For those who follow indie games closely and the Independent Game Festival in particular, Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken might be at least somewhat familiar. A earlier Flash version of the game was nominated as a finalist for three awards at the 2010 festival. Now roughly a couple years later comes a finished downloadable product on PC, Playstation 3, and Vita, the latter of which we’ll be reviewing here. It’s interesting how Sony’s platforms have become a bastion of sorts for quirky, yet fun indie titles despite no branded push for them like Microsoft’s XBLIG. Rocketbirds in particular is no exception to this trend.
The premise of this game is a trope and yet still entertainingly humorous all the same. You play the role of Hardboiled Chicken, a jetpack soldier raised from a young age to serve the totalitarian penguin regime and their army. One day he finally has enough and rebels against his masters, Rambo style. Along the way he makes allies with cardinals and budgies to take down Putzki, the evil penguin dictator. It’s obviously nothing incredibly deep, but there’s a few nice cutscenes that do a nice job of framing the whole venture and drawing you into it a bit, as well as a few in game bits punctuated by word bubbles and bird sounds.
When I picked up Rocketbirds for the first time, I figured it was a shooter platformer in the vein of Metal Slug or Contra. But that’s not quite it at all. First of all, all the shooting is done on the horizontal plane you’re standing in, no aiming up or down. Secondly, there is more emphasis on platforming and elevator puzzles than you’d expect going into it. For those of us familiar with the Amiga era of gaming, this actually makes it more reminiscent of Flashback or Blackthorne (in fact, the elevators themselves look eerily like the former’s). The way Hardboiled controls is also quite similar, taking a moment to turn from left to right and having to reach to climb ledges, as well as being able to roll around from a crouch. This forces you to be economical in your movements during combat, lest you get caught in the middle of turning or climbing, unable to return fire for a moment. As usual, you start off with a pistol and slowly add to (and lose) your arsenal along the way, usually carrying an automatic rifle plus a shotgun in your inventory, the latter two draining your ammunition bar more quickly than the pistol as a tradeoff for the increased power. Fortunately that and your health can be replenished by well placed pickups along the way, though it’s certainly possible to exhaust both if you aren’t frugal, adding some challenge to things.
Along with these weapons you also gain the ability to throw grenades and brain bugs, the latter of which really livens up the puzzle aspirations of this game, once you get over the annoying use of the rear touchpad to control the arc of your throws (why not the right analog stick?). At various points, Hardboiled will find himself unable to advance by sheer force, so to compensate he can take over a penguin soldier by tossing a brain bug through a window or airshaft. The possessed penguin can then open doors and activate lifts, or be used to wipe out the other guards for you. These segments of the game can actually be quite long and involve multiple actions to coordinate properly. When you’re done with him you can make the penguin off himself and return control to Hardboiled. I actually enjoyed these portions a great deal as it was a nice break from the itchy trigger finger action of having to shoot troops immediately after a screen change. Also a nice touch was the “jetpaction” levels in the game where you end up dogfighting various penguins on jetpacks before taking out their massive airships of doom.
Finally you have the co-op mode, which works locally with other Vitas in the vicinity or can function online with a friend. That’s right, you have to know what friend you want to invite into the game. There is no matchmaking ability. In co-op mode you play together as two budgies instead of Hardboiled, each with their own weapon specialization. As they are smaller, you have to work together, hopping on each other’s shoulders to get through specific parts in each level. Co-op mode does away with the puzzle elements and is a bit shorter than the main game as it is a separate campaign, but at least it adds some replay value, and if that’s not enough there’s also an extra hard difficulty setting.
Rocketbirds’ art style is rather simplistic and its Flash roots are quite obvious. That doesn’t mean it’s an ugly game at all however. It’s hard to tell in screenshots, but in action there is an element of faux 3D to your surroundings that makes it a bit immersive. It even takes advantage of the Vita’s tilt functionality to add to the depth of it. The levels are fairly colorful and have little jokes sprinkled about, and some parts feel like an homage to other games like the previously mentioned Flashback and Metal Slug. The sound effects are not much to note here, as the gunshots and death sounds of the penguins seem to be rather stock. What little voice acting there is in the cutscenes is campy enough to add to the humor rather than detract from it. The main standout is the musical soundtrack provided by the band New World Revolution, adding to the impact of certain parts of the story and nicely complimenting the action when called for.
If you can’t tell, I really enjoyed playing through this game. While most indie games harken back to more famous previous works, I can’t think of another one that brings back the combination of controls, gunplay, and puzzles of games like Flashback. That said, it doesn’t have the depth of story or the length of that game either. I also found myself quite frustrated at the absurdity of some of the final battles, but in the end it was worth beating. In my opinion, for the price you can’t go wrong with Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken, a welcome addition to any Vita gamers library in particular.