“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
-Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird
Belonging is a powerful drive, and one many of us can relate to. How many times have we yearned for a place where we can belong, among people who understand us? You wanna go where everybody knows your name. Couple that with themes of identity, discovering who you are and finding your way, and you’ve got everything set for a Disney movie, or, in this case, for Songbird Symphony.
A rhythm puzzle-platformer lovingly hatched by the trio of friends at Joysteak Studios in Singapore, Songbird Symphony hits all the emotional beats it needs to. You’ll encounter familiar flavors from the hero’s triumphant “Go The Distance” to the mentor’s “Bare Necessities” to the essential villain’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and the quirky supporting cast’s “Be Our Guest”. I don’t actually mean to demean Songbird’s archetypal ballads; I’m merely suggesting that it follows in well-trod and enjoyable footsteps. It’s a game which has, fairly, been called Disney-esque, though that speaks to its high and not necessarily its mundane lows. That is, its rhythm segments and not its puzzle-platforming, respectively.
Symphony follows a bird of song named Birb, hatched alone from an egg and raised by his Uncle Pea, who is a peacock, of course. Birb soon stretches his wings and leaves behind the peaceful pastures of Uncle Pea, and the other peacocks who laugh at him for looking different, to seek out his true family. The Owl is the wisest of all the birds in the forest, and so Birb first goes to find him. Turns out the Owl is just as in need of Birb. The Owl possesses an ancient artifact which captures the musical notes sung by all species of birds, and finding that Birb has a unique ability to learn these notes with ease, the Owl commands him to venture out into the woodland and learn the songs of the other birds, promising that this will, somehow, reunite Birb with his family.
From a militant band of chickens ruled by the Emperooster to the underground myna birds mining crystals to the battling blue-footed boobies and the toe-tapping penguins, the story carries Birb on his symphonic adventure from locale to locale, meeting many a funny-feathered figure. The game isn’t too long, and its platforming and puzzle-solving are punctuated by “boss fights”, which are really musical duels, the rhythm segments which are multitudinous in their presentation.
These rhythmic encounters are at once both endearing and challenging, and occasionally frustrating.
At the start of the game, Birb knows only a solitary note (represented by the Up button on the d-pad). He learns about the rhythm challenges in the game from Uncle Pea, who requires the player to tap the Up button in a “repeat-after-me” style of song. Advancing through the game, Birb learns notes mapped to the Left, Right, Y, X, and A buttons (though one of these is only used for the final battle). That leaves you with not much more but using the joystick for maneuvering and B for jumping, with two inputs for two different menus, so there’s not a whole lot to worry about in Songbird Symphony.
Well, that’s what you’d think, anyway. The game actually becomes dramatically more difficult not just because new notes are added to Birb’s repertoire, but also because the presentations of each “rhythm battle” can be wildly different. Uncle Pea’s has you tapping along to a sing-along bouncing ball across inputs lined up horizontally. Simple enough, but then you’ll soon have to worry in future challenges about notes that disappear and reappear, notes that fly in an arc overhead, notes that align with strings, notes that ricochet, notes that drop vertically, notes that appear in the background and swoop to the foreground, and so on.
It’s somewhat difficult to describe in mere text, and a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are a few examples. You might realize right away that the effects can be disorienting to timing.
But, perseverance is one of Birb’s strongest attributes. Through thick and thin, the little guy pushes onward, making friends and foes, all to find his lost family. Can he find them in the end or does he need to?
Songbird’s animations are gorgeous. Their fluidity makes the creatures which inhabit the game evoke the stretchiness for which Disney hand-drawn animation was so renown. Nothing looks static. Even Birb’s idle animations are stuffed to the brim with charm and bounce. This elegance and whimsy trickle down to nearly every interactive NPC. Oh and for some reason, there’s a lot of bird butts. Like bird butt cracks. To each their own, I guess. In all seriousness, it’s just a part of the silliness of the game and its visuals, even if it’s odd. It’s hardly a complaint. Uncle Pea’s bodacious dancing will win you over right away.
There is some turbulence in the air, however: first a smaller criticism and then second, I’ve a larger criticism about the rhythmic segments themselves.
Firstly, there are occasions in which the backgrounds are too bright or share too many colors with the palettes of the characters moving across them in the foreground, and the effect is that the very canny and very clever character animations I have just described disappear and meld into the background, on occasion. It’s tough to enjoy the achievement of the animation when the duller grays and deeper blues blend into the objects behind the characters. This is all about color palette and choices which happened during development there, but something which can be easily rectified in Joysteak’s next outing.
Secondly, there’s an issue with the saturation of detail during the rhythmic segments. In particularly confusing battles, when musical cues are slipping in crossways and slantways and sideways and any other ways you can think of, strobes of flashing light, bursts of glitter and confetti, bulbs of haloes and auras, and spinning avatars of all sorts become extra disorienting from what you’re supposed to be doing: hitting notes exactly when the game wants you to. It is as if the game intends to actively distract you from its goal. What makes this different from actual difficulty-design is it’s peripheral, it’s not actually directly related to the difficulty curve the game implements through learning new notes and encountering new songs. It is difficulty indirectly creates from the sensationalism of the graphics, or, if you like, you can think of it as UI design which is utterly distracting in its choice of colors, features, details, and how many of each to include at once.
If I can’t actually see the notes the game wants me to hit, then how can I play the game?
Fortunately (unfortunately?), the oversaturation of detail is at its peak distraction only when playing a song for the first time. Now whether you will want to play a song through again to get a higher score is up to you, though I’d wager that most players won’t, especially given the length of a few songs, but you can indeed replay rhythmic segments and you will of course know what to expect the second or third time around.
The early Birb gets the earworm.
While just short of truly great, since several songs in the game are immediately forgettable, there is a good selection of songs which are catchy, perfect for a rhythm game. I can still hear them in my head as I type: Birb’s theme song, the Owl’s song and its refrain, Uncle Pea’s dance, the Magpies’ triple, the Woodpecker’s percussion, and definitely the song of the Emperooster are all snappy, fully idealized tunes with distinctive melodies any ear can pick out, capture, and stuff deep in the eardrum where it’ll never get away.
The audio is of course extra important because it defines how the rhythmic segments are to be played. That Emperooster song experiments with the nature of echo and so there’s a lot that’s enjoyable there audibly and in terms of gameplay as well.
Another interesting musical feature has to do with discoverable eighth notes in each of the game’s areas. Birb can acquire these by completing tiny mini-games and puzzles, or helping out native NPCs. An eighth note rewards the player by adding a new layer of music to the tune playing in the background. Think something similar to Yoshi adding bongos to the soundtrack in Super Mario World.
Also, the non-voiced lyrics which appear like a sing-along on the screen during rhythm battles is a nice idea. You can start to follow the melody of the lyrics just from the music playing in the background.
So we’ve talked about the rhythm aspect of this games genre fusion. That means it’s now time to talk about the puzzle-platforming aspect. Between every rhythm battle, there’s going to be much jumping, much maze-crawling, and much pushing of cubes. That last bit, the cube pushing, is what’s got me least excited. I remarked to my wife “cube pushing puzzles are a dime a dozen and one of those things that are just too easy and done to death” right before I got stuck (for a few minutes) on what I consider to be the toughest cube pushing puzzle in the game. Still, I quasi-stand by my statement. Pushing cubes onto buttons and into slots isn’t all that exciting, at best an exercise in prioritizing.
There are musical puzzles, though, which require a bit of timing as well: they are platforms like elevators that can only be moved by singing specific notes in rhythm with them. The notes appear on the side of the platform. I could wish that these weren’t so time-consuming (there’s quite a bit of platforming that’s time-consuming in here) but that’s mostly because the musical platforms display the last note in their sequences immediately before playing the notes in their sequence, meaning with each musical platform you’ll need to stand there and watch the pattern through at least once. You can’t be fast enough to get it in one go as the demand for accuracy is pretty… well, demanding.
There are a decent amount of secrets in each area to keep things interesting, though. Whether we’re talking finding all the eighth notes or hidden NPCs or lone feathers which belong to those NPCs, I found myself scouring these areas to try to uncover every last secret. Helpful for completing the game 100%, which I did in a fairly short amount of time. Most of the eighth notes I already found playing through the game normally, anyway.
Ultimately, when it comes to gameplay, I found myself wishing I could get to the rhythm battles faster and not have to deal with sluggish elevators or cube pushing, but the game is short enough that this didn’t become a downright obstacle to fun. I found that the balance between platforming and rhythm battles changed up the pace enough to keep the game from dragging too much.
The visuals as I’ve described them play a huge indirect (and possibly unintentional) part in how tough the game is, specifically in its rhythmic segments. Does this mean its difficulty is partially unfair?
By the time you have four notes out of the six in total that you can teach Birb to sing, getting a perfect score in the battles will be hopeless. By the time I reached the end of the game, I found myself button-mashing trying to get the inputs timed just right, which is of course counterproductive, but I simply could not track with everything happening on the screen at the same time, plus the speed of the rhythm inputs, unfamiliarity with each new song, and more notes than ever. I think the Kookaburra song is when I actually realized I would not be good at this game, or mastering it in any way after completing it.
One thing that’s interesting about the “difficulty” of Songbird Symphony is it’s an illusion. I don’t actually think you can lose a rhythm challenge. Maybe if you did absolutely nothing and missed a ton of notes in a row? I didn’t test that, but I did miss tons of notes in a row simply from being unable to keep up. And I didn’t lose.
One of my best scores. Also, the tutorial battle.
This is because the game attempts to walk a fence, here. During rhythm “battles”, there’s no health bar, no stamina bar, no quota of scores to keep up, nothing to indicate that you are overall doing poorly or at risk of having to start over: losing. You simply endure the song and do the best that you can, but it appears as if missing notes has no bearing upon the conclusion of the scene in which the rhythmic challenge plays. n the one hand, if you can’t lose, then you don’t have to worry about losing progress. On the other hand, if you can’t lose, then you don’t have to worry about performing at all or really care about playing the game.
As it happens, this takes the “fun” out of losing, or the value out of making mistakes and having to learn from them. There are essentially no stakes, and where there are no stakes, there’s no challenge, and without challenge, there’s no exploration of limitations, and… well somewhere down this line of thinking and the cause and effect there’s no enjoyment, or at least a lack of it. The game distinctly became less enjoyable for me once I realized there were no stakes, that I could set down the controller and receive the same outcome. Why try, then? This is not the “git gud” mentality. This is merely about how to keep the player engaged in the game.
It could be argued that the inability to lose serves players just looking to enjoy the storyline. It could also be argued that 1) those are not the only kinds of players out there, 2) the game could still engage those players with challenges that you can lose to but which aren’t too hard, and 3) there could have been an extra mode built into the game that rendered you permanently victorious as such.
Songbird Symphony fortunately has a storyline which may invest the player in Birb and the surrounding characters, but if that doesn’t grab, then the rhythmic challenges don’t supply much fuel to keep the furnace of passion for this title going. This is why Snake doesn’t start of a brand new game with infinite ammo and stealth camo every single time.
With a maximum of six sing-able notes which take some time to gather, this game is mostly simple. The rhythm battles will be the most complex and demanding of the player, but as we’ve just discovered, those demands are empty without a threat behind them. Therefore, the game is quite accessible for all players of any age. This is simple platforming and puzzle-solving, without consumable items or points to have to worry about.
Upon completing the game, there’s a compendium you can unlock which allows you to replay any of the game’s rhythmic challenges with great convenience. Whether you want to or not is up to you, but bear in mind this is not new content, just more easily accessed content you’ve already played through. I did use this feature to replay a couple of songs to see if I could do any better, but I didn’t find much else of replay value.
This is overall a pretty unique concept, despite the fact that you can draw some comparisons to famous works in animation or gaming. I’m not a stranger to rhythm games, having played many a dance game and some percussive games since the mid-90’s, but I thought that Songbird Symphony presented its rhythm challenges in a very unique way, though uniqueness, even between battles, didn’t make for the clearest presentation.
Likewise, the story has a twist or two which you may or may not see coming, so that’s a welcome addition to what would otherwise be a rote storyboard. I really got a kick out of (SPOILERS: highlight to reveal) the Owl granting himself unlimited musical power via his artifact and turning into a 90’s JRPG god-figure. I half-expected to hear him talk about building a monument to non-existence.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
I enjoyed Songbird Symphony, and I wish it could give me more reason to come back to it. It’s a game which perhaps needs more transparent rewards for spending the time it would take to master its involute musical mechanisms. I swear some of the rhythm battles made me dizzy. Less is more, and in that vein, the game is, as I say, short. It’s good for a weekend outing or a couple of nights during the week if you’re looking for an irredeemably adorable story and characters. It certainly has that going for it! Just look at Birb dance and tell me your heart isn’t warmed!
Let the music guide your wings. And butts. Fans of rhythm games may find opportunity for many self-imposed challenges here.
Special thanks to PQube and Joysteak for supplying us with a copy of their crowdfunded game for this honest critique!
Aggregated Score: 6.1
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Categories: Game Review