A game by D-Pad Studio for PC, Mac, and Linux, originally released in 2016.
Owlboy is a colorful action-adventure starring Otus, a member of an ancient but dwindling race of owl-people. Like many gaming adventurers, Otus is a mute protagonist, but not simply by merit of not having any dialogue; he is physically unable to speak. This prevents him from being able to fully express his thoughts beyond gestures and facial expressions, which results in no small amount of bullying from his peers.
Otus’ mentor is equally hard on him, criticizing his actions and expressing his disappointment at every turn. In the introductory story sequence, his teacher comments that Otus hasn’t been doing well in his studies and brings him to an area outside the village to train him to fly using his owl cloak… but he fares poorly in this as well. Then, his teacher commands him to carry water back to the village, which is suffering from a drought, and Otus accidentally drops the water jug, smashing it on the ground and earning further ire from his mentor.
This is followed by a sequence where Otus walks alone through the darkness, surrounded by leering eyes and ghastly spirits… which is revealed to be a dream when Otus’ master wakes him from his slumber, immediately criticizing him for not getting up earlier. These opening scenes establish Otus as a lonely individual, and in fact, he has only one true friend – Geddy – while most other folks his age want nothing to do with him. Otus’ home is small and lies far away from the rest of the town, further emphasizing his separation.
In these sorts of tales, the protagonist usually rises up and becomes a hero to the town and the world at large, but that is not entirely the case here. While this is a tale of a rising hero, victories are hard-fought and come at great expense, and the enemy’s power is far too great to be easily thwarted. As a result, the townsfolk in Otus’ village and the nearby capital suffer incredible losses as they are crushed beneath the nearly unstoppable power of the enemy. For such a colorful and adventuresome game, it contains an incredible amount of suffering and loss.
Otus is not some “chosen one” destined to save the world – quite the opposite, in fact – but his perseverance and willingness to make friends ultimately helps him overcome the obstacles in his path, and friendship is an important theme throughout the experience. What’s more, Otus isn’t equipped to do battle on his own, as he can only fly and perform a spinning attack that stuns enemies; instead, he must rely on his companions to defeat enemies and conquer challenging environments.
Otus has a high variable jump, although this skill is rarely required outside of a few dedicated challenge areas, as his cloak grants him infinite flight. He also has a weak spinning attack and the ability to perform a roll, which lets him dash quickly in any direction while in midair. Otus can pick up objects and throw them or carry them around – including his companions – and he can pull up vegetables Super Mario Bros. 2-style, consuming them to restore a bit of his health.
Tucked around practically every corner of the environment are coin-filled treasure chests and breakable pots, along with floating rings that grant Otus a few coins as he passes through them. The game is positively packed with false walls and hidden passages that lead to rings and chests granting additional coins that are used in a shop.
The shop system here is a bit unusual when compared to other adventure games in that the player doesn’t simply save up coins and choose from items to purchase. Instead, as the player reaches specific coin thresholds, he is given trinkets in the form of hats, permanent health increases, and more powerful attacks for his companions. The menu contains a running tally of collected coins in each region for those who would like to revisit areas to find all of the secrets and eventually unlock the shop’s final trinket. However, doing so is somewhat difficult given that the game offers no map.
The shopkeeper is verbally abusive to her birdlike assistant who is responsible for bringing out these trinkets, and there is an entire side quest dedicated to locating these creatures who have become separated from their master (with a fun reward for doing so). Upon rescue, each of them recounts the various forms of abuse they endured at her hand. These stories are told in the typical silly and cheery way seen in other RPG’s, and are presented in a “ha ha, we’re being abused… I mean, the master is actually very nice!” sort of way. However, abuse is also a strong underlying theme here, with the most obvious examples appearing in how Otus is treated, but also appearing with regular visits to the shopkeeper, and in the appearance of enemy characters who are threatened and taken advantage of by their leaders, eventually driving them away.
Despite the theme of abuse and the catastrophic nature of some of the events that unfold, the overall tone of the game is one of adventure. The soundtrack is filled with classical instruments offering uplifting melodies for exploration-based sections and more ominous tones for boss encounters and tragic moments. Similarly, the world is vibrant and full of color, with each region showcasing unique visuals, a day and night cycle, and some incredibly detailed sprite animation.
Animations are fine enough to show facial details as characters react to important events, which is especially helpful in lending character and emotion to the unspeaking protagonist. Additionally, many characters have superfluous animations showing tiny details that generally aren’t seen in retro-styled games. While screenshots may offer the impression that the game is simply mimicking a 16-bit console style, it offers more visual splendor than most games of that era, including major studio releases.
The adventure gets underway when a “troublemaker” begins… well, making trouble all over town. One of Otus’ owl responsibilities is standing watch over the town, and so he sets out to track this individual down (while being accused of starting the trouble himself). He pairs up with his friend Geddy and explores a cave, chasing down an apparent spider-person who throws taunts and laughs as he stays one step ahead of the duo the whole way.
This early area offers a chance for the player to get used to the combat controls and basic puzzle solving mechanics. When carrying Geddy, the player can aim in any direction, and pulling the trigger causes Geddy to fire off a few shots in succession, with a bit of auto-aim helping to lock onto enemies. Some rooms have switches that must be weighed down to open doors, at which point Otus can drop Geddy to activate the switch. There are also instances where Otus must act on his own, tossing rocks at barricades, spinning on the heads of giant screws to open doors, and spin-attacking stone wheels to line up symbols.
The boss of the area is a shielded enemy that requires Otus to drop Geddy and perform a spin attack to temporarily knock away the creature’s armor. While the creature crawls slowly back to his shell, Otus can grab Geddy to get in some shots while he is defenseless. Eventually, the creature starts flying, but the same technique can be used to take him down.
After the battle, the spider-person returns and wraps Otus and Geddy up in a web as he makes his escape. However, contained in the room is an ancient artifact, which Geddy accidentally breaks while attempting to collect a sample. The artifact allows Otus to teleport Geddy – and his future companions – immediately to his position. This is core to the combat for the remainder of the game as Otus can summon any of his companions and swap between them as the situation demands, taking advantage of character-specific abilities, such as burning away plants to open new routes.
Unfortunately, while Otus and Geddy are away, the town comes under attack by pirates, and it is revealed that the pirates managed to steal a valuable relic during their attack, and they’re off to the capital city to retrieve a second. Otus is tasked with finding a way to prevent their ships from reaching the capital and prevent the pirates from assembling three ancient relics which will make them unstoppable. The story offers a few twists along the way as more information is revealed about the nature of the owls and the pirates, their motivations behind seeking the relics, and the nature of the world itself.
There is a good deal of variety in terms of puzzles and enemy design, with new challenges awaiting the player in each of the interconnected areas. Exploding enemies can be picked up and tossed into walls to open new routes, fire-breathing enemies can be hit with water to turn them to stone and then hit with a spin attack to destroy them completely, and some foes can be knocked into one another to take down several in one blow.
A couple of areas require stealth as the player infiltrates a heavily guarded pirate fortress with patrolling sentries and searchlights. There are a number of crates and bushes in the foreground that offer a basic cover system when Otus moves behind them, and being spotted results in the area being locked down as heavy explosives are brought in to take Otus down.
This area also sees the player rescuing some imprisoned village guards, which aid him in getting further into the base. One of these guards is injured and must be carried, and unlike other companions, she cannot be set down. She doesn’t have a gun, but she has a wicked melee attack that sends cannonballs and explosive enemies smashing into walls and each other, making short work of most foes at short range.
Aside from this one instance, Otus always drops his gunner when taking damage, and he is knocked back very far, usually slamming into a wall and sliding down, or falling to the bottom of the area to land hard on the ground. As such, it is very important that players avoid becoming surrounded, as it can be very difficult to recover from multiple attacks given Otus’ limited ability to defend himself. Methodically clearing rooms of enemies is a better strategy, and sometimes destroying all enemies in a room rewards the player with a treasure chest.
There are a handful boss and miniboss encounters throughout the adventure, each offering their own challenges. For instance, in your first encounter with enemy pirates, you must dodge blasts of fire and deliver damage of your own, while another pirate works to repair the cannon on a crashed ship. Once the cannon is active, the player must lure it into firing at the ceiling and dropping rocks down onto the ship. Other boss encounters see the player running away from a charging creature, luring a boss to hit itself with its own heat-seeking missiles, and alternating between gunners to make use of each of their special abilities.
The game world consists of a series of interconnected themed areas which may be revisited at any time, and new areas open as the narrative unfolds or as the player gains new abilities. Dungeons are comprised of self-contained puzzles that slowly guide the player toward the end of the area. However, revisiting areas in search of coins or special floating medallions is difficult, as the game offers no map and no fast travel system, making it difficult to determine which sections remain to be explored, or how to get from one area to the next. In terms of simply completing the game, the player is often returned to the hub area to set out on a new path with explicit direction offered by NPC’s, so the lack of a map system doesn’t impede narrative progress; it just makes it more difficult to uncover all of the game’s secrets.
In this interview, we speak with Jo-Remi Madsen, Simon Stafsnes Andersen, and Henrik Stafsnes Andersen. The developers discuss some of their favorite 2D games, their creative influences, what goes into making a good game, and why it's important to pay attention to the learning curve. The team also discusses their development workflow (or lack thereof), the creation of the Owlboy art style, and the dangers of taking a bus to a party in the middle of nowhere:
Owlboy was developed by D-Pad Studio over a period of nine years, although the studio did take a short break to release Savant-Ascent. The team consists of five people spread across Norway, the United States, and Canada, and is made up of Owlboy creator and art director Simon Stafsnes Andersen, programmer Jo-Remi Madsen (Vikings on Trampolines), level designer Adrian Bauer, composer Jonathan Geer (Neon Chrome, Heart Forth, Alicia), and programmer Henrik Stafsnes Andersen.