Part of what makes gaming so vibrant is that developers can nurture niches full of fans hungry for certain types of gameplay. The King’s Bird falls into one such niche: precision-platforming. Hardcore fans of the genre will likely really enjoy it despite some notable issues, but what about the rest of us? Thankfully, Serenity Forge has gone to great lengths to make this one of the more accessible in the space, and one that might serve as a perfect entry point for newcomers.
The entirety of The King’s Bird is without dialogue, opting instead to let the player learn about the world via a few brief cutscenes and beautiful ancient drawings. We come to learn that our heroine has grown up in an idyllic city closed off from the rest of the world. The only ones allowed to leave are those who use a mysterious magic to pass through gates and soar through the skies. Feeling trapped, the main character manages to gain access to this power and flees in search of adventure.
While the story might not be as deep or hard-hitting as something like Celeste, it does a fine job of giving the player context and setting the scene for the rest of the game. The minimalist take on character design and lack of dialogue, however, do result in a character that feels quite expendable and without personality. The one saving grace here is the way the heroine sings along with the music whenever she’s flying around. It’s a small thing, but it’s quite charming nonetheless.
The King’s Bird is comprised of five kingdoms, each visually and thematically distinct from the last. Within these are hubs that contain 4-5 levels. Rather than using a simple menu to access these, they’re instead connected via a traversable overworld (similar to how Splatoon’s single-player levels are laid out).
The movement tools here are a bit different than those found in your typical precision-platformer. Players are equipped with a jump, wall jump, the ability to slide on declining surfaces, and a long jump, but it’s the flight mechanics that truly define The King’s Bird. Players can glide in the air by holding the “L” trigger and can perform a magic-enabled dash (which can be done on any surface) by pressing the “R” trigger.
The combination of the dash and gliding mechanics lends the game some flexibility in its platforming. Gliding is only possible once enough downward momentum has been built up, meaning that a good deal of deaths simply come from diving too low into spikes or a bottomless pit. Gliding along ceilings also works if–again–the player has enough momentum. This leads to astonishing platforming feats as often as it leads to hellish, seemingly impossible challenges. Staying in perfect control can feel a bit difficult sometimes due to the highly sensitive, slightly finicky controls, and often results in runs that take a few (or few dozen) minutes of trial and error to overcome.
Luckily, the developers accounted for this quite well. First, there are an absolute abundance of checkpoints (represented by lanterns) tactfully placed before and after almost all major platforming challenges. Second, the team at Serenity Forge implemented what’s easily one of the best assist modes I’ve seen in a game. Players can enable things like invincibility, endless gliding without the need to gather momentum, and even the ability to skip to the next checkpoint if you just genuinely can’t get past a section. As someone who’s always felt put out by uncompromising touchstones of the genre like Super Meat Boy, this was a most welcome addition. The near-instantaneous respawns don’t hurt either.
Simple and Clean
Atmosphere and art direction can go a long way in establishing a world players want to get lost in. The King’s Bird manages to create a mystical backdrop that toes the line between fresh and familiar with every new kingdom that’s introduced. Dark buildings and trees contrast wonderfully with the game’s vivid color palette and the protagonist’s playfully luminescent cape. The water-themed kingdom (above) particularly stood out as an aesthetic beauty.
That said, for as striking an art style the game has, it also feels a bit bland and lifeless. Backgrounds are detailed well enough to give a sense that there’s more to the world than what the player is interacting with, but not well enough to give that world an identity. Everything simply looks a bit too generic, from the levels themselves to the silhouetted, indistinguishable protagonist. The game looks great in motion, but once you stop to take a look around (or simply to transition between hubs) it becomes slightly less enchanting. The soundtrack is similar; what’s there is quite beautiful and matches the natural aesthetic of the levels well, but with only a couple of tracks that loop per kingdom, what’s at first delightful gradually becomes trying.
This is made all the worse by the fact that The King’s Bird doesn’t seem to have been well-tuned for the Switch as a platform. Both the graphical fidelity and framerate take a noticeable hit in handheld mode, a surprise given that the title is more simplistic from a technical standpoint. The framerate never got so bad that I felt it seriously hampered my enjoyment of the game, but not having a steady framerate in a platformer that requires the player to be incredibly precise at points is nothing short of disappointing. There’s also no HD rumble (or any kind of rumble) support, something that would’ve been quite welcome when flying or furiously skidding through a level. Most egregiously of all, I’ve encountered numerous crashes during my time with the game (some during gameplay, others upon starting the game). Until a patch is released, you might be better off buying the PC version.
The King’s Bird hits its target audience perfectly. It delivers a healthy dose of platforming challenge with fun mechanics against an attractive, atmospheric backdrop. Quality of life features like abundant checkpoints and an outstanding assist mode ensure that newcomers have a chance to experience the game as well. That “one more try” feeling is in full effect here and, for as lackluster as the Switch port is, it does suit the platform’s pick up and play nature well. However, this one just needed a bit more time in the oven from a technical and detail-oriented perspective.