There’s a strange duality to Rocketbirds. It wants to be funny and action packed, but at the same time it depicts the horror of a totalitarian regime that enslaves inhabitants, brainwashing them into become foot soldiers (with jet packs). It’s like Rambo set within Platoon. Developed by Ratloop Asia, Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken is a port of the PlayStation 3 and PC game that doesn’t do much to set itself apart from its brethren outside of a few Vita-specific tweaks. Set around the fictional city of Albatropolis, you’ll engage the evil, tyrannical Penguin army in fifteen levels of platforming and puzzling that, despite some aggravating missteps, performs exceptionally well and will be remembered for its soundtrack and unnerving brutality.
Rocketbirds is a side-scrolling shooter that sees you guiding Hardboiled as he infiltrates various Penguin-led facilities in his quest to bring down the corrupt government. There’s a fairly linear progression to the action beginning with a focus on combat and traversal before shifting towards puzzles involving elevators, switches, keycards and light environment manipulation before transitioning to a final (and somewhat unforgiving) blend of the first two sections. Interspersed within these levels are sections that involve Hardboiled launching high into the sky with a jetpack, shooting down Penguin goons and assaulting fully armed dirigibles. Rocketbirds certainly isn’t boring.
Weapons and equipment are acquired in the field and range from pistols to assault rifles and shotguns. Explosives eventually enter the mix but no weapon is more invaluable in later levels than the mind control weapon that allows Hardboiled to take control of enemies, using them to access switches and rooms outside of his own reach. When not controlling foot soldiers, Hardboiled simply blasts his way through the Penguin army in combat that is easy enough to handle. Unfortunately, it is where the game suffers from a significant misstep.
Like Metroid and Shadow Complex before it, Hardboiled consists of a number of different screens without knowing what lies ahead. Chances are, however, an enemy or two will be hanging around waiting for some civil disobedience. In these situations, combat is purely reactionary and becomes a “who shoots first, wins” game.” There’s a very small window of time before a guard (who could be at the very far edge of the current area) notices you and starts firing leading to a frequent number of cheap hits and deaths. It certainly doesn’t help that these foes can sometimes blend into the background. There were a number of spots featuring multiple enemies that must be strategically dispatched in such a way to limit their movement lest you get blindsided by their repeated fire. When hidden turrets enter the fray, the player may lean towards the tendency of dying before knowing what happened to them.
Generous checkpoints make it easy to pick up your progress after death. What makes defeat particularly distasteful is the excruciatingly long time it takes for these checkpoints to reload. The long load times grows into a significant problem throughout the final third of the game involving a maze of turrets that can kill in two hits. Compounding the annoyance is the lack of adequate hints with how to deal with turrets that pop up from the ground. Am I supposed to lob a grenade? Do I fire at it as it winds up? Oh look, I can hide in an alcove, I guess I can avoid it that way. Trial and error gameplay is fine but at least have the decency to get people back into the game quickly after they’ve failed.
Ultimately, I can forgive the above frustration because I find the entire package so fascinating. Strangely enough, that frustration was bred from confusion of the game’s widely disjointed tone. Does Rocketbirds want to be a serious, dark tale about a former child soldier’s quest for redemption by toppling the regime it was forced to join? Or is it all a gag featuring silly penguins fighting rebellious chickens on orders from transdimensional owls from Pluto? Animated cutscenes highlight the sinister takeover by the Penguin Army (themselves an amalgamation of National Socialism and Communism) from the eyes of Hardboiled himself. We see him torn from his childhood and conscripted into the regime where he is forced to lay siege against his own kind. It all sounds hilariously amusing until the cutscene depicting the supposed death of a chicken fetus by boiling, effectively turning me away from eating eggs for the foreseeable future.
The juxtaposition of violence and comedy is bizarre. Leave Hardboiled alone for a few minutes and he’ll scratch or sniff his armpit. To stop controlling an enemy through mind control, you must force him to shoot himself in the head (the player must pull the trigger). After defeating the puppet dictator, Hardboiled looks into the camera and casually mutters, “Well. That’s that,” without an obvious care for his victory. You can juggle enemies in the air by repeatedly shooting them (there’s an achievement for that). Death by gunshot results in an alarming amount of blood to splatter. During the initial siege on the government’s fortress, freedom fighters are mercilessly mowed down by gunfire. These random moments of violence are backed by an effective rock soundtrack developed by New World Revolution that, by the end of the game, left me noticeably uncomfortable.
Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken was a genuine surprise. I wasn’t expecting much outside of a silly romp that pitted chickens against penguins for world supremacy. What I got was a game that had contained the plight of child soldiers, guerrilla warfare and redemption all wrapped in a near-inappropriate layer of silliness. Rocketbirds has a number of issues that could have been ironed out, considering it exists as a port of a four month old game, but it was nonetheless enjoyable. The campaign is solid and includes a co-op mode with a separate premise separate outside of the main game. The game earns extra points for effecting me the way it did – something that I am still very much struck by.