hide off the edge and hit you before you see them. The list goes on and on, and after maybe four hours or so I was getting aggravated enough to quit for good.
Even the exploration suffers from short-sighted design. As lush and detailed as the game world is, it proves to be very, very small. There’s one village, a central hub area of wide-open vertical spaces, and pretty much just three large dungeons off of that. Backtracking in inevitable and sometimes the game will send you on detours just to kill time, like one teleporter that takes you back to the hub just to make you turn it back on so you can return to where you were. The themes of the game make it feel like it should be a grand journey across a sprawling world, but I never felt like I was going any significant distance, and the lack of a map made it hard to get a good picture of the world in my mind. There’s not even much point to exploring either, because all you’ll find are chests of coins and maybe one of three special tokens. You’re not going to find any upgrades or powers or collectibles even, rendering this one a pale imitation of a metroidvania.
It’s honestly distressing how much potential is lost here, especially in light of the game’s magnificent aesthetic. The hand-drawn pixel art is incredibly detailed and lovingly animated, which gives the entire world so much depth and character. There’s clearly a lot of thought put into the strange creatures and mysterious ruins you’ll come across, which makes it all the more frustrating that the story and gameplay can’t keep up. Owlboy feels like a trap, a game made to look warm and inviting that then slaps you around and ridicules you once you buy in. That awful intro set the stage for the further frustrations suffered throughout the game, and no amount of pretty art can make up for such offenses.