The game probably should have opened here. Dragon Quest didn't start you off with the hero writing in his journal for a reason.
Ocypete and Aello are still indistinct to me as different characters despite the amount of time I spent staring at this screen with their names on it.
I'm not actually standing on a pit in this picture, that is apparently light coming from a pit above me. When zoomed out the staircases are a little more visually distinct, but I could never tell them apart in-game without studying them first.
I have mixed feelings about the casual dialog in this game, but it's probably there intentionally rather than out of carelessness.
Winged Realm starts off with a whimper. After the gorgeous title screen you get dropped into a short exposition monologue. There's no visuals, there's no music. Just a text box on a black background telling you about this light that suddenly appeared. Even by NES standards it's weak. Show don't tell! Show us this light appearing in the north! Make our feelings match the protagonist by getting the player awed by its sudden appearance! Get us pumped up! Making it even odder, the subsequent cutscenes end up explaining everything the monologue just explained. At this point my expectations for the game dropped from sky high to rock bottom, but I continued on.
Once the game lets you walk around it starts to actually feel the part of its 8-bit aesthetic. The terse NPC conversations inspire far more wonder than the wordy (by 8-bit standards) cutscenes preceding them. There's a flying monster preventing the harpies from just flying away! It's causing the poison mist in the skies! You start to actually want to make your way down and see the world.
When you enter the first dungeon it immediately hits you that this is a special OHR game. Just go look at the first screenshot, over there to the right. Look at it! Look at how condensed it is! Look at how you can see into several rooms with just one screenshot! This is a game that cares about level design. This is a game that understands that an RPG dungeon is more than just a sequence of battles you have to fight across an empty map before getting to the next plot point. This is a game that makes you want to get that chest over there because you can see it because it actually fits on your screen even when you're a hallway away from it.
It's actually far more interesting than just being efficient with space, though. It contains most of the dungeon gimmicks you might expect from an old RPG: hidden doors, mimics, pit falls, spikes, wandering bosses, warps, etc. It's well designed as a resource drain RPG too: you'll pick a direction, explore it as best you can, and then limp your way back to the inn- keeping your discoveries in the back of your mind as you mentally map the place.
What makes its level design actually stand out, though, is that it's intensely vertical for an RPG. Which makes sense, you're playing as a band of harpies after all. Both of the dungeons in the current demo feature several stories and numerous pitfalls, so you'll find yourself going between floors to progress almost constantly. This makes it important to keep in mind the floors above and below you, especially once you unlock the ability to fly up pits. This could have easily been incredibly disorienting, but I only found myself completely lost once in the second dungeon.
Before I continue on I have to mention that the game contains the ability for characters to jump over certain obstacles. In the game proper this is never mentioned (though the manual does, which in some way makes it the most old school of all the 8-bit ohr games that you have to read the manual). What actually makes it confusing, though, is that jump is mapped exclusively to the spacebar. So despite being curious enough to mash enter on these objects, I was left none the wiser. The author is already well aware of this issue and plans to fix it, but I'll mention it for any future players of this demo (to the game's credit, I still wanted to play it after wandering around confused for 30 minutes).
Visually the game is mostly stellar. The battle sprites look great, the map graphics are very solid outside of a rather intense palette, etc. Which makes its few functional failures a little confusing. I had a very hard time intuitvely telling the difference between up and down stairs, as the only major difference between the two is a slightly darker/brighter edge (given the huge amount of verticality in the game I found this to occasionally make navigation more annoying than it should have been). The tile for "light coming from a pit in the floor above" is confusing as well, looking a lot like another pit falling into water rather than looking like a light source (the second dungeon is far more visually apparent about this, though). Areas within the overworld feature doors, but no effort is made to explain why you can't go through them (either verbally saying they're stuck, or making them visually obvious as impassable). Certain areas on the overworld look a lot more like decorative rock than places you can go. It's hard to figure out who each character is when the game tends to introduce several at once without at least animating/moving the speaker's sprite prior to talking (or just using portraits). Just little functional details, but they add up.
Well, let's get into the thick of it. Like I said earlier, this is very much an RPG that relies on having its random battles drain your resources until you have to scurry back to an inn. You have to balance the MP consumption of your skills with the HP consumption of allowing enemies to live longer. The first half of the first dungeon nails this almost perfectly. It's divided into several branches from the starting area, so it's very easy to pick a branch to explore and then return to the inn having thoroughly explored that branch.
As the game goes on the areas get increasingly longer and more linear, and then the game starts to fall apart. Without a base camp inn to return to regularly, the player is forced to aggressively conserve their MP due to pricey MP restoration items and scarce item shops. Battles start to take longer with fewer abilities to use on them. The high encounter rate starts to grate due to the longer battle time and wanting to just explore the complex level design without distraction. The rather low stat gain on equipment and level up becomes more apparent: progression doesn't make the random battles go much faster when using basic attacks. There's no progression curve where entering a new dungeon starts with you being nearly slaughtered and then ending with you one-shotting everything in it after finding all the equipment- my end-of-dungeon 1 party took about as long to kill first floor enemies as my starting party did (the equipment you get by the end of the demo starts to be far more effective, though).
The previous paragraph probably makes the game sound miserable, but it's really just a few details spiraling out of control. It can easily be remedied by going back to the more branching level design, or by starting to design the rest of the game to accommodate linear dungeons better. Let's stay in perspective here, though. As a whole the combat is very well designed. Almost all of the abilities have utility in various situations, there are enemies designed explicitly to create those situations, magic/physical damage differences actually matter, etc. On the detail level it's well made, just needs to mesh with the whole better.
What we have here is a very strong start. I have some worries outside of what I talked about earlier. The bosses so far were oddly simpler/easier than many of the random encounters (requiring only charge-then-attack strategies) rather than the climatic showdowns you might expect from this type of game. I feel like the map design might be better off in the long run with a lower encounter rate, but higher damage encounters to give players fewer distractions if the complexity continues to grow. I'm a little sad the game is made in the OHR because the verticality could be better appreciated with a slicker transition effect. Regardless of all that, with a little bit of refinement and content completion this could easily be a must-play throwback RPG with more of an identity than most throwbacks because, seriously, how many games let you play as a harpy?