Digital Gems: Flower, Journey, and Owlboy

Digital Gems: Flower, Journey, and Owlboy

We highlight contemporary and classic downloadable games that we think are worth your attention.

In this regular weekly article, I highlight classic and contemporary downloadable games across all platforms – from consoles through PC and Mac to mobile phones – that I believe are worthy of your attention. As you might expect, the majority of these are indie titles that flew under the radar and didn't get a huge amount of publicity when they were first released – or are classic games that you might have missed.

Flower

This week's trio of titles kicks off with a couple of classic PS4 remasters of games from the previous generation of consoles. While both received a lot of press when they were launched, some of you might have missed them the first time around – and I think they're very much worth playing. Especially considering that they're relatively inexpensive.

Both games are from indie developer thatgamecompany, and each offers what I think are really distinct and unique gameplay experiences. In many respects, they're quite casual in nature, but I find them both incredibly involving and fascinating to play.

First up is Flower, a total chill out game in which you play the wind, using the Dualshock 4's Sixaxis controls to swoop low across idyllic fields of waving grass, picking up petals and causing flowers to bloom. As I said in my review back in 2013, "It’s all very esoteric and delphic, and other such words that we don’t normally use to describe games, because they’re usually so visceral, blatant and goal-oriented. That's not to say Flower doesn't have goals too. It does, just like any other normal game. But it doesn’t care how long you take, or how you do it. Just chill out, man, and do your thing. Enjoy the ride – because this is what this rather abstract game is all about. It’s a gaming doodle, a time waster – a thing to do."

Flower is graphically lovely, and the way that its ambient music dynamically harmonizes with the player's actions really helps enhance the game's laid-back vibe. It doesn't take particularly long to play through – maybe an hour or two is all that's required to gently waft through its six main levels – but for me it's a wonderfully relaxing experience. It's not necessarily about the moment-to-moment gameplay, but more of the overall impression it delivers – one that I found had remarkable staying power.

Sure, it's not for everyone. I quipped in my original review, "If you have zero patience, and are only happy with bullets whizzing by your head, or feel the need to drive around with the pedal pushed right to the metal all the time, then Flower’s gentle appeal might bore the pants off you and send you off to sleep." However, if you're open to something very different – a game that has almost soothing qualities – I highly recommend it.

One thing to note is that it's cross-play on PS3, PS4, and PS Vita, so spending $6.99 will enable you to download it to whichever of those systems you happen to own.

Journey

Currently available at 67% off until 8:00 am on Jan 23rd – meaning it'll set you back just $4.94 until Monday morning – I think Journey is an absolute classic. It was one of my favorite PS3 experiences of the prior generation, and I thought about it often in the days and weeks after completing it, such was the impact it had on me. I replayed the remastered version on PS4 last weekend – the first time I'd gone back to the game since its release in 2012 – and it was every bit as good as I remembered. Despite knowing exactly how it would play out, it nevertheless provided me with a fabulous couple of gaming hours, and I'm still basking in the afterglow of its sublime experience today.

It's the story of the eponymous journey: A trek through a gorgeously-realized desert whose landscape shifts and evolves as you plod ever deeper into its realm. The game doesn't burden you with a specific goal, and the exact identity of the robed protagonist remains a mystery, but it soon becomes clear that the most significant landmark on the horizon – a shimmering mountain topped by an ethereal light that shines from afar – is where you need to head.

So off you go, sliding, gliding, and gracefully leaping towards this distant destination. It's an odyssey filled with wonderful vistas, desolate ruins, and mysterious landscape features. Some are interactive, and you can approach them and emit a spherical pulse to bring them to life. Others contain ribbon-like objects that imbue the nameless hero with the ability to take flight. It's here that simple puzzle-like elements are introduced into the proceedings as you work to find a way to continue onward.

Looking at it at face value, Journey is a minimal platformer that doesn't exactly pack the most robust of challenges. Anyone with even the most rudimentary of video gaming skills will very likely wend their way through it in a matter of an hour or two. But here's the thing. Journey isn’t really about solving its simple tests of skill or reaching its destination – it's how it makes you feel as you do so. Buoyed by a stunning soundtrack and outstanding visuals, the game transcends its mechanical elements to deliver a surprisingly evocative, almost spiritual experience. In many respects, it's very interpretive, and what you'll get out of it wholly depends on your personal perspective. I'm sure that there will be some who'll find Journey a hollow, almost pointless exercise. But for others it will be a deeply resonant, emotional experience that will make an indelible impression.

For me, Journey is a piece of video gaming art: A meticulously designed, interactive parable that delivers one of the most memorable gaming experiences of the modern era.

Owlboy

Almost ten years in the making, D-Pad Studio's Owlboy is a PC Metroidvania that I've really enjoyed playing so far. I say so far, because I haven't actually finished the game as of yet – I'm about six or so hours into it. However, since this isn't a scored review, I thought that it'd be okay for me to talk about why I like it so much.

The game stars Otus the Owlboy, a very sympathetic character who's unable to speak. Because of his affliction, the residents of Vellie, the village where he lives, treat him like an idiot. So much so that he has nightmares about his unfortunate circumstances. This immediately makes him very endearing, and after the opening cutscenes, I was more than motivated to play the game to help him prove his worth – which inevitably is what Owlboy is all about. However, it's not plain sailing. It's a difficult journey that has as many setbacks as it does triumphs, and it's these ups and downs that makes the game really interesting and emotionally involving.

What immediately stood out for me is the game's gorgeous graphics. Everything from the large, hand-rendered parallax-scrolling map to the beautifully detailed and wonderfully animated characters is conveyed through hi-res pixel art that somehow manages to feel contemporary, yet retro at the same time. It's a terrific aesthetic, and gives the game a really distinctive look.

While it's ostensibly a platformer, Otus is able to fly, roll, and spin his way around the environment. But the most important thing he can do is pick up and carry characters that he meets and befriends as he adventures his way through the game. These essentially imbue him with additional powers in typical Metroidvania fashion, enabling him to solve environmental puzzles, defeat bosses, and open up new areas of the map so that he can progress. A neat touch is that you can instantly swap between characters on the fly, enabling you to quickly change abilities – something that seems to become increasingly important the deeper you get into the game.

Although none of this might sound particularly innovative, the gameplay is very well executed to feel rewarding, addictive, and fun. However, what's made the game really compelling to me is its very well-written story. I wasn't quite expecting the emotional rollercoaster that Owlboy delivers – but it's really tugged on my heartstrings in the best possible way. The dialog and character development is handled really well, and it's all just so charming and endearing.

As you can tell, I'm really enamored with the game, but it must be said that Owlboy does have the occasional pain-in-the-ass challenge where the difficulty spikes perhaps a little too high. Not that I'm averse to repeatedly restarting from a checkpoint until I learn the skills required to best a particularly acute challenge, but every once in a while, Owlboy has had me grinding my teeth and grasping my joypad angrily until it creaked under protest.

Fortunately, though, those frustrations are fairly few and far between, and for the most part Owlboy is a real joy to play. With its winsome characters, excellent story, and very nicely honed gameplay, I think it really stands out as a very special Metroidvania.

Editor's pick

Digital Gems: Virginia, Plague Inc: Evolved, and World of Tanks

Editor's pick

Digital Gems: Overcooked, Mini Metro, and Pocket Card Jockey

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