Warning: This preview contains detailed mechanical spoilers but only moderate narrative spoilers.
Owlboy, as you might have guessed, stars an anthropomorphic owl. This creature, named Otus, has large, robust wings that give him the ability to fly. And unlike many other platformers where flight is time-limited or restricted to just gliding, etc, Otus never has to pause for a break, allowing players to fly as far and as high as they want. If you’re familiar with Rayman (not the Rabbid party games, I mean the original 2D platformer first released on the PlayStation 1 way back in 1995), then parts of Owlboy will seem eerily reminiscent of the spiked-filled super helicopter parts of the Blue Mountain World. For the most part though, Owlboy plays more like Aquaria and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, games where players use their freedom of mobility to explore environments, solve puzzles and defeat enemies.
In Owlboy‘s case, Otus’ freedom of mobility is counterbalanced by him not being a strong combatant. He has a melee attack, but it’s fairly weak, so most of the fighting is done by one of his gunner allies. Your first gunner (of which there are two in this demo) is a blaster-wielding mechanic named Geddy. Geddy’s personality fits a common smart guy archetype, but I was immediately drawn to making particular comparisons to Bentley the Turtle from Sly Cooper. Both are good with tools, both use a projectile-based weapon, both prominently display green clothing, both value brain over brawn, both are prone to fits of cowardice and so on. Your second gunner is far more powerful and effective than Geddy (and has their own host of personality quirks), but you only acquire their assistance late in the demo. As such, I’ll avoid spoiling the identity of the second gunner and just let you enjoy the surprise when you get there.
I brought up Rayman earlier because the further I progressed, the more I felt like Owlboy draws inspiration from games in that series (or whatever games the Rayman franchise drew inspiration from). Much of the Owlboy demo takes place in a temple riddled with enemies and environmental puzzles that wouldn’t feel out of place in Rayman 2. Beyond that, the main antagonists of Owlboy seem to be a bunch of quirky pirates… who would fit right in with the quirky pirate antagonists of Rayman 2!
It could just be a coincidence though; the Rayman franchise has covered a wide range of platformer tropes, so it’s quite possible that the similarities were not intentional and that I’m reading too much into it. The demo is too short for me to make a definite judgment, so I suppose I’ll just have to wait for the full release of Owlboy to see whether or not my suspicions ring true. In the meantime, let’s get back to analyzing the demo.
If you’ve guessed that the ability to fly indefinitely circumvents the typical structure of a ground-bound platformer, you’d be right. Otus can run and jump like any other platforming protagonist, but since flight is almost always safer, faster, and unlimited, why bother? Unfortunately, a design decision essentially forces (or at least strongly encourages) typical running and jumping play by temporarily introducing some restriction. The demo provides two examples of such restrictions: waterfalls that inhibit flight and vicious gnomes that pursue Otus if he dares fly in their presence. I emphasize unfortunate because the sections where these restrictions are found are short to the point of being almost arbitrary. Additionally, being restricted to running and jumping in a game boasting the gift of flight feels like the shackles of convention at worst and an annoyance at best, but never something that unequivocally adds value. If we must have these restrictions, then waterfalls and stealth sections work for now, but I hope I don’t see these ideas beat into the ground with repetition in the future.
The generic enemies are easy to defeat and drop items used for healing and buffing stats. I found the drop frequency too generous overall, but this might have been tweaked specifically for the demo. The boosts from the drops are moderately useful, but the most useful supplies seem to come from a shopkeeper found in the very first area of the demo. The shop trades items for traditional coins, but the method by which Otus acquires these coins is quite atypical. Instead of finding coins in treasure chests or from defeated enemies, they’re collected by flying through rings found throughout the environment. Why they are there and how they give you coins isn’t explained, but at least they let you use nifty items like the Canteen (which refills your health) and Geddy’s hat (which allows bullets to travel a little faster).
The baddies are just minor speed-bumps along your path, so puzzles and boss battles are where you’ll test your mettle. The puzzles are simple to figure out due to the limited number of actions one can perform but also because the steps necessary to complete them are always logical. There’s a strange predilection for using water and clouds in the puzzles, but it could just be a theme for the showcased temple.
I don’t know how indicative the demo is of the final product, but it looks like there will be dissonance between the difficulty of boss battles and the levels in which they are found. The first boss of the demo is a cakewalk, but the second was intense (even with the stronger second gunner) and forced me to use up a number of stocked items just to survive the onslaught of bats out of hell that swarmed me during both stages of the fight. Considering the precedent that Owlboy had established up to that point, I was definitely not prepared for this radical spike in difficulty.
The Owlboy demo is merely a bite-sized piece of content; I got my toes wet with varied gameplay and characters, but it all ended before I felt immersed. Nothing wowed me, but nothing repulsed me either. From what was there, I was most intrigued by the possibility of a ternary dialogue / reaction system, but its utility is currently limited to dialogues about saving your game, so it’s unknown how much or how little of an impact it will have on the rest of the narrative. Simply put, I’d need to see more before I could make a more definitive value judgment. As of now, Owlboy has piqued my interest, but it hasn’t set the hook in me just yet.