Owlboy almost certainly has no right being as good as it is. It’s a bun that’s been in the oven since 2007 (people were anxious by 2013) and came out just a week ago. Work on something that long and it either comes out a Duke Nukem Forever or it just fades away into Internet jokedom like Half-Life 3. Instead, D-Pad Studio has been quietly making one of best games of the year.
There are a lot of reasons why that is the case, too. The obvious one is that it looks incredible. It has the simple yet vibrant charm of a Wind Waker that got smashed into a flat two dimensions. This goes even further into the characters, not a single one of which isn’t full of mirth and squeezeability. And then you throw them together and you get a tremendously endearing ragtag team of misfits turned heroes.
They’re thrown into a story that is built on and necessitates failure before finally resolving it into something alchemistically more valuable: the lessons from failure. It feels like a commentary on the development of this nine-year-old game with a studio that certainly felt the sting of stumbles and wayward journeys before arriving here while also pointing to some roundabout and seriously philosophically heavy idea that you are all in what you attempt, not what you achieve. (Surprise: it’s a heady experience.)
The thing that stands out most to me, above the looks, the sounds, the characters, and the story is simply how much it accomplishes with its gameplay. This is a game that never feels satisfied with what it has given you thus far and keeps trying to innovate on old ideas or bring about wholly new ones. And it does so with a surprisingly simple set of mechanics.
You, as Otus, a mute member of the owl-human hybrid race, can fly, grab things/people, and, uh, spin, I guess? He, not all that unexpectedly, isn’t all that good at fighting things since he’s an owl-boy, not an owl-punch-boy. But through that, he can fight back, he can dismantle walls, he can tear plants asunder, and so much more. He’s not a limited by his lack of abilities but enabled by his knack for utilizing what he has.
One of your early friends, for instance, carries with him a shotgun that blasts out hot fiery death. Through this, you can simply destroy obstacles and kill enemies but also light up lanterns that become a critical necessity in navigating a pitch-black maze. Or you can use him as just the hulking mass he is and depress buttons around the world as you navigate elsewhere.
With your other buddies, this is a game that can become a pleasing twin stick shooter, sometimes bordering on hectic and demanding, enemies mixing and matching well with seekers and static turrets and a whole bunch of things in between. Or you begin to play through a puzzling platformer with a grappling hook, attempting to navigate through waterfalls and meandering landmasses. You never really know what will come around the corner.
The game even throws stealths sections at you which are justified through both narrative and gameplay. (It actually leads to one of the most frustrating parts of the game, but we can look past it for now.) Dipping in and out of patches of leaves to avoid detection is a lot of fun and plays into the zippy, almost manic nature in which you can smash Otus in any particular direction.
All of this (and so much more) variety culminates in the game’s boss battles where you have to poke and prod and experiment with this super baddies to figure out how to end up victorious. This is a game that, while singular in thematic focus, manages to explore a vast wealth of ideas and possibilities. Sure, you’re an owlboy that can pretty much only fly, but you end up doing so much more, and it’s all so much fun. You should probably play Owlboy.