PAX East 2018: Beautiful Hardcore Platforming for All in The King’s Bird

Hardcore platformers are generally made for a specific niche of gaming. There’s a level of masochism required to do the same thing time after time until a combination of reflex and muscle memory turns a brutal challenge into a precision dance through dense fields of spiky hazards. The King’s Bird is a precision platformer aiming to be a bit more accessible, still deeply skill based but pretty and inviting enough that even people who’d normally take one look and Nope away get tempted into learning its flow. That by no means makes it easy, of course, but once the game has you in its grasp there’s no simple way to escape the pursuit of making a level run as precise as it is graceful.

The story behind The King’s Bird is still under wraps, although it promises to be told wordlessly and deal with the responsibilities of freedom as a young girl escapes into secret world overseen by a tyrant. The levels are presented like painterly silhouettes dotted with a few more spiky surfaces than one might expect on a standard work of art. The girl runs along the surfaces of the world, sliding and wall-hopping as she goes, and unfurled behind her is a cape-like ribbon indicating how much gliding power she has available. If as the title hints she’s the king’s bird held captive in a secret world of challenge she’s not a bird that can fly, but she can soar through the levels on the strength of her momentum for as long as it lasts.

While gliding is handy it doesn’t last forever, but every touch on a safe part of the level restores the available flight time to full strength. Whether that’s during a handy wall-jump or a momentary touchdown on a platform depends on the level structure, and then it’s back to the air again.  The first time through a level will probably see more time spent on the ground, but the entire thing is built for speed-running and the fastest way to move is to fly.  A small problem is that the girl can’t get more height than she started with, but the teaser trailer below from last August sneakily shows off a technique I wish I’d thought of during my play-time.  Around the 23 second mark she flies to a wall, runs up it a few steps thanks to the momentum carried over from the initial swoop, jumps up from the wall, and then uses that extra height to power the next aerial maneuver.  While The King’s Bird is designed for accessibility, there are secrets for high-level play hiding in its mechanics.

It’s hard to tell if The King’s Bird will succeed at luring in a more casual player, but the art is beautiful and even if it requires a precise touch the soaring mechanics give it an appealing sense of freedom.  The freedom to misjudge a jump and swoop face-first into a wall of spikes, sure, but that’s what generous checkpoints and instant restarts are for.  Making a precision platformer for everyone isn’t an easy task, but even if The King’s Bird ends up only appealing to the usual crowd for this type of game it’s going to be almost as much fun watching the speed runners take it apart as it is swearing at the levels as they break you down before experience builds you back up again.