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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (416)

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I Am Setsuna 2.5/5
Assassin's Creed Origins 4/5
Boot Hill Heroes 3.5/5
The Bard's Tale IV: Bar... 4.5/5
The Bard's Tale Trilogy 1.5/5
The Bard's Tale III: Th... 1.5/5
The Bard's Tale II: The... 0.5/5
The Bard's Tale: Tales ... 0.5/5
The Technomancer 2.5/5
Tyranny 3.5/5
Pine 2/5
Victor Vran 3/5
Front Mission Evolved 2/5
Greedfall 4.5/5
The Deep Paths: Labyrin... 3/5
The Vagrant 4/5
Avadon: The Black Fortr... 2/5
Mass Effect 3 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2.5/5
Knightin'+ 3.5/5
Indivisible 3/5
Final Fantasy XIV Onlin... 2/5
A Total War Saga: Troy 3/5
Stardew Valley 3/5

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Owlboy   PC (Steam) 

Stupendously Gorgeous… But Not Very Fun    3/5 stars

“Owlboy” is the second game by Norwegian Indie developer, D-Pad Studio, whose first game, “Savant – Ascent” was a PC exclusive Bullet Hell SHMUP released in 2013. However, D-Pad Studio has something of a reputation for long development cycles, as “Owlboy” was first announced way back in 2007, before the studio had anything resembling a reputation or pedigree. Concerned about negative feedback and struggling with the lead designer’s recurring depression, D-Pad Studio would ultimately spend just shy of a decade developing “Owlboy,” with numerous from-scratch restarts, before the game was released as a PC exclusive in 2016, which received 8th Gen console ports two years later.

I was excited about “Owlboy” from its first reveal, since, at the time, 2D sprite-based games were difficult to come by, and the Indie development scene hadn’t yet blown up into the massive thing it would become. When “Owlboy” was released, I found the asking price, as usual, to be too high at $25, so I waited for a decent sale… and I waited… and I waited, discovering that D-Pad Studio is nearly as bad as Nintendo when it comes to over-valuing their products and refusing to offer reasonable sale prices. Yet just recently, during the October 2020 Halloween Sales, both Steam and GOG finally had “Owlboy” at 60% off, making the game $10. I was willing to bite at that price, and after waiting so long to add this game to my collection started playing it immediately. Unfortunately, what I experienced wasn’t worth the wait.

D-Pad Studio’s real claim to fame is their incredible pixel art. Both “Owlboy” and their previous game “Savant – Ascent” feature incredible, vibrant HD pixel graphics, with incredible levels of detail, smooth and character-filled animations, and a rich color pallet. “Owlboy” is the type of game you have to see in action to really gain an appreciation for how beautiful it is, as words simply cannot do it justice.

The soundtrack, written by Indie composer Jonathan Greer, is likewise quite fantastic, featuring full orchestral instrumentation blended with MIDI.

Technically, “Owlboy” is quite polished, but not quite perfect. There are no major game-breaking bugs, but I did run into a few minor glitches, some of which allow the player to get Owlboy stuck outside the navigable portions of the map, and another which caused Owlboy to get stuck in the animation for holding an object when he wasn’t. Still there is an easy ‘reload last checkpoint’ option in the main menu that resolved all of these with minimal lost progress, due to the fact that the game generously auto-saves while playing. “Owlboy” also includes native Xinput support out of the box (and even Dinput support in the alternative Beta version available via Steam’s Beta list).

“Owlboy” takes place in a world of floating continents among the clouds. Our hero – and the titular Owlboy – is Otus, a young trainee in the order of Owls, who are in charge of most things in the world and whose primary focus is protecting the world’s people from nefarious sky pirates, whose mechanized airships rain terror upon the civilian population. The world is populated by a number of races, including normal humans, intelligent (and man-sized) stickbugs, and anthropomorphic owls with varying levels of owl-ness.

Otus is not a particularly owly-owl, looking more like a hybrid of a human and an owl. But more central to his character are the facts that he is mute and a complete screw-up, at least according to his mentor/father-figure, Asio. The game opens with Otus’s early training in how to be a proper member of the Owls, and involves intentionally causing the player and Otus to fail at simple tasks so Asio can berate them. As someone who went through life with just such a hyper-critical and unlovable father, this part of the story struck a nerve, and continued to make me uncomfortable as it popped up again and again throughout the plot.

The plot, such as it is, is that a ‘troublemaker’ has appeared in Otus’ hometown of Vellie while Otus and his friend, a dweeby human mechanic named Geddy, are supposed to be on lookout duty for sky pirates. While Otus and Geddy are in hot pursuit of the troublemaker, though, the entire pirate fleet is spotted on its way toward the capitol city of Advent. After a tongue-lashing from Asio, Otus and Geddy set out to check on the machinery in an ancient Owls temple, while Asio and the other ‘competent’ Owls head to Advent to push back against the pirates.

What Otus ends up discovering, however, is that none of the ancient Owls’ machinery is functional and that something very dire is happening to the world. But since Asio thinks he’s an incompetent idiot, nobody will believe Otus, forcing him, Geddy, and a couple of new friends from the unlikeliest places to team up and… *ahem*… save the world.

“Owlboy” is an incredibly short game by any standard, clocking in at around 10-12 hours. While it is billed as a ‘story-driven’ game, there really isn’t enough runtime there to really let the story play out as it should. Much of the more interesting and mysterious bits of world-building and backstory are presented as info-dumps from reading books or computer terminals. That said, the overall arc or the narrative presented in game is above average, with a number of twists, turns, and bittersweet moments. Character development is, likewise, above average, yet, likewise, feels rushed due to the game’s length.

“Owlboy” is ostensibly a Metroidvania-style game, though it is an incredibly bare-bones example of the subgenre. As is the case with any Metroidvania, the world of “Owlboy” is a single interconnected map, with inaccessible areas gated by obstacles that can be cleared with new tools that are added to the player’s repertoire over the course of the game. In “Owlboy,” these power-ups are relatively few, with Otus starting off with the ability to fly, gaining access to Geddy’s pea-shooter pistol shortly after the beginning of the game, and eventually gaining access to a fire weapon (to burn foliage and light torches, naturally) and a grappling hook. Finding the Buccanary Coins scattered throughout the game’s various regions also allows Otus to purchase health upgrades and tool upgrades (as well as useless novelty hats) from a merchant named Buccanary.

While it may meet the bare standards required to be a Metroidvania game, “Owlboy” ultimately falls short simply by virtue of what it doesn’t have. The world may be one vast interconnected map… but there is no map for the player to use as a reference. Puzzles range from mind-numbingly simple to ‘okay,’ while hidden caches of Buccanary Coins in each region (which are tracked via a total tally in one of the menus) are frequently stashed in completely inscrutable places with no audio-visual indication that there might be something secretive or sneaky hidden nearby. Thus finding all the Coins becomes a truly tedious effort in rubbing Otus against every wall in case there might be a secret passage there.

For the most part, though, “Owlboy” plays like a relatively low-key twin-stick shooter. Otus carries Geddy (or his other friends with their unique weapons/tools) while flying, which is controlled with the left-stick/d-pad, while aiming and firing the friend’s weapon is a function of the right-stick and trigger. Common enemies in the environment are rarely dangerous at all (though Otus can eat fruits and veggies found scattered throughout the map to regain health and even gain a buffer of bonus health by over-eating), but bosses are generally annoying exercises in rote memorization. These are very old-school boss designs that don’t telegraph what they’re going to do, but are designed to kill the player a few times while the player memorizes the pattern. After memorizing the pattern, each boss is a simple matter of following the pattern to a fault, as bosses rarely if ever deviate from their patterns in response to the player’s actions.

In general, “Owlboy” just isn’t very fun to play. Hidden discoveries and secrets are rare and more frustrating to track down than enjoyable. Navigating puzzles and hazardous environments feels rote and generic. Bosses are more tedious and annoying than they are interesting or challenging, making defeating them feel hollow.

“Owlboy” is at the very pinnacle of what pixel art can look like. It’s an absolutely gorgeous game that isn’t just a treat for the eyes, but for the ears as well, thanks to its wonderful orchestral soundtrack. Yet, somehow, D-Pad Studio attached a game to this audio-visual goodness that just isn’t particularly fun to play. If you’re the type of person who has orgasms looking at high-quality pixel art, “Owlboy” will definitely do something for you. But if you’re looking for a great Indie Metroidvania title, the generic, uninteresting gameplay that bogs-down Otus’ adventures isn’t up to par.

Presentation: 5/5
Story: 3.5/5
Gameplay: 2.5/5
Overall (not an average): 3/5



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