Indie RPG platformer ‘Owlboy’ brings childhood nostalgia back to life

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D Pad Studio/Courtesy

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Released Nov. 1 by the D-Pad Studio, the indie RPG platformer “Owlboy” is a soaring example of what happens when a dedicated five-man team painstakingly crafts a video game with loving warmth for the spirit of platforming.

In “Owlboy,” the player takes on the role of the mute owl-child Otus. Along with a ragtag band of  friends — such as the nervous but kindhearted Geddy and the noble ex-pirate Alphonse —  Otus shoots his way through ancient temples and flies through cavernous jungles in order to prevent the all-powerful owl relics from falling into the villainous Molstrom’s hands. As his journey continues, he unravels the mysteries of these curious relics and of his owl ancestors’ sudden disappearance.

Right away, players will notice how fun it is just flying, let alone actually playing the game. The controls in “Owlboy,” best served on a controller, are crisp and responsive. But flying isn’t just fun, it completely innovates the 2-D space. By introducing unrestrained flight, D-Pad Studio redefines the boundaries of the typical platformer, no longer tying players to the ground and creating an unexpected, delightful interaction between two different interpretations of what 2-D means. Soaring up through idyllic villages or carefully through spike-ridden dungeons forces the player to think beyond the dimensions of more traditional games in order to progress; unbounded movement and sprawling environments make for a sense of freedom rarely seen in 2-D.

D-Pad Studio takes heavy advantage of this freedom with incredibly gorgeous and stunning Zelda-esque world-building. Huge, picturesque clouds float carefreely behind the windswept countryside village of Vellie. Inside the abandoned Owl Temple, massive waterfalls, vine-covered ruins and ancient torches pulsing with light are all exquisitely animated in a wonderfully nostalgic 16-bit style. “Owlboy” has an excruciating amount of detail lining every pixel if one takes a moment to admire it.

“Owlboy” also resurrects the importance of the NPC, or nonplayer characters. Each person whom Otus encounters has something different to say, whether cheerful, dark or straight up nonsensical. For example, the shirtless, kooky Toby sits in the hot spring and attempts to convince Otus that he’s trying too hard and needs to relax before erupting in maniacal laughter. The motherly villager Mandolyn lightly chides Otus for annoying his stoic mentor Asio. These small, seemingly irrelevant idiosyncrasies are instrumental in bringing the world and its eclectic cast of characters to life.

There’s a certain childhood experience that D-Pad Studio succeeds in conveying in “Owlboy.” Through the invention of wonderfully challenging puzzles and riveting boss fights, it has perfected the “aha” moment that comes with finally understanding how to progress in a game. In the very first boss fight, it isn’t immediately obvious how to damage the stone-covered quadruped. Only through spinning — one of Otus’ moves — does the boss reveal his weakness, and with Geddy’s trusty blaster, the boss can be worn down and defeated. “Owlboy” is filled with challenging bosses and devilish puzzles that require a delicate balance of reflex and strategy, and it successfully taps into that childhood euphoria in finding a way to move forward.

Although combat is a huge component of the game, the biggest fault of “Owlboy” is its clunky aiming system, which attempts to aid the player in combat by automatically locking onto enemies. Theoretically, this would be a welcome feature, but its high sensitivity tends to leave the player whittling down multiple targets at a time as he struggles to avoid being hit rather than focusing on a single enemy. It can even cause the player to miss the enemy entirely as the system decides whether it should lock on or not. For aim-sensitive puzzles or high-stress combat situations, this auto-locking mechanic can be irritating to deal with. Still, it’s a small price to pay for the game’s excellent quality.

Nine years in the making, “Owlboy” is a modern day indie masterpiece that pays homage to the greats such as “A Link to the Past” and “Metroid Fusion.” D-Pad Studio’s deep understanding of what makes a game a classic shows in the perfect, charming combination of world-building, mechanics and overall gameplay that is “Owlboy.”

They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

Contact Kelvin Mak at [email protected].

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