Developer: Krome Studios, Tantalus Media
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Genre: Flight simulator
Price: Try your luck
Let’s face it: sometimes we get curious. I often find myself flipping through the discount bin at my local GameStop to see if there’s anything worth reviewing, if only for the entertainment of my readers. In one of my routine stops, I happened upon The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole. I had just finished the books and really enjoyed the movie, so I wanted to give the game a chance and see how it compared.
Taking elements from both the books and the movies, the video game has created its own side story that lines up nicely enough with both canons. I’m a huge fan of animal flight games, a strange genre that’s normally only touched on in the context of riding or playing as a dragon.
Is The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole for everyone? Does it have appeal to those that aren’t already fans of the series?
True to a lot of animal fantasy worlds, the owls of Ga’hoole have their own deity called Glaux. His name is mentioned in passing, but there is very little exposition as to who Glaux is or how he relates to the owls in the context of the game. That aside, there is a very dark undertone concerning creatures known as hagsfiends and to the Pure Ones themselves. These undertones, however, are only brushed on in the game.
The most direct mention of Glaux involves the Glauxian brothers, an order of owl-monks who live in solitude. The game opens with a narrative regarding these monks and an assault on their sanctuary, and the game eventually features the area around the sanctuary as one of the stages of the story.
While there’s no blood or gore, the combat may be too intense for younger kids. Owls slash at each other with metal talons, bash into each other with armored helmets, throw burning coals at each other and, somehow, launch ballistae at their enemies.
There’s no actual cursing. The world of Ga’hoole has its own profanity, so unless you get offended by “racdrops,” you’re safe in this regard.
None to mention!
The Owls of Ga’hoole have a very Camelot-esque feel to their lore, story, and world. The themes of chivalry, defense of the helpless, and standing against evil are very much a part of the game’s story as well as the lore of the world as a whole. The main character, Shard, has been orphaned and left to be raised in the way of the warriors of Ga’hoole. He starts out as an immature character, barely able to get along with his own wingman, Parzival, and takes his training somewhat lightly. Through the course of the game, as the gravity of the darkness rising up in the world begins to sink in, Shard learns the world doesn’t revolve around him. He takes his training more seriously and begins to regard his wingman more as a brother-in-arms and less as a rival.
The contrast to the Guardians, the Pure Ones, have some pretty dark reflections within our own world. They believe they are a superior race of owls and seek to purge the world of all species outside the tyto owl family (or barn owls, as they are more commonly known). Oppositely, the Guardians are a diverse group of owls who often take on allies outside of their own species, as is evident in the eagles that assist at the beginning of the game.
While the morals are delivered in a corny way at times, they’re still solid.
The game starts out with a character selection screen where you can choose one of four owl species: a spotted owl, barn owl, great horned owl, or great grey owl. Each species has its own strengths and weaknesses. For example, the spotted owl is extremely quick but lacks attack and defense, while the great grey owl is powerful and highly defensive but sluggish. No matter which species you choose, the main character is named “Shard” and given the same background. Canonically, Shard is supposed to be a barn owl, but it’s nice that the game allows for some variety to match what kind of a game you want to play.
The game’s controls and gameplay are pretty basic. Your owl will automatically be airborne at the beginning of each level, so there’s no takeoff or landing in the game. I was a little disappointed the ground couldn’t be explored, but considering it’s a game about birds, I understand that exclusion. You control your owl with the stick and increase its flight by tapping the R button. The L button will slow your flight until Shard hovers mid-air. You can fly up high, then dive downward to increase your speed, which is pretty handy during mini-games or in pursuit of an enemy. I had to invert the Y-axis before I was comfortable playing, since the controls are inverted by default (as are most flight simulation games).
The combat is simple and easy to pick up on. One button allows you to do a basic talon attack, one grabs and tosses the opponent, one is used for grabbing coals and tossing them, and another is used for a bash attack that can disarm enemies. And… that’s it. It’s pretty straightforward, and while there are attacks that are best against certain foes and completely ineffective against others, the combat is extremely lackluster. For a game about owls slashing each other with battle talons, it is kind of a letdown in the combat area. You lock onto an enemy, select an attack… and go for it. The most exciting attack is learned halfway through the game, in which you can grab your enemy and dive with them towards the ground. You release them at the last moment and fly off. There are other moves like barrel-rolls, sending out your wing-men, fast charges, and backflips but, again, it’s not as involved as I would have liked to see.
Through the game, you can accumulate “shines,” a currency not present in the movie or books, and exchange them in your hollow for better armor. Each set of armor gives you buffs in a different area. You can buy a set of armor, for example, near the beginning that gives you a major boost in speed. Toward the end of the game, you unlock a set with major attack and defense buffs, which is best for the boss battles and the enemy invasion mini-games.
The main story is pretty quick and basic. It doesn’t take long to get through at all. Upon completing an area (of which there are about four levels each), you unlock the side missions which are exactly the same in every area. You have an owlet rescue game in which you chase down an enemy, snatch the owlet from their talons, and fly back to safety three times. The second game is a racing game where you fly through a course, missing no more than three mid-air rings, to achieve the best time. The third is a game in which you have to fight off waves of enemies as quickly as possible. Finally, you’ll play a game where you must destroy catapults using hot coals. Upon unlocking areas, you can free-fly around them, exploring the area and locating scrolls that allow you to view concept art from the film and game. It’s a nice addition, and it pads out the game, but unless you enjoy flying around (which I do), it gets old pretty fast. The combat, while fun at first, also gets a little repetitive. The challenge in later battles comes more from the time limit and quantity of enemies than actual difficulty.
Visually, the game is pretty impressive for what it is. The few landscapes are absolutely beautiful. Even though the ground is off-limits for exploration, the graphical design implies that it could easily be navigated, and the atmospheric effects are impressive. The owls themselves are hit or miss. The spotted and great grey owl models are comical, but the great horned and the barn owl are actually quite well-done. They fly well, giving a real sense of weight, strength, and dexterity that an animal lover like myself can appreciate. They move like an owl would and fly like an owl would (minus the loud flapping sound). It’s enjoyable just flying around the environments and exploring. The cutscenes aren’t anything special, but the voice acting isn’t painful and it’s clear there was a lot of effort put into making a good game on a skinny budget.
The soundtrack, other than the opening music in the menu, isn’t anything special. It fills the silence and gives some depth to the game, but it’s nothing that I’d look up and listen to actively.
For what it is–a game based on a movie based on a book–The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole was a surprise. I have to point out that, while I enjoyed this game, it isn’t without its flaws and it certainly isn’t for everyone. I can see why it found its way into the discount bin for five dollars.
Fans of the book series will appreciate the many nods the game gives to the books, and fans of the movie will recognize the combat and return to familiar locations seen in the film. Those who didn’t like either or haven’t experienced either likely won’t find this game appealing. There’s a lot of lore that is understandable to fans but would leave newcomers confused.
There is a lot of potential in a game with elements of epic fantasy, animals, and flight as its key components, but The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole ultimately falls flat. As much as I enjoyed the game, it’s not something I’ll keep coming back to.
The Bottom Line
For what it is, The Owls of Ga'hoole is a fun experience. It's short, simple, and sweet, but for the few hours of gameplay that it provides, it's a lot of fun. There's not a lot of flight combat games where you fly, not as a craft or a ship, but as an actual bird. I would have loved to see this game expanded into a canon all its own with its own story, but as a fan of the Ga'hoole books and film, I really enjoyed the nods to both within the game. It's nothing epic, and it's nothing that will really leave an impression, but it's unique and enjoyable. Fans of the series will enjoy the video game but newcomers may find it lackluster, slow, and far too short for their liking.