Never in my time as a reviewer has there been an easy outlet for reviewing difficult games. Whether Deadfall Tropics, which used its difficulty as a selling point, or Glo, which promises many deaths to come, difficulty remains a tricky subject to tackle, especially when incorporated fairly. Even if fair, is it fair to lower the final score because it was frustrating? How much should the accumulation of negative output play into recommendability? Where’s the thesis on what makes the rules of a game “fair”? These concerns and many more ensnared me upon my grading of Eagle Island.
Effort and soul is no issue. Anyone who plays Eagle Island upon its release will be able to reasonably assume the creator was passionate about it. Full of vivid colors, peaceful ambience, and polished mechanics, to criticize the technical aspects would be close to ludicrous. But when it comes to my own experience with Eagle Island, one ridden with veiny-red faces, it took closer inspection to unearth deeper reasoning. Where I drew the line is something I hope to convey well as the review continues.
Regarding its main narrative, Eagle Island decides to take a minimalist approach. A young boy named Quill is taking a stroll in a deep jungle when a monstrous bird kidnaps one of his pet owls, Ichiro. With his other owl, Koji, Quill enlists the help of a local scientist to take back Koji and to stop the bird’s kidnapping ways. All else that follows comes through in scripted events upon defeating individual stages and reaching once-blocked-off areas.
“Minimalist” is a word I’ve used to describe a number of stories from indie games I’ve reviewed in the past. Generally speaking, these stories provide a straightforward tale that involves good-and-bad allegiances, and maybe a twist somewhere along the way. Eagle Island is no different. This could make one’s immersion involved with the story either stronger or weaker, such that it’s easier to follow along, but doesn’t provide deeper satisfaction for complexity. Playing the game, one spends a decent amount of time in an overworld to discover new areas to explore and bits of story to digest along the way. By no means an even split, there’s a much heavier focus on gameplay than story.
A minimalist approach to story also makes it easier to disregard its importance to the whole. Many hold true to the standard that if a game is fun, all else is extra. As someone who enjoys narrative-based games, it was somewhat disappointing to have Eagle Island be so light on cutscenes and character development. Even so, it wasn’t something that I expected prior to playing, so the minimalist effort was appreciated. Predictable as it may be, the story isn’t the main course.
Now we turn to the grim. Eagle Island has a combat system that revolves around “falcon-based” attacks. To equate it to the ever-so-popular gun alternative, Quill shoots (throws) Koji out in front of him like a bullet. Whereas the traditional bullet will stay its course, Koji will eventually stop himself, removing the certainty from the player that a “shot” will land from far away. What this game has done is treat Koji as an independent character, rather than an inanimate weapon. This decision has become both a blessing and a curse for this game style.
Positively, I appreciate the humanity in putting Quill’s precious pet into a realistic realm. Koji will fly around, do whatever, get stunned by obstacles, and is treated like an additional appendage to Quill. He will only fly so far when thrown, cannot bypass enemy “bullets,” and cannot be launched on a whim in various circumstances. It provides an extra challenge to an already challenging game and some empathy towards what reasonably should be seen as a beloved partner. Negatively, it breaks the flow of the gameplay. I’ve become so used to the quick and versatile rhythm of roguelikes that this only feels like a more careful, dragging experience that discourages speedy combat. Most battles against a room full of enemies is perceived as a “one at a time” basis. Instead of blazing through full of vigor and energy, most encounters boil down to “How will I not die here?”
Added criticism of the flow comes with the directional input system to launching Koji. In Eagle Island, one can launch Koji in eight different directions, those being the four cardinal ones and each diagonal in-between. I cannot count the number of times I intended to launch Koji one way only to have it register the next-closest one. These situations have ended up getting me hurt or, at worst, killing me far along within a stage. A feeling of deflation would be an understatement; the loss of control over my fate makes it more aggravating. A precise aiming system similar to Metroid: Samus Returns would likely improve upon this. While it may not fly in the direction I wanted, it’d be close enough to justify it. This style of flow is the major gripe I have with Eagle Island, and something which shouldn’t come off as negatively for others.
Further negative criticisms come with the rune system and the stage designs overall. Throughout a stage, one can spend acorns and silver coins (dropped from defeated enemies and chests) on golden chests or shops to obtain runes that increase Quill’s capabilities. These abilities include things like throwing Koji farther, wall jumping, additional hearts, etc. These runes prove plentiful, as I came across quite a few in my time trying to open every chest possible. Unfortunately, not many proved useful. Extra hearts are priority number one, and I particularly liked the runes that locked Koji into a certain elemental form or allowed three chests to be opened for free. Much else rarely helped me master the terrain of difficulty provided with each stage.
Each stage one visits in Eagle Island will rarely change in terms of objective. Travel the area, beat some baddies, maybe grab an ancient coin, and defeat the boss at the end. Every so often, levels will incorporate other elements such as speedrunning or mine cart segments (Yes!), but these are as rare as the helpful rune elements. This can make the prospect of new levels feel more bland, especially when coupled with how many enemies are colored over and re-used. I remember one stage in particular I died in and I looked at the total time spent within: 21 minutes. I could only think, “Are these stages worth spending 20 minutes in?” At the time (enraged), it was a biased answer, but even now I wonder about the size of some stages. Even through the randomization of the roguelike elements, it doesn’t provide substantial differentiation.
To take all this into account and assume I hated playing Eagle Island would be a reasonable guess. A wrong one, but a reasonable one. Despite these gripes, there are various points about the gameplay here that makes it easy to want to go back and conquer the difficulty. Airborne combat is one I found delightfully intuitive and something I wish was more involved. One is able to stay suspended in the air when lining up a shot, and so long as one is accurate, can stay airborne until the targets run dry. This alleviated some of the slow combat that bothered me throughout my run, but the chances to do so are limited.
Boss fights are another entertaining addition to the faster-paced side of Eagle Island. While occasionally scary to go into a boss room with low health, there was also gleeful anticipation. Many of the bosses in Eagle Island give opportunity for high-number combos and satisfying chunks of offensive displays. Strangely, bosses tend to also be much easier than their regular-baddie counterparts. Something about the patterns, or because their size prompts them to be more stationary perhaps encourages predictable strategies. After all, the most annoying enemies in Eagle Island are the ones that move stupidly fast.
With a final note on gameplay comes the core rules’ stipulation for collecting hearts in combat. This standard is the only thing I find somewhat unfair about the rules set by the game’s difficulty. In order to collects hearts (outside of chests or shops), one is required to chain a four-kill combo. While this sounds simple, one is given a limited timeframe to complete this chain (less than two seconds between kills), and some rooms don’t even have four enemies within them. And some rooms have more than four enemies dispersed in different sections, making chaining impossible. One must be both really good and lucky in order to take advantage of this system. Of course, if this proves too difficult, one is given the option to switch to “Casual mode,” which is much more forgiving from a gameplay perspective.
Graphics & Audio
Among the better qualities of Eagle Island show through with the colorful pixel detail. Everything is brightly designated as it should and the different regions for zones provide an appropriate sheen of vibrancy. A small detail I liked was actually the quickness of going from room to room, as the transition is almost literally lightning-fast and seamless. I even went back and forth a few times to test just how quickly it takes to load any room, and it’s consistently less than a second. A small complaint comes in the form of how frequently enemy designs were re-used and re-colored throughout, as stated prior. The game functions well and offers extra detail towards boss encounters, which is where the quality truly shines. The looming figures of the gigantic creatures is what captivated me most of all.
Music seems to prioritize one of two things in games now-a-days: immersive ambience or high-energy rambunctiousness. Eagle Island chooses the former, providing surprisingly calming tunes in almost every segment of the story and stages. Even during the more dramatic moments, there was something soothingly poetic about the soundtrack. Unfortunately, it didn’t do much more than this. There are two tracks in particular I like from this game; both play within five seconds of opening the game up. The title theme and the menu select screen (which plays elsewhere) are two really nice, simple tracks that evoke a lot of harmonious emotions. Everything else feels a tad too downplayed into the immersion aspect. For a game such as this, I personally would’ve preferred something more adventurous, something to urge me to fly forward against all odds. As it is, there are no substantial issues with the score—only peacefully meandering.