Rocketbirds has quietly become a very promising franchise. It was a finalist in the 2010 Independent Games Festival where the original flash version of the game rubbed shoulders with games like Limbo and Super Meat Boy before getting ported to both Playstation 3 and Steam. It now jets down onto the PS Vita, where it may have just found its true home.
Ratloop Asia’s 2.5d Rocketbirds is one big love struck letter – with its tongue inching towards its cheek – to the side-scrolling action adventure games of the NES era. Taking control of the Hardboiled Chicken, you’re tasked with infiltrating Albatropolis, which has been taken over by the evil penguin army. The majority of the story missions are divided between straightforward puzzles and gratifying action that has Hardboiled Chicken ducking, rolling and then blasting his way through enemies.
Barring the Jet Pack interludes – which provides a nice distraction to the rest of the game’s run and gun antics – the missions all follow a similar pattern. Get from A to B, but be prepared to backtrack to find the key that will open B. Thanks to some clever level design that manages to make levels feel more complicated and fresh than they actually are and some beautiful art design – the air field’s escape mission soaks everything in some panels in shadow and looks gorgeous because of it – you never feel bored throughout the main campaign.
As a framing device for the gameplay, the story is extremely goofy but fun, hitting all the beats you’d expect from a resistance war story. In fact, for the most part, the game is self- aware about how silly it is – lines like “I heard on Tweeter your base is under attack” can only be parody – but when it sometimes chucks up a stone-faced musical montages of torture or brain-washing for dramatic effect, it’s a misjudged and jarring tonal shift that leaves you feeling uncomfortable and confused. It doesn’t completely ruin the story, but it certainly doesn’t leave a pleasant aftertaste.
It’s left to the gameplay to persuade you to see through the campaign and fortunately, the mix of simple puzzling and action feels right at home on the Vita’s small screen, with items like Brain Bugs, which act like grenades that will let you take control of an enemy or the satisfying mix of pistol, shotgun and machine gun that keep your interest over the roughly five hour campaign. It also helps that the controls throughout the game are reasonably tight and augmented with some Vita gimmickry. Tilting the screen will allow you to get a better angle on the level, while the rear touch pad is used for aiming the trajectory of grenades and the front screen allows you to quickly change guns by swiping your finger across it. There aren’t revolutionary, but you’ll certainly find them more useful than hindrance.
This is not a game for easily frustrated players though. The difficulty of games has become a huge talking point this generation and after a fairly big difficulty spike halfway through the game, Rocketbirds at times can feel artificially cheap to appeal to gamers who like a challenge for the sake of one, to the extent that it will probably drive some players away from the game. The absolute zenith of this comes around the final boss battle, where you have to go through a 15 minute fight with no checkpoints and a foe that can spawn a shield if you shoot him too many times. It literally punishes you if you’re doing too well. That’s not a fair challenge, that’s the game adding on pointless tests to make you struggle. As such, you never get a sense of accomplishment or skill through these areas, just a feeling that you have grinded through.
And that’s only the normal difficulty, which is a shame because the Hard Boiled mode is an interesting mini-experiment. Instead of just being the campaign with harder enemies, less ammo and the rest, the game gives you a knife and forces you to rely on it. Enemies will now take up 80% of your ammo before you kill them, so you have to get used to stunning them with a shot, rolling in quickly and finishing them off with a knife. It adds a whole new gameplay element and is certainly an interesting way of encouraging players to go through the campaign again, but coupled with the difficulty spikes that will leave you frothing with rage, it’s hard to muster up that much enthusiasm. I didn’t have the time to see it through to the end on Hardboiled mode and I get the impression only the most dedicated players will bother to.
The game also comes with a co-operative mode that is playable over Ad-Hoc or the internet – but only with your PSN friends, which meant that I didn’t have the chance to test it out.
Rocketbirds has more potential than it knows what to do with. It looks gorgeous, has well designed levels and has the sort of silly story that could make you love it, but also suffers from some infuriatingly cheap difficulty problems and tonal issues that will leave you just as annoyed as you will be entertained. However, the Vita feels like the right place for it, its screen perfect for the unique art style and the compressed levels ideal for a marathon session in the living room or a quick blast on the go.
+ Gratifyingly simple mix of puzzles and action
– Difficulty can become cheap
+ Detailed and unique art style
– Cut scenes aren’t quite as good as the in-game engine
+ Sound effects are pleasingly punchy
– The tracks used in the game are an acquired taste