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The Legends of Owlia review

The NES is a truly enduring console. Not only does it have some of the most classic games ever that remain good to this day, it actually still gets new games from indie devs from time to time. The top of the new NES games are clearly both Battle Kid games (which should be released on modern platforms as a bundle, seriously… no idea what’s been up with Sivak after BK2). But there’s a ton more. Most of it is pretty subpar but it’s still a pretty interesting thing to look at. I even backed Dreamworld Pogie on Kickstarter recently (a game that was supposed to come out on NES that didn’t, by Codemasters at the time)… I’ll review that whenever I get it, even if it isn’t getting anymore copies after the KS (at least for now). The NES isn’t the only console getting homebrew games, but it gets the most noteworthy ones (unless the Atari Lynx ones are good but no one has an Atari Lynx so who knows).

This one comes from Gradual Games, the makers of another homebrew NES game that I have previously reviewed, Nomolos: Storming the Catsle. Outside of the dumb title (no seriously the underline under “Cat” is part of the title), it was a pretty fun game. A precise, fast-paced platformer that took just a bit of getting used to. So this is a new NES game, but it’s also available to buy on Steam (basically running it through a crappy emulator). Nomolos will also make it on Steam at some point soon too.

So let’s see if I liked this one!

(this is gonna be fairly short)


Developer/Publisher: Gradual Games
Date of Release: June 1 2016 (on Steam, not sure about the cartridge release)
Platform: NES, PC
Genre: Top-down action-adventure game

Presentation

For an NES game the graphics are very solid. Fairly detailed and varied environments outside of the dungeons, with repeating background tiles/objects being placed just right to not look weird. The enemy design is nice for the most part, though some of them try to get too much detail on too small sprites. Also the scrolling is extremely smooth when moving through big areas, even diagonally. The dungeons are kinda boring though. Also there’s almost no lag. However one quick issue on the Steam release, if you play windowed the window has a big black bar at the top for some reason, just random space that’s there for no reason. Doesn’t block the game, so not sure why it’s there. Anyways, game looks good.

The sound is fairly generic fantasy NES stuff. I didn’t mind the music, it was pretty okay. Nothing super remarkable but it’s fine.

And story is pretty much what you’d expect from an NES game. Something gets kidnapped, go save it. In this case Adlanniel (yeah that’s actually her name, I don’t even) has to save 6 of the 7 great owls that… did things and are important to the world for some reason. Okay.

Gameplay

It’s a top-down action adventure game. Similar to the likes of Zelda 1 and StarTropics. You move around, talk to people, throw your pet owl Tyto at enemies to kill them (you also have a short-range ineffectual sword). Movement is free, you can move in any direction and you move pretty fast.

There’s 6 levels, and the goal of each level is fairly simple: get access to the dungeon in the level, solve puzzles to get keys, get to the end of the dungeon, fight a boss, save an owl (which grants Tyto with a new ability), be brought to the next level. This isn’t entirely straightforward, and it’s where I start getting issues with this game. The fighting things, solving (some of the) puzzles thing, that’s all fine.

Tyto can equip 2 skills at once (which you can switch around in the pause menu). He starts with Rush, which is basically you throwing Tyto at enemies (the aim is weird, when throwing sideways you will hit in front of your character’s head, rather than actually in front of the character on the “grid”). The other is Fetch, which gets Tyto to go and grab an item or thing. Tyto gets new skill every level but still can only choose between 2. You can switch the 2 anytime from the pause menu, but that’s extremely tedious. How about make Select let you switch between all of them instead of just 2?

The dungeons are a bit on the meh side. Like Zelda 1 and most of the dungeons in StarTropics, each dungeon is made up of multiple single-screen rooms. The visuals are less varied and lower quality than the rest outside area (some parts I had to realize were actually holes, I didn’t think I could interact with them, they looked like walls), and there’s not much to them. Kill enemies, solve puzzles. When you find keys you use them to advance further. They’re not bad, but they’re a bit on the weak side.

The boss battles are pretty cool. However some are a bit unclear, and few require using a newfound ability or item, it’s kinda odd. And if you die the game is really lenient and you keep everything you had. Sure you have to make your way the dungeon up to the boss but that’s pretty acceptable. All doors you already unlocked are still unlocked, so whatever.

Oh, if you grab hearts and you’re already full you can stock up on up to 7 extra hearts, and use them in the pause menu to heal yourself. It’s kinda clunky (I’d rather just have 10 hearts instead of having 3 and having to use the others in the pause menu).

First big issue comes with getting access to the dungeons. You need money. But you don’t pay money, you just have to have it or the owl statue at the entrance won’t let you in. Owl bastard judging you by how rich you are, I guess. The problem is that the game doesn’t think it’s useful to tell you how much money you need. If you don’t have enough, start grinding on the enemies in the overworld, go to the dungeon again, see if you can get in, if not go back to grinding. For the most part you don’t need to grind, but when you do it’s very annoying. Note that, when killing monsters, there’s an equal chance to get money as there is getting bombs, lanterns, hearts or nothing. So money is a fairly rare drop.

It gets WORSE on the fifth level. Here rather than grinding by killing monsters you get really awkward minigames that you have to pay your gold to play. I actually don’t know what happens if you don’t have money left, so in level 5 be sure to write down your password, that way you can come back to a point where you had more money (if you grinded a LOT before you might start level 5 with enough to get to the end instantly, but I don’t see that as terribly likely).

The puzzles are mostly fine, some NPCs might give you hints and you might have to take down notes for future use. That’s great. What isn’t great is that some of the puzzles are completely arbitrary. Get in a room, no hint that it might be a puzzle. Kill all the enemies, nothing happens. Try multiple times, nothing happens. Look at the one walkthrough on Gamefaqs, realize you need to kill the enemies in a specific order that nothing in the game even hints at. Weird. Some of the hints are really vague and don’t really tell you anything useful. In general the puzzles are fine, but not always. A few I just kinda fumbled through until they worked because the hint wasn’t helping

On the Steam version at least the game keeps your latest password in the password screen unless you start a new game (if you close the game and come back it puts you straight back where you were when you closed, effectively acting like a single-use save state). If you start a new game by error, well hopefully you wrote the password down. Otherwise you start the game over again, like I did! Great. I get it’s because programming a game to use battery saves is annoying (especially as far as manufacturing the cartridges), but that would help a lot. The emulator used here doesn’t use save states, so no easy way out if you fuck up.

Overall

The Legends of Owlia isn’t great. It plays pretty solidly in general, the controls are fine and it feels good, but it’s rife with huge issues as far as game design goes that ruin the experience. This is pretty middle-of-the-road as far as the NES goes. Not bad, not great, just kinda there.

I’m kinda happy I didn’t spend extra to get the cartridge version.

(Note: Yes I know you don’t actually throw the owl)

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