Whether slow and deliberate or hyper-fast and hectic, movement is so essential to a platforming games success. The simple act of navigating from one screen to another can be raised to sublime levels by responsive and accurate controls whilst any kind of lag is fatal to enjoyment. This is even truer of games that fit into the ‘masocore’ subgenre – super difficult platformers with instant death following every misplaced step or jump. Super Meat Boy is still the king of this style of game, despite frequent pretenders to its blood splattered crown. The latest of these challengers is The King’s Bird, bringing with it a beautifully stripped back aesthetic and its own take on momentum and gliding.
The pastel backgrounds and striking use of solid black lines make The King’s Bird stand out visually. It’s a minimalist approach that ensures nothing distracts from the simple process of getting from A to B. Given the increasingly bewildering level layouts and the need to leap and soar across seemingly insurmountable gaps, this approach is welcome. Instant death platforming is frustrating enough at the best of times and any feeling of unfairness can be lethal to player enjoyment.
The world of The King’s Bird feels loosely South American in tone, with a Mayan/Aztec aesthetic of ziggurats and mysterious carvings. The location soon becomes secondary to the jumping itself, with the similarly minimalist narrative having little effect on the game itself. You begin as a caged figure dreaming of flying before escaping the tower you are trapped in and launching yourself into the world. The dialogue free cutscenes that develop this story are nice enough, but it all feels a little too arch and artsy. This becomes particularly clear as the game builds to a final boss encounter that feels tonally out of place with what has come before it, and suffers from introducing an entirely new mechanic and style of play.
The actual experience of navigating the world of The King’s Bird is a joyous one. Aided by the responsive and intuitive control system, making your way through each self-contained level becomes a puzzle in which you are equipped with all the abilities you need, but must establish how best to use them. As with the likes of Super Meat Boy, this means that reactions are combined with environmental awareness and deaths are inevitable but necessary parts of learning the best path. The world is filled with spikes, deadly pools and falls into oblivion, making the aforementioned cage a more ambiguous origin. Were you imprisoned or being protected by the mysterious King?
Aside from the basic level of jumping, The King’s Bird steadily introduces a number of more complex mechanics. A boost can be employed to surge across small gaps or push yourself further up a vertical surface before jumping back, and using this on slopes becomes essential to give yourself the momentum required to make huge leaps. Combining this boost with jumping and gliding becomes wonderfully intuitive and levels that look entirely impossible soon become playgrounds. Simply getting from beginning to end of each level takes little time and it is possible to rush through the game relatively quickly. Doing so, however, risks missing out on the intricacies of level design and the joy of coaxing the controls to their limits. Every level has a number of collectable birds to encourage you to fully explore, which also adds a welcome degree of extra challenge.
Whilst at heart an instadeath masocore platformer, there is a unique feeling of support in the game’s approach. You will die a lot, but the punishment is minimal thanks to the checkpoints scattered across each level. The frequency of these restart points ensures that you do not become frustrated repeating a section only to die on the next jump. This incremental progression helps to cement the puzzle element to navigation – the game wants you to experiment with the mechanics rather than grind away repetitively. As a result, even the more difficult later levels became bite sized challenges rather than pad-threatening marathons. This approach was particularly welcome when the focus shifted to gliding and wall running mechanics which relied on almost pixel perfect reflexes and patient use of gravity and momentum.
It should be clear that The King’s Bird is far from your usual masocore game. It looks like Super Meat Boy, often feels like Super Meat Boy when you hit the zone and make jumps like a particularly graceful squirrel, but the tone is far more forgiving and accepting of different player abilities. This is shown by the checkpoints discussed above but also, and more obviously, through the accessibility menu located in the options screen. Serenity Forge have stated that they want players of all abilities to enjoy the world they have created, and to that end there are options that remove the inertia, enable continual gliding, allow for multiple contacts with otherwise deadly surfaces and there’s even a skip checkpoint feature.
Sometime these options came to the rescue for me. One mechanic sees you trying to use momentum to navigate overhangs, but whilst this was introduced in a measured and sensible fashion, later instances result in death falls that begin to feel unfair. I’ll admit to taking advantage of the skip checkpoint option in these cases. That may be seen as a failure of my gaming skills (which of course it is) but the fact that the option was available ensures that The King’s Bird can take the leap into being a work of art as well as a challenging platformer. Until that bloody annoying final boss fight, that is…
When things are going well, The King’s Bird is a wonderful and fluid experience. Soaring across gaps, leaping up walls and making pixel perfect landings provides a sense of joy and empowerment that is rare indeed. Overall the controls are intuitive and responsive, with the game working with you to complete its levels, but every once in a while, certain mechanics felt a little off. Thankfully there’s a wide array of accessibility options, and while hardcore gamers may lament this approach as overly casual, the optional nature means that The King’s Bird can be enjoyed by all.
Available now on PC