There is a running joke between myself and my young daughter. She once asked if there were any animals that I feared. While I am deathly afraid of spiders, I surely wasn’t going to tell her that. So, in jest, I stated that penguins were the one thing that instilled fear in my heart. I played it up too, refusing to enter the penguin exhibit at the zoo without having my hand held and covering my eyes at the mere sight of them anywhere in the world. I meant it as a joke, but honestly, I always had a sneaking suspicion that those little tuxedoed-devils could be dangerous.
It appears as if the development crew over at Ratloop shares at least by cynicism towards these evil birds, or at least that is how it appears in Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken. The game started off as a a flash game at the Independent Games Festival a couple of years ago. It won numerous awards and eventually evolved into a full fledged, digital console title. The game was released for the PC and consoles back in late 2011 but was recently brought back for Sony’s PlayStation Vita.
How do I even begin to describe this game? Imagine a classic, 80‘s action hero style movie like Commando (or practically any Arnold Swarzenegger film for that matter), but change out the main character with a chicken and make all of the bad guys penguins. That is the world of Hardbroiled!
You’re Hardbroiled, a bright light in the dark country of Albatropolis. An evil regime of penguins, led by Putzki and his lieutenant Brno, rules over the land with an unrelenting iron fist. It is up to you, and the small underground rebellion to take down this totalitarian government and free pretty much everyone who isn't a penguin. You will operate on your own for the most part, but will often receive assistance from other rebels, including a militia comprised of cardinals who hate the black and white wobblers as much as you do.
The charm of the game lies in its ridiculousness. Just read the last two paragraphs over again and you get an idea of how ridiculous this game can be; the thing is, while the premise sounds insane, it is a well written and intense action adventure that belongs right up there with the best B-rated action movies. It is an intense adventure that mixes stealthy gameplay with all out warfare, set to an incredibly rocking score by New World Revolution... but with birds in the starring role. It is violent, dark, gritty, and engaging, but totally preposterous at the same time.
I don’t want to just graze over the mention of New World Revolution’s soundtrack; it is a great addition to this experience. The score fits perfectly every step of the way, and helps lend to that action-movie feel. We’re talking about things like intense guitar riffs driving quick montages or flashbacks; it truly hits the classic, action movie stereotypes on every level. Plus, it is just an incredible soundtrack on its own and something that does as much bringing character to the game as it does setting the scene(s).
It all plays out like a classic action game, from either the 8- or 16-bit era(s). It’s a 2D sidescroller with an incredibly polished look to it. The characters and the world of Albatropolis are detailed and full of personality. You can see and feel the oppression that exists on this world, even if its inhabitants are just birds. Things do get mixed up a bit gameplay wise over the course of the game thanks to a variety of weapons and environments. you will do just as much sneaking around in the shadows and vents of buildings as you will throwing down a ton of hot lead with the enemy.
As great as everything is, there is one aspect that really holds everything else back. The game’s Achilles heel is, without a doubt, its controls. For a game that looks this good, has such a great story, and a kick-ass soundtrack, Rocketbirds really doesn’t play as well as it should. The entire interactive experience feels “tight” for lack of a better term; it never quite escapes the feeling of its Flash-game origins. The gunplay isn’t too bad; the trigger (right shoulder button) is fairly sensitive and it is easy to switch between your weapons on the fly. The grenades and similar weapons are even passable, although I question the decision to relegate aiming solely to the rear touch panel as opposed to using the front as well. The movement however, which is a huge portion of the game, just feels slow and unresponsive.
There is too much of a delay and sluggish response to any sort of movement controls. I get it that Hardboiled is supposed to be this big, hulking guy-of-a-chicken, but he has to be the least agile hero I have ever seen. A good action-platformer needs to have a feeling of fluidity, especially if it involves intense combat situations like this one; there is no sense of fluidity for a large portion of this game. The only exception to this would be the few levels that pit you in a rocketpack and set you loose in the scales for combat. these levels feel great and play incredibly well; unfortunately, they only make up a small fraction of the experience.
While the bulk of the experience is a single-player adventure, the game does feature a separate, cooperative campaign. This mode features its own story and let’s you play as two, completely different characters who are similar to Hardbroiled. The key to the experience here is cooperation, which is exactly how a cooperative mode should be! You and your partner have to work closely together to survive this trek. There are a lot of scenarios that require you to split up and accomplish complimentary tasks in order to proceed, plus a need to help one another reach higher ground that you just can’t reach alone. It’s a lot of fun and it can be played both locally and online with two Vita systems.
Once again, the sluggish movement and controls reel their ugly head(s) and detract from the overall experience in this mode as well. I would argue that it is even worse when it comes to playing online thanks to network lag which is an occasional problem. It is still a fun romp though that you will be hard pressed to not enjoy, you just have to learn to deal with the “heavy” controls.
Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken is something that really has to be seen to be believed. It is a great story and an intense action game at times, all while being incredibly over the top. There is potential for a long running and expansive series here, but it really needs to continue to break free from its flash game roots. Almost all of the pieces are there for it to be a great game, but one nagging detail (control) holds it back to a “good” level. Don’t let that keep you from checking it out though; this is definitely a trip you’ll enjoy.