A chilled skating title featuring a variety of adorable birds is a pretty fantastic premise for a game. And, if you’ve seen any of the marketing material there’s undoubtedly a lot to like about SkateBIRD, particularly on the visual/cuteness scale. Unfortunately, while it was clearly made with love by a tiny but interested team – the final product leaves a lot to be desired. Eventually, you do get used to the clunky controls and occasional delayed input, and at that point, there is definitely some fun to be had and the writing is humorous and positive. Sadly, I worry that the many early frustrations and the persistent smaller irritations throughout will mean most people won’t stick with it long enough to enjoy those positives. It’s a game I really wanted to love but ultimately made me screm just a little too much.
You start of life in SkateBIRD as a young skater hoping to make a difference to your human’s (Big Friend) life by making things a little better for them: cleaning their room, throwing a party, saving them from their dead-end job. That sort of thing. A pretty great light, uplifting story. Unfortunately, taking those first steps in Big Friend’s room just isn’t enjoyable. It’s not that the actual skating mechanics are completely broken but they do take a lot of getting used to. And that learning process is not fun. As soon as I started to Ollie (the simple jump you pretty much do constantly in any skating game) for example, issues arose. Because you’re a bird, the gimmick is that you flap your winds to get into the air and because of this (unlike your human counterparts) you can even do a little double-jump. Great in principle, however, whenever you hit the B-button (on the Switch) the input feels a little spongy and delayed. So, I found myself constantly missing ramps and mid-air collectables. And similar frustrations exist around the whole first level which sort of functions as the tutorial.
Inputs feel loose, a little spongy and delayed.
I was often frustrated because while learning, if I couldn’t remember what button did what, there wasn’t a very user-friendly way of checking this out in the menu. There is a ‘how-to’ tab, but just a simple button layout image is really needed. On top of that, the missions that are supposed to teach you each new skill are located around the room with no specific guidance as to the order you should tackle them. And while that may seem like a good thing that encourages exploring – it instead encouraged my irritation. This was mainly due to two reasons: First of all, the movement is, unfortunately, a little clunky and making tight turns (something you need to do a lot early on to reach different areas in the room) is a pain. And second, because of the haphazard mission arrangement – I found myself finally learning an ability (like respawning at a chosen location) that would’ve made the early stuff more bearable only after many minutes (or was it hours?!) of labouriously and awkwardly rolling around the bedroom area.
The mission balance just feels off and the less than ideally responsive controls make even the basic mechanic much less satisfying than it should be.
The missions themselves are similar in structure to what you’d find in a Tony Hawk-lite game just in miniature form; Wander around a pizza box to collect the letters S, K, A, T and E, perform a bunch of combos in a breakfast bowl to hit a high score or grind across a window ledge. Complete a number of these missions and you open up a new area (and in this case a little more of the positive story). It’s a recognisable pattern that again just falls a little short. For example, within a mission, a bird-shaped compass will guide you to your next target. Sometimes this is useful but often it makes discovery boring and straightforward and feels like you’re just ticking things off a shopping list. I would’ve preferred that kind of hand-holding outside the missions – showing you which event to tack next. Instead, it’s up to you to roll around somewhat randomly. Each mission is also timed, and while some missions are necessary to progress the story, some are not – it’s not really clear which is which. And this can be very annoying. For example, in the first area, there is one mission that requires you to repeatedly travel up and down a tight spiral ramp. Unfortunately navigating the ramp as a clumsy cuckoo means more often than not I fell off the ramp as I hit the top. This meant I had to repeat the action – again and again… and I’d often then also have the time run out too! Grrrrr…squawk! And while not every mission had these issues and some were definitely more fun and challenging (but in the right way), the early section seemed to have quite a few of the latter. After spending too much time on a specific particularly repetitive mission and then realising it was optional is pretty disheartening. The mission balance just feels off and the less than ideally responsive controls make even the basic mechanic much less satisfying than it should be.
Pretty as a parakeet
Despite all these rather significant hindrances – because this was a review game I forced myself to get through to the credits. And while some of the control issues and weird mechanic decisions appear later too, playing more meant I also got used to the controls and delayed inputs. And once that happened, I have got to admit that things got a little better. Exploring the tiny world and rolling around rooftops, desks, chairs and kitchen appliances does have its appeal. And pulling off some long combos and watching a variety of birds flapping and flitting about is rather entertaining. Seeing the world from the birds’ perspective is quite delightful and the small but obviously passionate development team has gone a long way to pepper the world with little easter eggs and skating references. It’s fun to see what miniature versions of the customary ramps, half-pipes etc are made of and how they are presented. The story, as mentioned above, is nothing too deep but had a positive message and enough humour that the game is enjoyable enough to read through.
At any point in the game, you can also hit the randomise option and get a whole new hilarious fowl-based outfit… It’s the one aspect that is remarkably charming.
And on the positive side of things, the aspect I enjoyed most was the customisation. Right, from the get-go you are given a variety of birds to choose from and a wide range of little accessories to parade around in. At any point in the game, you can also hit the randomise option and get a whole new hilarious fowl-based outfit. As you roam the levels you’ll also find some hidden items that increase your wardrobe options and, while this may seem silly – it’s the one aspect that is remarkably charming. On the hidden item trail you’ll also be able to listen to a unique OST for SkateBIRD that gradually gets more music with several unlockable tracks that you can find along the way. Now, this is obviously a personal preference (and some people will likely feel the exact opposite way to how I do) but I really did not enjoy the music. I don’t think there’s a specific genre of music that must accompany skating games, don’t get me wrong. However, the Tony Hawk games’ music is so iconic and feels so apt to the tone, that going for more chilled Ska and spoken word stuff really stuck out. That being said, there’s a lot of original music that you can find along the way in the game and genres do vary substantially and you do also hear more rock/punk stuff too. In fact, there’s a really interesting article that’s worth reading regarding the musical choices that the developers made (read it here). And the fact that I didn’t like it that much may actually be an indication of my age and old-school bias – and so the music may actually turn out to be one of the big selling points for others.
SkateBIRD is the type of review that’s always tough to write. It’s clearly made by a team that loves what they do and there’s a lot to enjoy especially if you stick with it. It is clearly huge spoonfuls of cuteness and birdy-goodness and people will undoubtedly flock to it for that reason. However, having played through the story mode and eventually gotten to the point that I was starting to have real fun with it – I just can’t ignore the frustrations that I experienced throughout, but particularly starting off. And so, if you’re on the fence about this one – just know going in that it’s probably not as polished as you might want it to be. However, if you’re a big fan of skating games, want something a little more lighthearted and charming than a Tony Hawk game and can deal with some inconsistent controls – there’s probably just enough to keep you happy. For everyone else, it’s probably sadly several flaps short of a fabulous flyer.