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Owlboy is a gorgeous game with great music and a touching story that I can't recommend because it doesn't know what it wants to be.

Owlboy first came to my attention the same way Hyper Light Drifter did, by reading an article on Rock Paper Shotgun about it. A later review cemented it in my mind, with John Walker, who hates everything except puzzle games, gushing over the gameplay and story. And, of course, the art.

Well, I'm not sure how far Walker got into Owlboy. I suspect he never beat it, because if he had, he would have written one of his rants about difficulty preventing his enjoyment of a good game. I did beat it and that's what happened to me. I had nothing but goodwill for Owlboy when I started, but it was slowly worn away by the course of the game, and for the last hour or so I just wanted it to end. And then it finally did, I and I put down the controller, and I deleted the game, and I'm almost certainly never going to play it again.

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This game is beautiful, though.

Owlboy starts off innocently enough. The main hook is that, as the name suggests, it stars an Owlboy. Otus, the mute protagonist, is an owl-in-training, capable of using his cloak to fly anywhere he wants. The tutorial establishes the main means of interacting with the world, flying and picking things up to throw them, but it also establishes that Otus isn't really that great at his job. His mentor Asio seems to assume that his inability to speak is a sign of some greater mental deficiency and berates him every chance he has, and maybe that explains Otus's poor skills. Teacher expectations do have a strong effect on student performance, after all.

But I'm not sure I'm supposed to feel that way when I'm controlling him. Flying is easy and fun, with a simple press of the jump button while in the air allowing Otus to soar freely around Owlboy's beautifully-animated landscapes. Control in the air is pretty easy and without much need for precision, and perhaps because of that, the default flying speed is leisurely. That works incredibly well in the outside areas, especially when the camera pulls back and reveals some gigantic ruins or an expanse of floating islands, and it even works in the earlier indoor areas. Relatively early on, Otus learns how to roll through the air, which can add some speed when necessary.

But in what I can only imagine is a case of difficulty fetishization, Owlboy tightens the noose repeatedly until it's almost impossible to breathe.

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This is fine.

Early on, the difficulty is all exploratory. There are coins hidden throughout the world of Owlboy, used to buy trinkets from Buccanary. Helpfully, this isn't actually money and you don't have to hand over any coins. It's based on a threshold, where after every 250 coins a new trinket unlocks. That means there's no worry about buying the wrong trinket at a particular time, and accidentally making a part of the game much harder than it should be. In fact, I went to Buccanary and got the first trinket early on, and then I forgot about it and didn't go back for about three-quarters of the game, until I had 2200 coins and could unlock seven of the remaining eight trinkets all at once. So I can confirm that it's not required.

Otus expands his capability by finding new companions, and in another nod toward ease of gameplay, there's no equipment load that Otus has to pick at some central location before heading out. Relatively early on, you find an ancient artifact that allows teleportation, which becomes the in-game explanation for why Otus can switch companions at any time and drop them anywhere without them coming to harm. Two companions--well, two and a half--are about combat, but the vast majority of the enemies only require a few shots to kill and aren't a serious threat. There's never any situation in-game where Otus doesn't already have all the tools he needs to pass it unless it's an optional area with extra coins that you're intended to come back to later if you want to 100% the game. I didn't want to do that and didn't lose out on anything. I just enjoyed flying around and navigating the hazards.

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That kind of collecting game, the leisurely flying and simple enemies, and the seamless companion transitions led me to think that Owlboy would be about the experience of exploration, but as it goes on, that becomes less and less the case. There are areas with no coins that require careful flying that the controls simply aren't precise enough to accomplish without frustration. There are enemies that can't be killed and have to be avoided in stealth sequences where Otus hides behind boxes or flies past while they aren't looking. And then at the end, there's a sequence that requires timing-perfect dashing between falling bombs down a long hallway to get to a closing door, where a single moment of hesitation or air-dash in the wrong direction ruins the whole run. And after that is a boss battle with unskippable conversations between the three phases that, again, relies on timing-based dashing around that the controls just aren't up to supporting.

And then at the end, there's level where you can't fly. In a game called "Owlboy."

I mean, I won, but the difference between the first part of the game and the second is pretty jarring. Each on its own would be fine, either beautiful environments to fly around and find coins in or an aerial-stunt based...hmmm, can you call it a platformer if platforms aren't actually required? Well, that's what I tagged this post as, so sure, an aerial-stunt based platformer. But the switch between them is jarring and, frankly, unwelcome. I don't want tightly-timed races through doors or jumping-based platforming in Owlboy, I want environmental manipulation puzzles. The very first dungeon had rainclouds that Otus can pick up and drag around and then squeeze to dump rain below him, either drenching monsters or filling up pools, but also patches of wind that would disperse the clouds. That was fun, figuring out how to get the rainclouds where I needed them to go and turning the lava hounds to stone by inundating them on the way. Not repeatedly bouncing off walls while dodging fistfuls of knives from a leaping boss or fighting an anime character.

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With that hat, I think you could do it.

And that makes me sad, because I loved the story. Vellie, Otus's village, is attacked by pirates and he chases after them, sending him on a quest throughout the floating islands of his word. He realizes that the pirates are after a group of relics from the long-vanished Owl civilization, who mastered the secrets of the elements and attained power over the structure of nature, but destroyed themselves through an unknown disaster. Along the way, he meets the three companions that form the primary way to interact with the world. Geddy is the first, a guard in Vellie, and carrying him allows Otus to fire a rifle at his enemies. After a while he meets Alphonse, a former pirate, and gains his flame blunderbuss and the ability to burn down flammable barriers. And near the end of the game he makes friends with Twig, who can throw out spidersilk lines to pull Otus through waterfalls or other impassable obstacles.

These characters are the highlight of the game. I got a real sense of camaraderie between Otus and his companions, even without Otus being able to speak. The game does a lot with his facial expression and posture to convey his mood, and his companions react to the way he's feeling and encourage him when he needs help to accomplish his his goals. They don't even complain when he throws them into hazards because they can always teleport away. Emoji kawaii flower photo cute_flower_emoji_by_kawaiiprincess2-d51rbyx.gif

The discussion, and the flying and looking at the environments, are the best parts. But they slowly fade away as the game progresses until there's long sequences of annoying action with little dialogue. And the ending does some to make up for this, but not enough.

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My reaction at the end.

And that's what I'm left with from Owlboy. Frustrating races and boss fights erasing all the whimsy from the early half. Even the environment becomes more generic, if no less beautiful, but a wooden ship interior with metal bits is much more boring than lush outdoor landscapes, even if it's all the same painstakingly-rendered pixel art. All of this washed out the relaxing early parts and, what's worse, the characters. Alphonse, Twig, and Geddy are great, and the conversations with them are some of the best parts of the game. Buccanary's three boguin employees are hilarious in their dim-witted enthusiasm and the animations do a great job of emphasizing their traits. The inhabitants of Vellie are quirky and fun.

But it doesn't matter. If Owlboy had tried to be either an exploration-based puzzler or a timing-based platformer, I could have dealt with it. It was the unwelcome shift from one to the other under a set of mechanics clearly built on the former that bothered me, and it left a bad taste in my mouth that no amount of beautiful pixel art and heart-warming character interactions could erase.

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