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Songbird Symphony
Joysteak Studios
July 25, 2019

Quite regularly, after having played through a big meaty game, I like to jump to something more bite-sized rather than move onto the next big thing. It allows me the chance to dive into smaller experiences that would otherwise be overlooked while I knock out the big hitters in my backlog and I like having a break before tackling the next dozen-plus experience. Following my playthrough of FInal Fantasy VII Remake, Songbird Symphony was just the game for that. Before I had bought it, I didn’t really know anything about the game beyond it being some kind of platformer, but I’m always attracted to games that allow you to play as an animal, especially if it’s a bird. 

Your character in Songbird Symphony is a young bird chick by the name of… Birb. Can’t deny I found some satisfaction in someone using that internet joke word in an actual video game. At the start of the game you are in the care of a peacock who gets a bit evasive when asked about Birb’s species, leading Birb to seek out the local owl for help. While the owl himself cannot help, he does possess a magical object that responds to the songs of birds, but requires the unique notes of several other species in order to fully work. The owl promises that if Birb helps him acquire the other notes, he will be able to learn the truth about Birb’s species identity. As such, Birb is sent to a number of locales to meet with other species of birds and acquire their unique notes, usually after assisting them in some manner. While it’s not the most original or complex stories in gaming, I did find it to be a touching story that touches on themes of family and identity. The majority of the game revolves around jumping and gliding through levels to either locate the next bird species to interact with, or to complete some task given to you by the other birds. You are also accompanied by the majority of the game by an unhatched bird chick named Egbert, who you can give simple commands to in order to assist in solving puzzles. There are no enemies to defeat and you cannot die, making much of the game a breeze and relaxing experience…

Or so you think. In reality, the game is actually somewhat of a challenge because of the other gameplay mechanics. Throughout your journey you will be challenged to what amount to rhythm-based boss battles and it is at these points where the difficulty really ramps up. All these challenges are similar on the surface, requiring you to press either a direct on the D-Pad or a face button in time with the music and as the game progresses, the number of possible inputs increases. While that may not sound too challenging, when in practice it is some of the most difficult rhythm-based gameplay I have played in a long time. The trick is that there is no standard arrangement for the challenges. The first challenge involves you following along a bouncing ball, similar to old sing-along videos and is not terribly difficult. But then later you come across one that has notes falling towards a row similar to Guitar Hero or Rock Band, but the notes fade in and out as they move. In addition, in some of the later challenges, the set-up changes so you might not quite have the chance to get into a groove before having to adjust to a new set-up. Some of the arrangements also get extremely cluttered as more potential notes are added and it becomes quite difficult to keep track of what button needs to be hit next. I personally also had difficulty with the D-Pad notes; they were not easy to determine from just a glance which direction I needed to press and this makes things even more difficult when dealing with directions changing quite rapidly. The face buttons, on the other hand, were much easier to keep track of and know what was next just with a quick glance. 

This all sounds like a bit of a nightmare, but the game is extremely forgiving in the scoring metric. As far as I can tell, as long as you make an effort, you will pass the challenge. While you can certainly try and retry the challenges to get a better ranking, as long as you can earn a ‘C’, you will pass the challenge. At no point throughout the game did I ever fail, so I can only imagine that to fail you would have to not do anything. It is, however, a bit strange that an otherwise simple and relatively relaxed game would have such a massive shift in challenge, only to then compensate by being extremely forgiving. I think maybe it would have been easier to simply tone down the difficulty of the challenges themselves. 

As the name of the game suggests, music is a significant element of the game and while normally I don’t really have much to say about a game’s soundtrack, I will say that fact did make the music in this game memorable. Most notably, each level has its own music that starts out very basic, but as you explore the level, you can unlock additional instruments to the song and ‘build’ the theme of that area. I found it a very effective way to incentivise the player to explore the level, as I was very interested in hearing what the complete song sounded like. Unfortunately, I did find the visuals of the game to be a bit uneven and left something to be desired. The world in general was very beautiful and detailed pixel art, but the actual characters you meet and interact with I found to be strangely odd, usually looking a bit strange and lacking the detail you found in the rest of the world. I found it a little off putting exploring these beautiful pixel levels, only to come across these lacking character sprites that look like they belong in a completely different game. I also experienced some strange issues when controlling Birb, at seemingly random times he would become ‘stuck’ and would have to jiggle the thumbstick a bit before he would start moving again. There was nothing to indicate that it was something in the world causing it, so I can only assume it was some bug. While it never broke the game, it was an annoying issue that persisted throughout much of the game.

All in all, I did enjoy my time with this game, even if it left a slightly odd feeling in my mouth. It has a fantastic soundtrack and at times can be gorgeous, but the strange jumps in difficulty and the lackluster character sprites to keep me from loving the game more than I do. I think the game could have used just a little bit more polish and a tone down in the difficulty of the rhythm challenges, but I would still recommend the game because it does try to do something new by mixing platforming with rhythm gameplay. It may not entirely succeed with what it wants to do, but I think it was a valiant effort nonetheless. Given this is the first game from a studio of only three people, I would say that overall the game is still a success and I hope they are able to continue to try new things with future titles. Maybe even giving Birb a more substantial quest in a sequel… 

Score: 7/10


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