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Owlboy Review: A Heartfelt Tale

  • First Released Nov 1, 2016
  • Reviewed Feb 13, 2018
  • PC
  • NS

Reach for the stars.

By their very nature, retro-inspired games are fighting an uphill battle against the nostalgia they aim to invoke. How can they form their own identity when they're partly designed to make you remember other games? After finishing Owlboy, it seems D-Pad Studio might have the answer.

For almost a decade, Owlboy has lurked behind the curtain of mainstream releases with a small-but-devout following. Looking at screenshots and videos over the years, it was always apparent that Owlboy would look and sound great, but there's so much more to love about the final product: the humor, the varied cast, the disasters that befall its otherwise bright and uplifting world, and the incredible action set-pieces that punctuate the calm found elsewhere. It's not until you break through the surface that you're blinded by Owlboy's artistic brilliance and swayed by its heartfelt story.

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It begins with Otus--our mute protagonist and the runt of his village--during a stressful dream where his professor and dark figments criticize his inadequacies and chastise his inability to speak. It's a powerful setup that endears our hero to you. Trouble brews shortly after he wakes up and concerns of pirate sightings explode into panic as a nearby metropolis comes under attack. Otus teams up with a military mechanic, Geddy, to put a stop to the pirates before their home is destroyed.

Owlboy is old-school, not just in its presentation, but also in its storytelling--there’s no voice acting, and events are set in stone with nary a major decision-making opportunity in sight. The plot manages to avoid predictability, however, not only through a handful of twists, but by allowing characters to evolve throughout the course of the game. Sad moments aren't swept under the rug by unreasonable optimism--they stay with your squad and fundamentally alter their outlook on the mission and their own identity in surprising ways. There's great attention to detail in the cast's animations, which are often tailored for a specific scene, as opposed to falling back on routine reactions. Coupled with a script that's rife with emotion and nuance, Owlboy's characters feel real in your heart despite their cartoonish look.

Owlboy tackles multiple artistic themes and subjects with consistently impressive execution.

It may be a throwback of sorts, but Owlboy's visuals aren't tailored to specifically ape 8- or 16-bit graphics; it doesn't have a limited color palette, and its pixel resolution changes based on the scene at hand. When you enter wide-open spaces, the camera zooms out, chunky details shrink, and meticulously designed structures and environments take shape. In tight spaces, you're brought closer into the scene for more intimate inspection. From subterranean creatures to ancient structures, Owlboy tackles several artistic themes and subjects with consistently impressive execution. And if you have a soft spot for 2D games with multiple layers of parallax scrolling--where the background moves slower than the foreground to simulate depth--you're in for a treat.

When you first take control of Otus, darting around floating islands and chatting with other creatures makes for a pleasant experience, and while the open air and bright colors deserve some credit, it's the orchestrated soundtrack that solidifies Owlboy's shifting atmosphere and tone. Violas and flutes instill merriment at first, but this innocence is short lived; when the pirates invade, oboes drone and cellos growl to the slow beat of a heavy drum. When the dust settles and the second half of your journey kicks off, sprightly piano compositions provide a much-needed respite from the stress of a society under attack.

Your trek to the pirate's den takes you through expansive spaces and into the heart of sprawling cave systems where buccaneers and wildlife alike lie in wait. They typically bombard you with rocks and other projectiles, rarely engaging in close-quarters combat. On his own, Otus can only dash into enemies, stunning them at best. However, with the help of a handy teleportation device, he can summon one of three partners into his claws mid-flight to utilize their long-range blaster, shotgun, or webbing that can ensnare enemies and be used as a grappling hook to escape dangerous situations.

Otus is unfortunately a tad slow by default, which causes you to spam his dash move repeatedly to keep things moving along outside of combat. There’s a modest upgrade system driven by collecting and turning in coins found in chests, but you're upgrading health reserves--in the form of soup canisters--and your team's weapons, not physical traits. Still, a keen eye and fast reflexes are more critical to success than any upgrades purchased during your adventure. Knowing that success comes from a show of skill rather than your ability to collect upgrades is gratifying, but you walk away from Owlboy with the sinking feeling that the equipment and upgrades in the game have unrealized potential.

Owlboy is consistently charming and surprising, and when its final act doubles down on every front, it's bittersweet to see it end.

Standard combat isn't anything special, but it never wears out its welcome thanks to deft pacing. Owlboy steadily mixes combat and exploration with measured stealth challenges, fast-paced escape sequences, and entertaining exchanges between characters. The chase/escape sequences in particular are some of the most impressive moments in the game, throwing you into a harrowing race against time in the face of tightly choreographed hazards. These scenes are challenging and filled with visual effects that add to the sense of danger, and they're overwhelming at first, but should you die, not to worry: Owlboy never truly punishes you for failure, allowing you to restart from the last room you entered.

Owlboy is consistently charming and surprising, and when its final act doubles down on every front, it's bittersweet to see it end. As you relish the outcome of the final battle and watch the closing cutscene, you can't help but reflect on the beginning of your adventure and how far the world and its inhabitants have come. You'll never be able to play Owlboy for the first time again, but the memories of its magic moments stick with you. This is more than a treat for fans of old-school games; Owlboy is a heartfelt experience that will touch anyone with an affinity for great art and storytelling.

Editor's note: After further testing, GameSpot has updated the score to reflect the Nintendo Switch version of Owlboy. - Feb. 13, 2018, 9:00 AM PT

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The Good
Masterful orchestral soundtrack
Pixel art exhibits impressive thematic range and attention to detail
Expressive, nuanced animations legitimize otherwise lo-fi characters
Unpredictable script captures genuine feelings of joy, anger, and remorse
Regularly introduces surprising action sequences
The Bad
Occasional control annoyances
Shallow upgrade system
About GameSpot's Reviews

About the Author

Peter kept his eye on Owlboy for years and was thrilled when he discovered that good things indeed come to those who wait. He completed the campaign in roughly 10 hours using a copy of the game provided by developer D-Pad Studio.
176 Comments  RefreshSorted By 
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Avatar image for arruu2000

Isnt this game from like a year ago ?? Where you busy reviewing paid shit for EA or sth ??

Avatar image for hochstreck

This game does not run at 60 frames, doesn't it?

Avatar image for Litchie

"+Expressive, nuanced animations legitimize otherwise lo-fi characters"

With pixel games, I think animation plays a huge part of the game looking good. Owlboy looks really great to me.

An example, and I'm feeling alone on this, but I greatly prefer the graphics of older Fire Emblem games. They had pixel graphics with awesome animations. The later FEs have pretty bland 3D graphics with stale and uninteresting animations. Fire Emblem (GBA) looks 10 times better than Path of Radiance / Radiant Dawn / Awakening / Fates to me.

Avatar image for TigusVidiks

While it's true that there are too many games out there trying to cash in on the retro look, not many are truly worth it, despite all of them getting mindless adoration.

I tried out Owlboy as I do most games I can get my hand on, and unlike most retro games these days, it actually manages to deliver modern gameplay and pacing, and the retro looks are achieved with detailed art work, not just by scaling back the pixels and reducing the colors.

Good game.

Avatar image for tonyleo01

yay! Just in time for me right when I beat Celeste (1600 deaths :)). I could have got the game on PC but thought it would have been better playing it on a handheld.

Avatar image for olddadgamer

Is this available as a physical release for switch or is it eshop only?

Avatar image for Renunciation

@olddadgamer: Checking some other online sources, the answer seems to be yes --- but not until May 29th.

(I don't know if I'll be ready to pull the Dark Souls cartridge back out of my Switch only 4 days later, though.)

Avatar image for olddadgamer

@Renunciation: Ah man! I was asking here because I was thinking of picking it up for my son's birthday (worst part of online shopping: the ads that pop up the next day and them being all "So....why were you shopping for [thing I want]?" May 29th misses the boat. And giving them a card with a "Hey! Downloaded this!" is always disappointing.

Avatar image for Renunciation

@olddadgamer: Sign of the times, I guess; some of the games I've enjoyed the most during the past couple of years didn't have physical releases at all!

(Almost as bad as online shopping post-purchase ads: I now have Olivia Newton-John's "Physical" playing in the back of my head. Ouch.)

Maybe if you have a color printer and a spare empty Switch case, you can print out a piece of Owlboy art and put it in the case as cover art with a "it's already downloaded lol" message inside. There would probably be enough room in the case for another small inexpensive physical gift, but I don't know what that might be.

Good luck figuring out the birthday gift!

Avatar image for lebanese_boy

@Renunciation: Good Guy Renunciation, offering gift ideas :D

Avatar image for olddadgamer

@Renunciation: Ooo! That's a good idea! Thanks!

But yeah, usually I don't mind downloaded games at all. I buy them for myself all the time. But there's something about opening a present, you know?

Sorry about the Olivia Newton-John, dude. That's my bad.

Avatar image for girlusocrazy

A masterpiece, I have to get it, I was waiting for the Switch version as I had too much on my plate when it originally dropped.

Avatar image for HBM

This is another 9/10... FF15 got 8/10... wtf

Avatar image for dreaminglucy

Meh. Another 2d platformer gets the gold.

Avatar image for Junior_AIN

Gamespot will sure love any hipster crap that makes it to Steam these days.

Avatar image for Itzsfo0

@Junior_AIN: boo hoo, I'd rather play the retro inspired platformers and puzzle games then a vast majority of broken day 1 release AAA open world games (in the same vein of Mafia III) some are good, many are bad. I like open world games as much as the next, but alot of these games are bland. Furthermore, look at the sports titles again their is some good titles out there, its a mix of good & bad. But I think overall the retro landscape has seen a renaissance and you call it hipster, who the hell even came up with the term hipster - hipster actually means its cool to be different, the alternative, the COUNTER culture (if something is big & mainstream its not hipster) and these retro inspired 2D and 2.5D platformers with pixel-art are far from "fringe" - how is that hipster ? Ori & the Blind Forest (which is actually 1 of the bigger releases) , Super Meat Boy, Fez, Sound Shapes, Super Motherload, Shovel Knight, Rogue Legacy, Undertale, Hyper Light Drifter, Hotline Miami, Hotline MIami 2, Olli Olli, Olli Olli 2, N+, Braid, Spelunky, Limbo, Never Alone, Rust, Inside, Flower, Journey, Gone Home, Cave Story, The Witness, Axiom Verge, Child of Light, La Mulana, Chasm, The Binding of Isaac, Towerfall: Ascension, Firewatch, Abzu, Terraria, Minecraft, To the Moon, Rain World (upcoming very excited about it)., Don't Starve, Starbound, Aquaria, Kerbal Space Program. Most of these are considered "art", some are retro inspired (metroidvania) some are classic platformers, some are more puzzle oriented, some are sandbox (minecraft, terraria, starbound) but a vast majority of them are considered artistic titles by indie developers. I guess the best term in a nutshell would be "indie game development" not hipster, or alternative or retro - cause some of those games are not retro (many are) but not all of them. But they all share the 1 common thread and that is independant development / studios. And as I've said many of the games listed are quite enjoyable - great soundtracks, something ambient but memorable at the same time, some of them have some really solid stories & I love the idea of a "open world retro inspired sandbox platformer" its big, it has 1,000s of open levels to explore that are all connected to 1 giant platformer enviroment (something seen in the upcoming Rain World) a game with alot of hype 2 guys spent 6 years developing. The pixel art is just amazing, the procedurial ragdoll physics to everything in the enviroment, and the enemy A.I is just top-notch, enemies don't have any real specific routines, and they can wander anywhere in the game world, and even fight amongst each other - it seems to be a game that has an abundance of great elements merged together. I have yet to really see a negative opinion/piece. The game has had alot of press & real hands on play time from many people and has been shown at PAX & other events over the course of the last 2-3 years. It's just 1 game, but many others follow in the same vein. I don't see how thats hipster, but if it, more power to it. I dont care about no stupid "title" for a trend, who gives a shit if its good, its good - what label some douchebag attache's to it doesn't matter. It's like music, as you get older you care less about whats mainstream vs whats independant and just like what you like - simple as that...I dont care if its Dark Souls, or Super Meat Boy or The Witcher 3 - a good game is a good game, and it DOESN'T have to be Call of Duty or Skryim to be good, many of these so called hipster retro games ARE good, the controls are good, the soundtracks are usually quite amazing (I mean play Super Meat Boy or Hyper Light Drifter or Hotline Miami) and tell me that isn't some great mesmerizing, almost hypnotic music which just enhances the immersion to the game, something I find LACKING in alot of these big expensive bloated mainstream AAA games. I mean Bayonetta 2 is great, Xenoblade Chronicles & its sequel are great, many big games are good - but alot of them are overhyped, and upon release they just don't measure up...expectations are too high. I don't have high expectations for many of these retro games - they come out they do well, I buy them (usually at a decent reduced price) and I enjoy them....I think it works better that way. So I guess it comes down to your opinion but rather it be these games then the current standard. I like what Francis (Boogie) the youtube personality said at the Gravecon / Gaming expo last year in 2015 - saying how he thinks with bloated development prices and these big AAA open world games many of them failing or being released broken, and yearly releases of FPS and sports titles failing to meet the minimum standard - he thinks as many others do that it will be the indie developer & the retro inspired games that may just end up saving the industry.

Avatar image for Reuwsaat

@Itzsfo0: Hey man, try separating your text in paragraphs and separating it with new lines, it makes it easier and more appealing to read ;)

Avatar image for ndarker

@Itzsfo0: wow, did you really just post that? lmfao

Avatar image for ranbla

@Itzsfo0: TL;DR. Seriously.

Avatar image for SJGSpook

@Junior_AIN: It's a good game but holy shit do sites like Gamespot and IGN overstate how good these games are.

Avatar image for DavidStorm

A great review Peter!

Avatar image for whateverdude

Owl definitely be trying this one.

Avatar image for domiddian

@whateverdude: This comment makes me wish I had a drum kit.

Avatar image for Thanatos2k

I thought this game would never come out. So happy it finally did, and was exactly what it looked like.

(Also how embarrassing is it that Gamespot locked comments on the COD review?)

Avatar image for fend_oblivion

@Thanatos2k: Why did they lock the comments?

You should check out D-Pad Studio's game called Savant Ascent. A bit on the short side, but it's challenging and has really good music. That game is what got me interested in Owlboy.

Avatar image for Gelugon_baat

@fend_oblivion: It was being spammed by the usual COD-bashing.

Avatar image for csward

I can't get over the GBA-style graphics and the silly title for the game. I should give it a chance, I just can't move myself to do so. Maybe if there's a demo...

Avatar image for Yams1980

ya im sick of snes graphics also. The era is over i want games that look good. gameplay is all fine and good but why can't they also put some effort into making at least some decent level of quality on the graphics.

Luckily these games aren't as common now, and if there had to be a game with retro graphics at least this one looks good on other fronts besides the graphics.

Avatar image for domiddian

@Yams1980: I dunno... There is a charm to the 16bit era retro graphics, particularly for older gamers like myself.

There are plenty of games out there with decent graphics and I think it's good to have the variety and choice.

Avatar image for aiat_gamer

@csward: There is a demo.

Avatar image for sadface1234

Great review about a game I would never of heard of, thank you.

Avatar image for flexy456

What will the next "9" be? Turrican II on Amiga?

I am not into retro-games, but I for example wouldn't understand why someone would play this if there is in-fact TONS of masterful old games like this, where I am certain the kids today have no idea they even exist. (And can be played on an emulator). And when I mentioned Turrican II I am actually serious, check it out if you don't know it.

Avatar image for khorrhxe

@flexy456: Exactly. Making me laugh a little when they say it has 'artistic brilliance'. The Pixel graphics are decent looking but seem a bit pretty sparse looking. I guess they don't remember Amiga gems like Shadow of the Beast, Blood Money, Gods, Rick Dangerous, Fire and Ice, The Lion King, etc., which were less technically sophisticated obviously but had seemingly more graphical variety/elaborate art (for the time). This seems a bit.. conservative in its style and diversity (for a game coming out 30+ years after the amiga was released).

Avatar image for domiddian

@khorrhxe: Gods!!! Rick Dangerous!!! :-D

That takes me back. Thanks for the nostalgia trip my friend.

Avatar image for p1p3dream

@flexy456: Not meaning to cause offense, but the reason why someone would want to play this is made pretty clear in the quite well written review above. The reviewer almost directly answers your question about retro games, the nostalgia effect, and how this game transcends these labels.

I think it can be easy for us, especially us older gamers, to remember our old classic games through rose tinted glasses. They were great and ground breaking for the time and place they existed, but if they were to come out "new" today- they could very easily be criticized for their lack of depth and sophistication.

Avatar image for domiddian

@p1p3dream: Well said, man. Well said.

Avatar image for cherub1000

@flexy456: hells yeah I know it! On my way to work this morning I shall be listening to "the desert rocks!" Such an awesome game, well remembered!

Avatar image for wendopolis_bruh

I was never good at 2-D games like this. I'm scared to give it a try LOL

Avatar image for TallTower23

Been looking forward to this for a few months now. I saw a let's play of a demo for it and was utterly charmed. Glad it seems to satisfy. I'll probably pick the game up later this week.

Avatar image for blackace

When is it coming to game consoles? I'd probably just it out when it does. I like these type of games.

Avatar image for bfa1509

I was looking forward to this. It looks interesting.

Owlboy More Info

  • First Released Nov 1, 2016
    • Linux
    • Macintosh
    • + 4 more
    • Nintendo Switch
    • PC
    • PlayStation 4
    • Xbox One
    Owlboy focuses on the travels of Otus, an apprentice owl mentored by Asio.
    Average Rating47 Rating(s)
    Please Sign In to rate Owlboy
    Developed by:
    D-Pad Studio, BlitWorks
    Published by:
    D-Pad Studio, Soedesco
    Action, Adventure
    Content is generally suitable for ages 10 and up. May contain more cartoon, fantasy or mild violence, mild language and/or minimal suggestive themes.
    Everyone 10+
    Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence, Mild Blood