I expected Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken to be a persistently self aware artsy indie action game that banked on the game’s premise of chicken-versus-fascist-penguins to propel the comedy forward. Instead, Rocketbirds is a surprisingly methodical adventure game that touches on war crimes and light humour while busying the player with artfully composed adventure set pieces.
Originally a $10 flash game, developer Ratloop Asia’s Rocketbirds is a side scrolling adventure where you control Hardboiled, a bipedal gun wielding chicken, in a world where a fascist military regime of penguins has brought the world to its knees.
The simple controls have you firing, doing tactical rolls, occasionally taking cover, or automatically giving an enemy an uppercut if you get close. Even at its most frenetic, with enemies popping up on both sides of the screen as they often do midway through the game, the combat is a deliberately paced balancing act of you using your guns and grenades to keep enemies juggled in the air so that they can’t fire back. There are also some simple pressure plate puzzles to solve, as well as some surprisingly fun gadgets, but I really don’t want to spoil the latter here.
Soon after it appears and progresses in difficulty, group combat becomes the game’s lone gameplay fault. Enemies like to appear at both sides of the screen at once, which leaves you in an awkward spot if there’s no cover. Sure, you can spray bullets at one crowd of enemies and then the other on the opposite side of the screen, and this works fine for a while. However, the enemies will eventually clump up in groups and your bullets will end up juggling corpses instead of the live enemies standing right behind them as they ready their weapons. Even if you’re careful, you can sometimes end up being kept in the air by bullets for a little while. This results in a lot of starting over from one of the game’s generous checkpoints in order to figuratively bang your head against a wall until something works.
Thankfully, the jetpack combat sequences, introduced by Hardboiled saying “time for some jetpaction,” are free from any frustrations. It has a sort of aerial dogfighting feel to it, with you and several airborne penguins doing loops and killing your throttle in order to get on each others’ tails and send feathers flying off into the clouds with a spray of bullets. Oh, and you can also lead anti-air rockets back into the peop…I mean, penguins who fired them.
In fact, the game isn’t really about penguins and chickens at all. Through some overheard dialogue and the game’s several wordless cutscenes drenched in stylish chiptune-indie rock, the game expounds on Hardboiled’s background and motiviations. Child soldiers, genocide, hope, and loss of innocence all lie subtly in the undergrowth of themes that make the game more than just a ubiquitous revenge tale.
While it works perfectly in the game’s many cutscenes, a lot of the in-game tracks don’t quite fit. Sure, the Atari-era chip tune techno and catchy guitar riffs work, but once you start listening to the lyrics you’ll wonder why a song about relationships is playing while you’re sending the blood of enemies careening into walls at the ends of a shotgun’s buckshot.
The excellent cutscenes aren’t the only thing Rocketbird has going for it beyond the combat – the art direction is hard to ignore. Although the game is played from a side-scrolling perspective, the environments have a fantastic amount of depth and rich colour to them even in the darkest corners of the game world; sun drenched mossy trees, rainy night-time airbase raids, and blood and rot stained detention centres are a few of the visual treats you’ll tromp and blast your way through. A lot of the environments have backgrounds that pitch left and right as you walk across the screen, which creates a great sense of depth.
Speaking of depth, anyone with 3D glasses will be pleasantly surprised to see how well Rocketbirds executes on the technology. I played through the entire three hour co-op campaign in 3D and I wouldn’t want to play it again in any other way. The rich colours and depth really popped out in a pervasive and unobtrusive way, something that only Shadow of the Colossus has done for me.
Co-op sets you and a buddy out on a rescue mission through a handful of recycled single player levels with some extra puzzles thrown in. The real difference lies in you and your buddy, playing as Vietnam-era soldier budgies (no, I’m not joking), overcoming the limitations of your size. You’re both short and you can’t roll around with the same speed of Hardboiled, so you’ll have to piggyback on each others’ shoulders to fire over certain pieces of cover, reach high up ledges, and solve puzzles.
Sadly, the co-op campaign doesn’t receive the same treatment as single player as far as cutscenes go. I’m aware of how odd it seems to be lamenting the absence of cutscenes in a game where you, y’know, play, but that’s only because they were such an integral and well-done part of the single player game.
Despite some minor combat frustrations, Rocketbirds is easily one of the most satisfying downloadable experiences I’ve had on the PSN in a while. I still have the game’s music in my head as I’m writing this, and I still pop in and replay a level or two to soak in the game’s lovingly handled juxtaposition of fart jokes and contemporary themes. Gamers who download this PSN exclusive while expecting a frenetic twitch-fest or an unimaginative cheap-laugh will be pleasantly surprised by a tenderly crafted world and some competent action not often found in something that used to be a played in a browser.