Indie platformers are a dime a dozen. Some try to ride upon nostalgia waves with pixel art while others go for more artistic approach. Some concentrate on challenging the player for real but others want to just reach out to feelings with a more laid-back journey. Then there is Celeste, one of the best games of 2018. Presented in chunky retro pixels, it had a perfect balance between brisk controls and a steep challenge. In short, Celeste is a yardstick for all indie platformers to come. The King’s Bird by indie developer Serenity Forge lures with its bare aesthetic and ethereal non-narrative but don’t let the beautiful looks deceive; underneath lies a hardcore precision platformer.
The brief opening scene shows a silhouette girl arguing with someone who looks like a king (there are no spoken words, just sounds from musical instruments making up for their speech) and off you go on your own without further ado. Slender and agile girl jumps and dashes around in labyrinthine and narrow environments, avoiding hazards that mostly are thorns growing on platforms and walls. More importantly, she can fly short distances with the help of her fluttering scarf. You gain momentum by diving a bit, then soaring up before the kinetic energy is dried out. There are several checkpoints presented as lampposts scattered across levels, so plummeting to (often inevitable) death won’t take you back too far.
The forest kingdom serves as a central hub with portals to other worlds. Each of them houses four sub-worlds that need to be completed so that the next access point to a new world is made available in the hub. In each sub-world you have to reach its end and touch a swaddled creature (or perhaps it’s a canopic jar) there. Along the journey towards exit, you can also collect what look like fairies. The game doesn’t give any incentive as to why you’re doing any of this, only that it is set up so for you to play.
As fun as the concept of flying around in tight spaces can be - and at times, really is – it’s severely held back by erratic and unreliable controls. A platform game where you can’t trust what you’re doing kind of misses its entire point. Even if you think you did exactly the same maneuvers as the last time, the result can be something else altogether – and usually you won’t have any idea why. Was the timing wrong? I thought I pressed the buttons I needed to make a boost jump. Was momentum lost, even though the girl seemed to hurl through the air like there was no yesterday? Anyway, you try again and again (thank God for those checkpoints!) until you pull off something you thought you had done in the first place. The matter isn’t helped by Sony’s PS4 controller and its lousy thumbsticks and sloppy triggers.
The game’s floaty, sometimes almost random controls work better in more open levels than in narrow spaces that sadly make the most of the game. The wider the area, the more room you’ll be having for flying maneuvers that are admittedly the highlight of the gameplay. Fumbling in open also might have you landing on somewhere safe instead of plummeting headlong into thorns or abyss. I must bring up Celeste here and compare The King’s Bird to it as they both are exactly of the same genre. If you fail in Celeste, you know it was your fault, not the controls failing or cat distracting you by mistaking your leg for a scratching pole. And when you successfully pull off a set of seriously hard maneuvers, you can’t help but throw your fist up and shout: ”Yes, I’m invincible!”. In The King’s Bird, though, you feel you just got lucky after pulling off a tough maneuver and never quite can have that sweet feeling of accomplishment.
Design flaws are another thing hampering the game’s flight. There are only five manual saving slots and you can’t overwrite them. Instead, you have to delete one of the previous saves and then make a new one. More than that, though, saving the game exits the current progress and takes you back to the very beginning. I can’t imagine why the developers thought that’s a swell idea. So, after saving, you have to exit the game and boot it up again to continue from where you were left off. Options aren’t saved, so you have to mute the irritating music in each go at the game.
Sometimes, the last collectible fairy thing is in the near vicinity of the final platform that nests the mummified wrap you need to touch (I still haven’t decided what they really are!). Naturally, you land on the platform to gain your composure before going for the collectible but if you are even slightest careless, you get sucked to the exit, leaving the last collectible unreachable. Really, you should be able to manually initialize exiting the level to avoid such happening! Of course, those faeries are completely optional but completionists might think otherwise.
Each sub-world takes from a few minutes to maybe half an hour to complete, depending on how much you fumble around in them. Short as they are, most levels are unfortunately repetitive with pretty identical layouts that always need the same actions to perform. Oh, and it isn’t exactly a great idea to have a boss fight in this kind of game and with shifty gameplay like this. Thankfully, there are always those infinite lives for endless retries.
It’s a crying shame that unreliable controls bring The King’s Bird down form the heights the developers had aimed for. There’s a charming vibe with slick silhouette figures and Mayan-inspired forms and patterns that make up the plain backdrops. The game’s scale makes everything look too tiny, though, so much so you have to squeeze your eyes to see the vivid animation of the spunky heroine. In a wordless narrative, the brief texts at the very beginning and at the very end feel almost like a stylistic blunder.
The developers lack previous experience of the genre so I don’t know if it was arrogance or ignorance that they tried something so hard to accomplish as a precision platformer. After all, so few have succeeded making it work without frustration being the overall emotion you’re feeling while playing. Like Icaros, The King’s Bird has too much self-confidence and flies too close to the sun. There simply isn’t enough going on for the game to make its wax wings withstand the heat. For a far superior experience in the same genre, go for Celeste. In fact, why haven’t you already? It’s hard but it constantly rewards your efforts.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.