To any casual observer, the “platformer” may come across as comprising the exact same thing with little deviation. Of getting from A to B no matter the cost. Similarly to the way all RPGs or shooters or strategy games encompass the exact same mechanics, regardless of aesthetic, structure or overall intent. As we all know though, neither of these statements are true, though given the genre’s more subtle deviations in design, it’s not surprising that such an assumption can be made by those less-knowledgeable in the field. After all, the large majority of platformers — old and new — still rely on the tried-and-tested formula of precision. But over the years, a different kind of niche within the genre has sprouted up — one fueled instead by speed and the means at which one acquires it, namely physics…or a lack thereof.
While a game like The King’s Bird does still abide to the platforming rulebook of precision and does at points grind proceedings to a halt (whether that’s deep within the flow of things or in some vain attempt to convey a relevance of “story” or “narrative”), it’s the game’s focus instead on momentum, of mastering the physics of its world, that has it land more within this ever-growing assembly of platforming that caters to both those who relish speed-running and those who don’t. More than likely as a consequence of this direction, The King’s Bird instead fixes its gaze on providing players a series of self-contained challenges that must be completed in order to progress further into the game’s five designated regions — each of which flaunting a particular color palette and pretty much nothing else.
A minor alteration in background here and foreground there the only sign one is making significant-enough steps to the overall finish point. Levels themselves, signified by a darker, silhouetted shade (similarly to the nameless, faceless player-character) the only means to distinguish between what constitutes as solid ground and what doesn’t. Admittedly, The King’s Bird does get off to a rough and communicatively sloppy start early on; its tutorial bordering on poor in its delivery to the player — move-sets and instructions offered through mere inanimate slabs in the environment with little indication as to whether what the player is enacting (and how they’re achieving it) is indeed what is intended or hoping for. Because for the first few or so levels, there’s no doubt that senseless button-mashing and resulting dumb luck will be the means to which success is achieved, as opposed to properly combining the looser physics, aerial flying/gliding and freerunning-esque maneuverability on offer.
Thankfully this frustrating opening segment and lack of an otherwise more approachable curve of difficulty soon subsides and eventually, The King’s Bird‘s reaction-tuned mechanics become second nature and, more prominently, the main pull in keeping players interested and involved enough with what’s on offer. Surprisingly so, given how quickly the game demands of you a successful chaining together of move-sets at every turn just to reach the end goal — let alone succeeding at acquiring all the collectible birds that lay scattered across levels. You could even argue the ease at which one will subsequently master these controls cancels out this aforementioned rough start and from there, The King’s Bird, on a gameplay front, only gets better the further you progress.
There’s almost a cathartic, zen-like mood and enveloping feel to the way one sprints and dashes about the environments on show. Even going as far as to whittle away at the genuine displeasure and disappointment of The King’s Bird visual design — occasional palette swaps the only clear sign of change; levels little more than geometric blocks and sharp corners alike; backgrounds hardly more than jumbles of similarly abstract forms that come across less meaningful and more illustratively hollow. The story (to call it such) does thankfully take a back-seat in all this — only ever emerging again from time to time in an attempt to disguise the fact The King’s Bird is essentially, like fellow platforming kin N+, a check-list of levels to conquer and keys (or totems in this case) to acquire.
That’s not to say the core gameplay isn’t a pleasant experience on its own, but the obvious fluff of its artistically-shallow storytelling and illusion of a grander world to tackle does little to dissuade players from seeing this as another assortment of challenges to get through. But as flatulent and as forgettable its narrative or indeed grander world might be, The King’s Bird does at least get the basics right — succeeding in the one department that’s most important of all: gameplay. A large swathe of levels predominantly centering around a fixed route or means of reaching the next platform with an incredibly charitable amount of checkpoints on offer, which is needed given how quickly one can make a mistake and find themselves hurtling into a bed of spikes.
But it’s this pace and ease with which a particular run can go awry that will keep players fixed. Particularly when the glide ability is deactivated in certain levels — requiring a bit more strategic use of one’s movement — or simply when one can has to make best use of gravity and momentum in order to reach a seemingly-impossible height. While the solutions may seem relatively easy to deduce, it’s the execution (and ample number of fails and quick retries thereafter) that keep the process entertaining, if still frustrating, in a welcoming sense. It’s not long before the optional collectibles feel not just attainable, but mandatory in the whole process and if one can ignore the basic design and eventually stagnant aesthetic that can come across as half-baked (complete with music tracks that repeat far too many times for one’s liking), there’s a lot to both enjoy and admire about the trial-and-error style of gameplay on show.
While there are clearly some efforts to distinguish from other platformers of an allotted, check-list fashion on a visual/world-building sense, the inevitable blurring-together of seen-before sparse storytelling and relative simplicity in appearance mean that The King’s Bird doesn’t quite excel as a complete package. What it does succeed at is providing a gameplay loop that is not only engaging to work out, but subsequently enjoyable to watch unfold, no matter the absurdity of pace or number of deaths one racks up. Developer Serenity Forge might not get away with the whole “artistic storytelling” approach in the backdrop, but up front, The King’s Bird — while not without some unnecessary frustration to begin with — does deliver, where it matters, on its challenge and integration of physics to end up a satisfying precision-platformer overall.