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Game Reviews

‘Owlboy’ – Don’t Pass up the Opportunity to Experience Such a Work of Staggering Imagination

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owlboy-story

Owlboy, a love letter to adventure platformers of gaming past, is a game almost a decade in the making. It actually took the five-man team at D-Pad Studio nine years to finish the game before it launched on PC last year  – and while that may seem like an unusual amount of time to create an indie game (especially one that consists of roughly ten hours of gameplay), the hard work paid off in spades. For a retro 2D, Metroidvania-style indie game that places a heavy focus on exploration and combat, you would be forgiven to think that Owlboy has nothing new to bring to the table, but in fact, Owlboy at its best, boasts qualities that are usually missing in platformers: tingling observations, unforced comedy, an engaging story and quirky, enduring charm.

At its heart, Owlboy is a throwback of a genre gone by, and while it certainly has its roots in games like The Legend of Zelda, Kid Ikarus, or Castlevania, it feels, looks and sounds different than any of the games I’ve been told inspired the creators. There’s a fine line between imitation and inspiration and unlike say, Axiom Verge, a game which set out to fully emulate Super Metroid, Owlboy does its own thing.

Owlboy-Switch

Take for instance the incredibly detailed, luxuriously animated pixel art and lush palette with multiple layers of parallax scrolling. Rather than go with a retro aesthetic, D-Pad Studio’s art director Simon Stafsnes Andersen chose a style they describe as ‘hi-bit’. In other words, Owlboy’s visuals aren’t intended to specifically ape 8- or 16-bit graphics – but instead uses an art style as personal as an Utamaro painting, that perfectly adapts to its ever-changing themes and scenarios. It’s an amazing work, filled with a visual intelligence that’s meticulously composed and obscenely clever. Make no mistake, the game is absolutely gorgeous and it’s hard to play for more than a few minutes without finding at least one scene, that would make a stunning screensaver. Then there is Jonathan Geer’s soaring score, which puts most other video game soundtracks to shame. Against the slew of 8-bit chiptune retro soundtracks the indie scene has produced over the years, Owlboy’s orchestrated music is a breath of fresh air: lush, romantic and varied, and perfectly complements its shifting tone and atmosphere.

owlb0y-ending

The original idea for Owlboy came about when Andersen heard rumors of Nintendo’s upcoming “Revolution” console (which would later be called the Wii) and saw an opportunity in making a game that calls back to the pixel-driven action games he had grown up playing. Of course, this was back in 2007 when retro-style games were once a novel idea, not part of an oversaturated genre, or worse, a cliché. Fast-forward ten years and things have change. Yet, against the barrage of retro-inspired sidescrolling platformers released since then, Owlboy is an outstanding example of how the genre can continue to flourish and still feel fresh.

The Owls Are Not What They Seem

While everything about Owlboy is done with extraordinary care, what really sets Owlboy apart is it’s the story and writing. What we have here is an exceptionally well-crafted coming-of-age tale full of really dark moments, and some heart-wrenching scenes. It follows the story of young Otus, our mute protagonist who studies under his domineering mentor Asio, a curmudgeonly owl who routinely criticizes our feathered hero and chastises his inability to speak. What at first seems like a simple 2D platformer quickly reveals an incredibly deep, plot involving ancient owl societies, dark secrets, abuse and a recurring theme of failure. When sky-pirates attack the peaceful surroundings of Otus’ world  – threatening to destroy the city and steal powerful relics in the process – he teams up with a military mechanic, Geddy, and other trusty companions he meets along the way to put a stop to the pirates before their home is destroyed. From its heartbreaking opening (a sequence of cold verbal abuse leaving Otus with his head bowed), to its equally devastating conclusion, Owlboy ends up being an extraordinarily intimate portrait of a life unfolding and an exceptional, unconventional game in which a boy with a disability must overcome his insecurities, find courage, and more importantly gain confidence to save those he loves.

Owlboy-review

Owlboy’s charm rests on the shoulders of its lead character Otus. There’s no voice acting, and even if there was, Otus can’t speak – but thanks to the expressive body language and facial expressions, Otus becomes a fully fleshed character by the end of the game. And while Otus himself remains silent, other characters around him fill in the blanks, providing a backstory and well-written dialogue, leaven with strong underlying themes. As an owl in training, Otus begins his adventure has an unusual protagonist – a vulnerable would-be hero, with no special abilities or weapons to use. He can’t even defend himself against the local owl bullies and progressing through the branching world map requires the help of his friends. And since his handicap is consistently highlighted throughout the journey, the game makes it easier for us to constantly care for him. That said, Otus is far from helpless. An early encounter with his best mate Geddy introduces the game’s central mechanic: flight. And unlike most games which give a character the ability to fly, Otus is able to soar freely without being held back by depleting stamina. It’s his first step in becoming the hero he’s meant to be. As the game progresses, you can cycle between his three buddies instantly using a teleportation device found in a dungeon early on. It is an interesting spin on the classic Metroidvania format and a convenient way of switching characters, weapons, and abilities on the fly. In various dungeons, you’ll need to swap between three characters to overcome obstacles — using Geddy’s pistol for disposing of enemies, and Alphonse’s fiery shotgun to burn through tough vines. Having these additional characters, each with their own ability, adds to Owlboy’s charm. It also helps Owlboy is blessed with a script that’s rife with emotion and nuance, and that Geddy, Alphonse, and Otus share great chemistry through their snappy dialogue. There are very few 2D platformers that allow characters to grow throughout the course of the game, but I felt invested in the personal growth and development of Otus and his friends. From the built-in mythology, character animations, well-written dialogue, tight controls, and a handful of plot twists, Owlboy does just about everything right.

Owlboy

Owlboy is one of the best games in years – consistently charming and surprising, with an ending open to interpretation that will have fans theorizing long after the credits roll. As I sat back and watched the closing cutscene, I couldn’t help but reflect on how far Otus had come.

  • Rikcy D

Side note: Over at iam8bit, they’ve got a pressing of the Owlboy soundtrack up for order that features art from Nicole Gustafsson (The Fountain OST at Mondo).

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and Tilt Magazine. Host of the NXpress Nintendo Podcast and the Sordid Cinema Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound on Sight. Former host of several other podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead shows, as well as Sound On Sight. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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Game Reviews

‘AVICII Invector Encore Edition’ Review: Rhythm and Melancholy

‘AVICII Invector: Encore Edition’ is a music and rhythm game perfect for newcomers and fans of the genre.

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AVICII Invector Encore Edition Review

Developer: Hello There Games | Publisher: Wired Productions | Genre:  Rhythm | Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam | Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch


In terms of a pure adrenaline rush, nothing tops a well-designed rhythm game. Good rhythm games let players feel a euphoric sense of flow and even excitement. But the best the genre has to offer taps into the heart of music itself. AVICII Invector Encore Edition is a rhythm game perfect for newcomers to the genre but also works as a moving tribute.

I can’t tell where the journey will end
But I know where to start

Whether it’s tapping buttons in time with the beat, smashing feet on a dance pad, or moving an entire body in front of an IR camera, rhythm and music games have always been popular. AVICII Invector Encore Edition takes inspiration from music games that came before it but stands firmly on its own. It’s wonderfully accessible, truly a music game for anyone. From diehard fans of the rhythm game genre to people who are simply AVICII fans who also have a console, Invector checks a lot of boxes.

Levels across AVICII Invector play largely the same. The player picks a track and a difficulty level, and is off to the races. They control a slick spaceship moving forward along a track, and must tap or hold buttons as the ship passes over them. This “falling jewel” style has been popular from the Guitar Hero franchise and beyond, but Invector finds ways to make it feel unique. The art direction is breathtakingly stellar, taking players on far-out trips through cyberpunk-esque cities and crumbling pathways. There are even portions of each level where the player can steer their spaceship Star Fox-style through rings and around pillars to keep their point multiplier up.

Invector feels like it’s trying to affect as many sensory inputs as it can. Though Encore Edition is fully playable on handheld mode on Switch, Invector shines brightest on a big screen with a thumping sound system. The neighbors might get annoyed, but who would hear them complaining?

Tracks are divided up by worlds, with four to five tracks each. Worlds must be cleared sequentially, by scoring at least seventy-five percent on each level in that world. While this may sound initially restrictive, Encore Edition gives players access to two extra worlds with five tracks each right out of the gate, so players have plenty to play with at the start.

There are three difficulties available, and each mode offers a different experience. For players who just want to experience AVICII’s music in a low-stress way while enjoying amazing visuals and ambiance, Easy mode is the way to play. Anything above that amps the difficulty up significantly, with Hard mode escalating the required precision to an unbelievable degree. Building up a competitive high score can only be achieved by hitting multipliers and keeping a streak going. At higher difficulties, Invector feels challenging but exhilarating. Scoring above ninety percent on any difficulty mode above Easy feels extremely good, and the online leaderboards are the perfect place to boast about that achievement. During high level play, earning a high score feels transcendent.

Worlds and levels are strung together with brief, lightly-animated cutscenes. It’s a slim justification for a rhythm game, but they’re better than nothing and provide just enough context to keep things interesting. AVICII Invector is both visually and aurally pleasing, but even if the player isn’t a diehard fan of EDM or House music, there is plenty to love.

This world can seem cold and grey
But you and I are here today
And we won’t fade into darkness

AVICII Invector is a truly fantastic rhythm game. But it’s also more than that. It is impossible to play Invector and not feel a twinge of melancholy. The game is a tribute to a hard-working perfectionist, but the man behind the music had his demons. Though the visuals are enticing and the gameplay electric, it is difficult not to feel sad from the opening credits. It is to Invector‘s credit that all throughout, the game feels like a joyful celebration of Tim Bergling’s music. It is a worthy tribute to a man who revitalized and reinvigorated the EDM and House music scene.

At the end of the day, almost every aspect of AVICII Invector reflects a desire to connect. For players connected to the internet, global leaderboards are a great opportunity to share high scores. Invector is much more forgiving than Thumper or Rez or even anything in the Hatsune Miku catalog. Players can cruise through this game on Easy mode if they want, and they won’t be punished. The Encore Edition even includes a split-screen multiplayer, which is fantastically fun.

In his music, Bergling worked across genres to expand what pop music could look like. With Invector, music lovers and players of nearly any skill level can have a pleasing experience. In video games, that’s rare, and it should be celebrated.

According to publisher Wired Productions’ website, all music royalties from AVICII Invector Encore Edition will support suicide awareness through the Tim Bergling Foundation.

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Game Reviews

‘Tamarin’ Review: Monkey Trouble

Like Yooka-Laylee before it, Tamarin flounders in its attempts to recreate its source material for a more modern audience.

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Tamarin Game Review

Developer: Chameleon Games | Publisher: Chameleon Games | Genre: 3rd Person Shooter/Platformer| Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC | Reviewed on: PlayStation 4

You have to be of a certain age to recall a game like Jet Force Gemini. One of Rare’s one-off titles of the N64 era, like Blast Corps, Jet Force Gemini never earned itself a sequel but was a fun sci-fi adventure for its time. It’s this same energy that Tamarin, from Chameleon Games, attempts to channel.

Made up of former Rare staff, the folks at Chameleon Games are almost certainly the best team to make an attempt at rekindling such a long dead franchise with their spiritual successor. However, as can be the case with retro throwbacks, sometimes it’s better to ask whether you should bring back an older style of gaming, rather than if you could.

As we’ve seen with games like Yooka Laylee and Mighty No. 9, it often seems that the idea of an older game or franchise being resurrected for modern audiences is better to imagine than to actually play. While the occasional Bloodstained does come along to buck the trend, more often than not we get a game which is too faithful to its sources to make a mark or too different to rekindle that old love and nostalgia.

All of which is to say that Tamarin, while very faithful to its inspirations, never quite hits the mark that brings it to the next level. Part of this is the natural aging process, particularly of the first era of 3D platformers and adventure games which spawned on the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. While many of the games of that generation packed in endless hours of fun, so too have many of their mechanics aged terribly.

Tamarin Game Review

This accounts for Tamarin‘s weakest point, which is undoubtedly its combat. The shooting sections of the game, while channeling another Rare franchise that balanced cuteness with cartoonish violence, are just so mechanically terse that they drag the game down egregiously each time they crop up.

Like with Jet Force Gemini, players will spend much of Tamarin battling troubling insectoid enemies that threaten the peace of all of civilization. Also like the game which was such a clear inspiration for Chameleon, Tamarin brings back the clunky 3D aiming reticle. Not only is the shooting janky here, it feels downright unwieldy when you first get your hands on a firearm.

Though players can get the hang of it with a little effort and some reworking of how they see shooters, there seems to be little point in doing so. Tamarin‘s braindead AI and sparse few enemy types make combat feel like much of an afterthought to the experience, despite how central it is to progressing through the game.

To be fair, Tamarin does also bring some of the good from its spiritual forebear. The gradually growing arsenal of laser guns and rocket launchers does feel fun to play with, and the game is peppered with plenty of upgrades for the guns along the way. Sadly, then another of the Space Invaders style mini-games will pop up and derail things all over again.

Yes, there is a strange reference to yet another long gone gaming franchise here. Unlocking certain doors requires players to start from the center and aim the analog stick around firing at hovering, shifting rows of bugs. Again, it feels very unwieldy, and by the end most players will simply settle for spinning the analog stick wildly while firing with the machine gun for maximum ease.

Fortunately, more successful are the platforming sections. Making up the other side of Tamarin‘s coin, is a game more inspired by Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong Country 64 than anything else. As players travel through the outside world, gathering collectibles and gaining new abilities as they go, Tamarin shows much more variety than its combat sections.

With clear cues marked on the terrain to denote which areas require upgrades or new abilities to traverse, Tamarin is generally able to point you in the right direction across its world, though a map or minimap would help matters considerably. Though the game is split into many separate areas, they often look so similar that it can make the game hard to navigate and harder to remember where previous markers were for exploration. Even a rudimentary map feature would make this far less of an issue.

Alas, the exploration flounders on occasion as well. Jumping sometimes feels a bit too flighty and can even break the game at times, allowing players to jump off of surfaces they shouldn’t be able to normally. Further, the need to hold down a button and press another to grab certain collectibles is totally unintuitive and is another feature that seems to be more or less pointless.

As such, for all of it’s cute mascot spiritedness and lovingly attributed influences, Tamarin ultimately falls short in bringing back some of the best franchises of yesteryear. Though the effort is a valiant one, Tamarin, hampered by the flaws of the games it attempts to emulate, is just too clunky in its execution.

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Game Reviews

‘Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered’ Review: Some Games Age Like Milk

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered fails due to problems that existed in the original title, as well as flaws in this remastered edition.

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Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered

Developer: Square-Enix | Publisher: Square-Enix | Genre: Action-RPG| Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Mobile | Reviewed on: PlayStation 4

There’s a bit of a storied history between Nintendo and Square. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered is an important part of that history. Or rather, the original version, released in 2003, was.

While it might seem to younger gamers like Square-Enix and Sony have always been close, Square had a different best friend for much of the 80s and 90s: Nintendo. Though a rift developed between them when Square opted to focus on CD-roms rather than cartridges for Final Fantasy VII, that rift only lasted for about 6 years. The game that signalled the end it? Well that was a new release exclusively for the GameCube: Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles.

Though Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles was released to relatively positive reviews 17 years ago, the game has not aged well. The quest of a caravan of crystal bearers to refill their crystal’s power and protect their homes from a deadly miasma, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered fails due to problems that existed in the original title, as well as flaws in this remastered edition.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered

The first, and most considerable, problem with the game is that the quest at the heart of Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered is tedious and repetitive. Players ostensibly go from area to area on a world map, exploring uninteresting towns and beating lackluster dungeons. If this wasn’t enough, players are also forced to replay these levels over and over again in order to gain enough upgrades for later levels.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: all RPGs ask players to level up in order to succeed. You’re not wrong, it’s simply the structure of levelling up that makes this experience so trying. The only way to level up in Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered is to beat the entire level again. Players are not rewarded experience for killing enemies but instead can choose one stat to upgrade each time they complete a level. What this means is that every tiny upgrade to your character can take 10-15 minutes at a time to get.

This wouldn’t be as trying on your patience if simple, basic flaws in the game weren’t so egregious. Hit detection is incomprehensible at times because, even when your character seems to be standing right next to an enemy or boss, they often fail to connect their attacks. Even worse, rather than mapping different attacks to the face and shoulder buttons, players must cycle through them one at a time, with the attack button standing in for defense, magic, healing or food consumption.

Of course, much of this has to do with the format of the original game. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles was meant to be played with link cables and Game Boy Advances connected to the GameCube. Each player would have a different bonus displayed on their GBA screens and, as such, players would work together in local multiplayer, aiding each other with their unique screen information as well as their combat skills.

Naturally the GBA had only two face buttons and two shoulder buttons, hence the layout. However, it’s been 17 years, and it’s pretty egregious that Square-Enix didn’t even think of giving players an option to rework the button layout. Doing so would make combat much more dynamic and help to fix the often clunky feeling of battling the game’s monsters.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered

Adding to the tedium are unskippable cutscenes all over the game. Every single time players challenge a boss, they are forced to sit through the same cutscene introducing the boss. Further, there are random events that occur on the world map which are also unskippable, even if they’re repeats of events that the player has already seen. Haplessly tapping the confirm button to skip through dialog that we’ve already heard should not be an issue in a game released in 2020.

These flaws were mostly a part of the original release as well but what’s the point of remastering a game if you haven’t fixed anything? Even the visuals in Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered have failed to receive much polish. The game looks murky and fuzzy rather than sharp and clear. If Square-Enix could clean up Final Fantasy VIII for its gorgeous remaster, what stopped them here?

This is without even mentioning the loading times, which are frankly absurd for a game nearly two decades old. Again, it seems that getting this remaster out the door trumped quality control for Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered, which does nothing to help the game’s case.

Though the game is markedly more fun when players join you to take on a level, even the online connectivity has serious issues. To make matters worse, if a player chooses to use the multiplayer, they’ll have to carry a chalice around themselves if no one joins them, picking it up and putting it down all through the level.

Since single player has an AI character who will carry it for you, this option could be easily added to multiplayer, disappearing when (or if) someone actually joins you. This would allow the structure of the game to remain static regardless of whether someone joins your game or not, instead of making the game harder if no one decides to pop in.

While game director Araki Ryoma has promised to address the issues with Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered, the game has aged so poorly that, even without the flaws of the remaster, it’s hard to recommend it to modern audiences. Sad as it is, some games are better left in the past. Such is the case with Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles.

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