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‘The King’s Bird’ Review: A Fun Yet Turbulent Flight

The King’s Bird is an aesthetic precision-platformer that suits the Switch’s handheld form factor well. But is the port up to snuff?

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the king's bird

Part of what makes gaming so vibrant is that developers can nurture niches full of fans hungry for certain types of gameplay. The King’s Bird falls into one such niche: precision-platforming. Hardcore fans of the genre will likely really enjoy it despite some notable issues, but what about the rest of us? Thankfully, Serenity Forge has gone to great lengths to make this one of the more accessible in the space, and one that might serve as a perfect entry point for newcomers.

king's bird

Taking Flight

The entirety of The King’s Bird is without dialogue, opting instead to let the player learn about the world via a few brief cutscenes and beautiful ancient drawings. We come to learn that our heroine has grown up in an idyllic city closed off from the rest of the world. The only ones allowed to leave are those who use a mysterious magic to pass through gates and soar through the skies. Feeling trapped, the main character manages to gain access to this power and flees in search of adventure.

While the story might not be as deep or hard-hitting as something like Celeste, it does a fine job of giving the player context and setting the scene for the rest of the game. The minimalist take on character design and lack of dialogue, however, do result in a character that feels quite expendable and without personality. The one saving grace here is the way the heroine sings along with the music whenever she’s flying around. It’s a small thing, but it’s quite charming nonetheless.

king's bird nindies

Free-Form Precision

The King’s Bird is comprised of five kingdoms, each visually and thematically distinct from the last. Within these are hubs that contain 4-5 levels. Rather than using a simple menu to access these, they’re instead connected via a traversable overworld (similar to how Splatoon’s single-player levels are laid out).

The movement tools here are a bit different than those found in your typical precision-platformer. Players are equipped with a jump, wall jump, the ability to slide on declining surfaces, and a long jump, but it’s the flight mechanics that truly define The King’s Bird. Players can glide in the air by holding the “L” trigger and can perform a magic-enabled dash (which can be done on any surface) by pressing the “R” trigger.

The combination of the dash and gliding mechanics lends the game some flexibility in its platforming. Gliding is only possible once enough downward momentum has been built up, meaning that a good deal of deaths simply come from diving too low into spikes or a bottomless pit. Gliding along ceilings also works if–again–the player has enough momentum. This leads to astonishing platforming feats as often as it leads to hellish, seemingly impossible challenges. Staying in perfect control can feel a bit difficult sometimes due to the highly sensitive, slightly finicky controls, and often results in runs that take a few (or few dozen) minutes of trial and error to overcome.

Luckily, the developers accounted for this quite well. First, there are an absolute abundance of checkpoints (represented by lanterns) tactfully placed before and after almost all major platforming challenges. Second, the team at Serenity Forge implemented what’s easily one of the best assist modes I’ve seen in a game. Players can enable things like invincibility, endless gliding without the need to gather momentum, and even the ability to skip to the next checkpoint if you just genuinely can’t get past a section. As someone who’s always felt put out by uncompromising touchstones of the genre like Super Meat Boy, this was a most welcome addition. The near-instantaneous respawns don’t hurt either.

king's bird nintendo switch

Simple and Clean

Atmosphere and art direction can go a long way in establishing a world players want to get lost in. The King’s Bird manages to create a mystical backdrop that toes the line between fresh and familiar with every new kingdom that’s introduced. Dark buildings and trees contrast wonderfully with the game’s vivid color palette and the protagonist’s playfully luminescent cape. The water-themed kingdom (above) particularly stood out as an aesthetic beauty.

That said, for as striking an art style the game has, it also feels a bit bland and lifeless. Backgrounds are detailed well enough to give a sense that there’s more to the world than what the player is interacting with, but not well enough to give that world an identity. Everything simply looks a bit too generic, from the levels themselves to the silhouetted, indistinguishable protagonist. The game looks great in motion, but once you stop to take a look around (or simply to transition between hubs) it becomes slightly less enchanting. The soundtrack is similar; what’s there is quite beautiful and matches the natural aesthetic of the levels well, but with only a couple of tracks that loop per kingdom, what’s at first delightful gradually becomes trying.

This is made all the worse by the fact that The King’s Bird doesn’t seem to have been well-tuned for the Switch as a platform. Both the graphical fidelity and framerate take a noticeable hit in handheld mode, a surprise given that the title is more simplistic from a technical standpoint. The framerate never got so bad that I felt it seriously hampered my enjoyment of the game, but not having a steady framerate in a platformer that requires the player to be incredibly precise at points is nothing short of disappointing. There’s also no HD rumble (or any kind of rumble) support, something that would’ve been quite welcome when flying or furiously skidding through a level. Most egregiously of all, I’ve encountered numerous crashes during my time with the game (some during gameplay, others upon starting the game). Until a patch is released, you’re highly advised to buy the PC version instead.

king's birdThe King’s Bird hits its target audience perfectly. It delivers a healthy dose of platforming challenge with fun mechanics against an attractive, atmospheric backdrop. Quality of life features like abundant checkpoints and an outstanding assist mode ensure that newcomers have a chance to experience the game as well. That “one more try” feeling is in full effect here and, for as lackluster as the Switch port is, it does suit the platform’s pick up and play nature well. However, this one just needed a bit more time in the oven from a technical and detail-oriented perspective.

Brent became infatuated with manga and anime after randomly stumbling upon Vol. 3 of Yu Yu Hakusho on a childhood roadtrip. Today he has a soft spot for colorful JRPGs, cozy anime, and both games and shows that indulge his innate love of adventure. Find him (im)patiently waiting for Animal Crossing: New Horizons and incredibly fulfilled by Fire Emblem: Three Houses @CreamBasics.

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

Earthnight is an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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Game Reviews

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.

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Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

Life is Strange 2

The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

Life is Strange 2

In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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