Fantasy Zone by way of The Brothers Grimm
Last year, the two best games on mobile didn’t come from King, or Nicalis, or Tencent. They came from Onion Games, a Japanese indie studio founded by Rule of Rose and Little King’s Story developer Yoshiro Kimura. Dandy Dungeon and Million Onion Hotel were shining beacons of imagination and incongruity in a marketplace that has largely grown derivative.
Black Bird follows in the footsteps of its predecessors. Kimura has once again crafted an experience ripe with imagination, amazingly unique art direction, and a score that’ll worm its way into your brain. Only this time, he’s releasing his game on Switch and Steam, and while it might not be totally worth the asking price, it’s certainly a title that should find its way onto your wishlist.
Black Bird (Switch [reviewed], Steam)
Developer: Onion Games
Publisher: Onion Games
Released: October 18, 2018, October 31, 2018 (Steam)
Black Bird begins with a rather upsetting sequence which kicks off the title’s slight story. A young girl, possibly emaciated though who really knows, given the minimalist art direction of these cutscenes, wanders out into the streets where she collapses and dies. People pass her body by, paying no mind to the corpse on the ground until a man saunters by and pokes her with his cane, only to keep on walking when she doesn’t respond. As somebody who works in San Francisco, the greatest fear I have for my soul is that one of the countless homeless people I walk by every day won’t actually be sleeping as I tell myself they are, so right out of the gate this story hits me hard, reminding of how calloused I’ve become.
The girl doesn’t stay dead for long. Her corpse transforms into a massive egg and it’s not long before that egg hatches, giving birth to the titular black bird, ready to rain chaos, death, and destruction on the people who ignored the stiff in the streets. It’s like if Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl ended with the girl coming back from heaven as a fire monster, burning Copenhagen to the ground.
The actual gameplay of Black Bird is a side-scrolling, bullet-hell shooter reminiscent of the Sega classic Fantasy Zone. Controlling the bird, you’re free to move around each stage as you please, firing bubbles at unlucky pedestrians on the ground as well as the many enemy forces sent to stop you. Each of the four stages has a set of watchtowers that must be destroyed, at which point the stage boss will appear, for a fight that’s generally easier than anything you’ve faced in the level preceding it.
Right from the opening salvo, Black Bird is an absolute riot. On the surface there isn’t much to it, looking like a simple side-scrolling shooter. But it’s when you actually play through the game again and again that you see just how deep the well goes. You can blast through each level as fast as you choose, but if you do that you might miss the many secrets to be found. The asparagus from Million Onion Hotel make a guest appearance as do the cows, and those are just the cameos I’ve found so far. There are also hidden pots to discover – those too are cameos from Onion Hotel – that grant extra health, more bombs, or faster movement speed, the latter of which I never found too useful.
What sets Black Bird apart from its possible inspiration is how it handles scoring and upgrades. The game has a combo system that rewards taking out as many enemies as fast as possible. When there are dozens of people running for their lives on the ground, it’s easy to hit the max combo and absolutely rack up the points. Upgrades are instituted automatically as you collect gems. Enemies, watchtowers, and boss characters will drop gems of differing sizes that quickly shrink the longer they’re left unclaimed. As you collect these gems, you’ll see a green circle start to form around the bird. Once that circle is complete, you’ll transform into a stronger variation of the bird. The bubbles you blow will become more powerful, as will your limited bomb attack.
Mastering the gem system means engaging in a little risk-and-reward strategy. Big gems will start to shrink immediately, meaning the sooner you pick one up, the more quickly your green circle will fill. To pick them up as fast as possible, you need to be right in front of an enemy when you destroy them without actually running into them. You also need to be wary of projectiles. While most enemy attacks are telegraphed, some aren’t, leading to multiple occasions where I went in for a kill and a big gem, only to take a missile to the face and lose a bit of life.
Even in those moments, Black Bird is a great deal of fun, but be warned this isn’t for everyone. For starters, as mentioned above, this is a side-scrolling, bullet-hell shooter. While it never reaches the hellish anguish of, say, Radiant Silvergun, it’s no walk in the park either. There are no extra lives or continues in Black Bird. When you run out of energy, it’s game over, back to the level one with you. It is a rather short game, so repeated runs aren’t exactly taxing of your time, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to straight up delete the game after dying in the closing moments of the final boss battle. It’s a break-your-Switch-in-half type of frustration that’s pretty rare to come by in this era of gaming.
Onion Games did decide to help players out by including a practice mode that lets you train on any level you’ve unlocked. There is also a time attack mode, leaderboards to chase, and a “True Mode,” which runs you through the campaign again with an altered story, new secrets to uncover, and an increased difficulty. The levels here can be absolutely monstrous, though the boss battles remain relatively docile.
On Switch, the game holds up pretty well considering just how much can be happening on screen at any one time. There is some slowdown, never enough to cause a loss of energy, but it is noticeable and is pretty much the only bad thing I can say about how this game looks. The art direction of Black Bird is stunning. From the sepia-toned streets of the opening stage to the retro sci-fi look of the final level, this game is an absolute knock-out. Onion Games has produced some of the best pixel work on mobile with Onion Hotel and Dandy Dungeon, but Black Bird is leaps and bounds ahead of either of those titles. That superiority of design extends beyond the look of the game as well. Musically, this is the best work Onion Games has done. It’s truly mesmerizing and completely catchy, even if the language it’s sung in is utter nonsense.
There’s really nothing left I can write to get across just how much I enjoy Black Bird. In fact, looking at the word count for what is a relatively short game, I’ve probably written too much. A more succinct, tl;dr version of this review would simply state “Onion Games has done it again.” For fans of the developer, that’s pretty much all I’d have to say to convince them it’s worth it. For anybody who hasn’t had the good fortune of experiencing the studio’s previous offerings, well, there are over 1,000 words above to tell you whether or not Black Bird is worth a shot.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]