Games do an admirable job at depicting mechanized flight. Whether it’s staunch simulations that mimic the thrills of dogfighting or the sense of bliss felt when taking a variety of craft out for Pilotwings’ lighthearted challenges, the skies are a perennial playground of enjoyment. But strip away the machinery and autonomous air travel isn’t quite as enjoyable. Save for 1996’s NiGHTS into Dreams, interactive entertainment has struggled with capturing the euphoria of gliding through the air with arms outstretched.
The Steam release of The King’s Bird valiantly attempts to provide that feeling of exhilaration. Periodically, you’ll launch send yourself toward the ground in a frantic attempt to build up speed. Pull up just before crashing into the ground, and you’ll make your on-screen persona soar, transforming your momentum into lift as you safely glide above the treacherous surfaces below. But like gravity, forces tend to pull the title downward, making what could be a thrilling expedition seem all too tedious.
The game’s introductory tutorial certainly hints at potential. The narrative is unquestionably artistic, abandoning spoken speech for a dialog of gestures. Here, a girl is trapped within the game’s realm by a ring of brilliant light as well as an overprotective father. An attempt to explore beyond the confines of the realm is met with reproach, symbolizing chauvinistic restriction, since her dad is able to freely transcend the community’s borders. Although ambiguous, there’s a sense of isolation that hangs over the proceedings, as well as the suspicion of something larger is amiss in the community.
But this interactive tutorial exhibits a sharp divergence from the gameplay to come. Sure, the game’s preface imparts the essentials of navigation. During the first few minutes, signs gradually reveal elements of the protagonist’s moveset, from the ability to dash down grades, ninja-jump between two parallel walls, and scamper a few paces up vertical walls after a jump. Flight requires the speed gained from a perilous plunge, giving players a limited amount of glide-time before the protagonist plummets into the ground. Generally, the tutorial feels relaxed, seldomly requiring any mastery of imparted techniques, seemingly signaling a relaxed and forgiving flight ahead.
But once the lessons end, The King’s Bird regrettably turns into a rather pedestrian platformer albeit with the rare flight of fancy. A main hub permits players to access a multitude of levels. Unfortunately, they look rather homogenous, crafted from similar aesthetics, with only a variety of colors to truly mark distinction. But worse, you’ll soon discover that your toolset makes movement through the game’s worth all too difficult.
Much like N++ and Super Meat Boy the level of difficulty starts moderate and soon escalates to controller-clenching levels. Navigation, it turns out, isn’t really about the exhilaration of flight. Most of your playtime will be spend learning to ‘read’ stages, distinguishing what kind of combination will be used to clear a gap or bypass a tall pillar. Short bits of flight are incorporated into the proceedings, but all too often these can feel like extended jump, rather than a rewarding recess from the exertion of pixel perfect platforming.
Of course, The King’s Bird intermittently allows you to soar. Sometimes you’ll travel though narrow passageways or hope you have enough speed to propel you to the next precipice- both of which will quicken pulses. But during these moments, the camera pulls back in an effort to reveal the terrain in front of you. While it’s a nice gesture, the effect reduces the player’s on-screen likeness to diminutive size. The result is that the already fiddly control scheme becomes over sensitive, as it’s all too easy to miss your mark.
Developer Serenity Forge seemed aware of the issue. Instead of confronting the issue directly, the studio extends concessions to players to assist with the requirement for precision. As such, checkpoints are liberally dispersed through each level so if you flub a section, there’s very little backtracking. And you certainly will make mistakes; at one time it was taking me eight to fifteen attempts to bypass every section. Turn on Assist Mode from the game’s option menu and you’ll be able to eliminate air resistance, become immune to environmental hazards, or even skip checkpoints. The downside to using this is that you don’t be able to post scores to the game’s leaderboard.
With the game’s approach to storytelling approach and art style might suggest that The King’s Bird is a tranquil journey, it’s anything but laidback. Instead you’ll probably be cursing as the screen as you miss the same platform for the tenth consecutive attempt. Those who have a masochistic streak might want to give the title a try, those just hoping to experience freedom of flight will likely leave with their feathers ruffled.