When I reviewed the PlayStation Vita edition of Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken, I grew enamored by the quirky action/puzzle platformer. It had a fun sense of humor and good, old-fashioned cartoon violence bolstered by a surprisingly serious story of redemption involving totalitarian regime ruled by penguins. The soundtrack, featuring pieces by New World Revolution, added color to action set pieces and sorrow during Hardboiled’s backstory. Leading a one chicken war against evil, Hardboiled was able to complete his revenge against his enemy, which opened the gates to a bizarre ending that hinted the game’s events were machinations of mysterious space owls.
A couple years later, Rocketbirds 2: Evolution gets released and the decision to play it was a no-brainer. I looked forward to more of the game’s brand of action and unique flair, keen to see how Ratloop Asia expanded on their ideas. Sadly, none of new tweaks and features they’ve added do any favors. Questionable design decisions mar every attempt to take the game as a positive step forward - instead bringing it two steps back. In fact, Rocketbirds 2 is almost completely different in style and substance from its predecessor.
In true video game fashion, it turns out that dictator Putzki survived his end despite exploding from the unforgiving vacuum of space. Hardboiled seeks out the cowardly puppet dictator to finish him once and for all only to find himself in the middle of a chicken holocaust. The penguins have launched a campaign of genocide, killing thousands of chicken and selling their meet as “pork” to unknown parties. The abattoir setting and imagery of chickens in prison jumpsuits lingering in hundreds of jail cells doesn’t have quite the same emotional weight as Hardboiled’s personal journey from brainwashed child soldier to freedom fighter. That being said, Rocketbirds 2’s story is meatier - no pun intended - than the original's, which was content with ending the story with a flippant “Welp. That’s that!”
What made Rocketbirds fun was how Ratloop designed the action around navigating environments by gaining control of enemies and turning them against their penguin brethren or using them to access hard-to-reach areas. Combat was functional, but not particularly enjoyable because it didn’t require a whole lot of thought, and enemies soaked up tons of bullets before dying. Rocketbirds 2, on the other hand, is designed entirely around combat, which was simply copy and pasted from the original game. By adding verticality, non-linearity and more enemies, the game becomes a hot, frustrating mess. The game’s levels are bigger and more open than before but Ratloop doesn’t do enough with the added space. Because enemies now exist above and below, Rocketbirds 2 incorporates a dual stick shooter-like scheme that has you aiming with one stick and moving left and right with the other. The design is simple, but its implementation is sloppy, unrefined, and creates a domino effect of problems.
First, combat requires a level of precision that is often difficult to achieve because of the frantic pace of combat. Once again, enemies can absorb an obscene amount of bullets and having to deal with four or five at the same time is pretty ridiculous. You’re all but forced to stay on the move to avoid fire. And because none of your weapons have laser sights or other helpful trajectory indicators, aiming is a craps shoot.
Second, Hardboiled gets a greater collection of weapons and a new inventory system to manage them all. It adds depth but lacks helpful information and categorization. It’s an afterthought. It would have been nice if the screen offered data to show the difference in firepower and rate of fire between the numerous guns Hardboiled picks up in order to tailor his gear for each situation. Instead, it’s thrown together in an uninspired alphabetical list. Weapons were never an issue in the first Rocketbirds, as it introduced timely upgrades to take the worry out of managing a small armory. I found it easiest to ignore a large number of weapons in favor of those that provided a nice, steady stream of fire thus denying enemies a chance to shoot (even if that means emptying an entire clip on one basic grunt).
Finally, as if unsatisfying combat, poor aim, and ineffectual weapons weren’t enough to ruin a good thing, escort missions are a thing in Rocketbirds 2. And if the gameplay wasn’t frustrating enough, having to protect an NPC while managing the problems with combat became a total nightmare. In chapter two, Hardboiled must guide a chickenhawk-like soldier to the bowels of the slaughterhouse. When placed on Hardboiled’s shoulders, the character provides slow supporting fire during enemy engagements. He can be targeted independently by the enemy and as expected, the game ends when he’s killed. He can also be knocked off his shoulders if Hardboiled is meleed or set on fire. Look, escort missions have never, ever been fun. So why, in 2016, do they still exist? The second half of this chapter is heaping pile of madness that culminates in an unnecessarily difficult boss fight that highlights its problematic design. I stopped playing after the fifth attempt, angry and frustrated. I did go back later and beat it, after watching a YouTube video, but the experience thoroughly soured me on the game.
My dissatisfaction with Rocketbirds 2 stems from Ratloop’s poorly implemented ambition. On paper, the new tweaks and gameplay adjustments should have made for a much more fun game. But because the combat, which wasn’t great in the first place, never got the shot in the arm it needed, the whole thing is a mess. Vehicle levels, which proved to be fun interludes in Rocketbirds are just as exhausting as the platforming levels. There’s simply no joy, no fun to be had here at all. In preparation for this review, I went back to Rocketbirds on the Vita to see if it played the exact same way, that perhaps I simply repressed the memories of playing through a simiarly frustrating game. Instead, I rediscovered a game I enjoyed so much because it had heart and humor, competent gameplay and interesting puzzle elements.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.