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Review: A Bird Story

A Bird Story isn’t To The Moon’s sequel, and even though it may look very similar to its predecessor it’s a very different kind of video game. But should that be interpreted as a positive or a negative?


Title overview   |   Initial impressions   |   Plot   |   Gameplay   |
Visuals and audio   |   Replay and innovation   |
Screenshots and videos   |   Final thoughts   |   Review round-up

Title overview

Name: A Bird Story
Developer: Freebird Games
Publisher: Freebird Games
Release date: November 2014
PEGI rating: Not listed
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC
More information: Official website

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Initial impressions

To The Moon was the first title by Freebird Games and was started over six years ago by Kan ‘Reives’ Gao, after he wanted to turn the script he had been working on into an audio and visual experience. The design philosophy was simple: to create a ‘game’ that takes the player through a story in the form of an immersive interactive show. The developer’s website states that their focus is to create a familiar yet alternative take on the classical roleplaying game (RPG) experience and they deliver on presentation, music and atmosphere; it’s therefore pretty obvious that you’re not going to get a typical video-game-experience when you pick up one of their releases.

I first played To The Moon in March 2013, about a year-and-a-half after its release in November 2011 so I was quite late to the party. But I was completely blown away and even now it remains one of my favourite titles; the finale is sure to leave you in tears and by reminding the player that ordinary people can have extraordinary effects on each other, the game totally earns every tear shed. I’d therefore been keeping a close eye on A Bird Story’s progress since and as soon as it became available on Steam in November 2014, I snapped it up and first completed it one evening during the following week.

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Plot

A Bird Story’s plot is far simpler than that of To The Moon and centres around a lonely boy who decides to ditch school one day. He finds a bird with a broken wing being chased by a badger in the woods, saves the poor little creature after chasing the badger away, and then discovers the feathered stowaway in his backpack once he arrives home. Whilst not a direct sequel to Freebird Games’ first project, our protagonist eventually becomes the patient that Dr Watts and Dr Rosalene will be setting out to treat in the next instalment of the series once it’s released.

One of the highlights is seeing the story told from the boy’s point of view and both dreams and memories are used to forward the plot.

‘Simpler’ isn’t necessarily a bad thing but here it does have negative as well as positive points. With regard to the latter, one of the highlights is seeing the story told from the boy’s point of view and both dreams and memories are used to forward the plot. His school becomes a forest, the lockers turning into trees and the corridors becoming pathways between them decorated with puddles and clusters of plants; his walk home is transformed from a lonely journey into a woodland adventure. Although at times these location- and time-jumps can be slightly confusing for the player, they creatively convey that the protagonist feels isolated and uses his imagination to escape.

But perhaps A Bird Story’s plot is too simple at times. I expected the boy’s relationship with the bird to be the cornerstone of the whole experience but it somehow comes across as secondary; scenes such as the playground of faceless schoolmates or the emptiness of a parent-less house are more effective than those actually featuring the feathered creature. Whilst playing the title I felt myself waiting a surge of emotion but it never quite came. And on top of this, having seem my fair share of human-meets-fragile-animal stories in the past, it was unfortunately obvious as to what the finale would be long before I arrived.

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Gameplay

To The Moon is often criticised for its lack of gameplay elements but A Bird Story takes the concept to a whole other level: it’s almost as if the game wants to play itself from start to finish and battles the player for control. Instead of receiving any sort of tutorials, you’re instead shown a picture of buttons on your keyboard with an accompanying animation and pressing the relevant keys usually results in the boy moving in a particular direction. The most ‘complicated’ move consists of pressing the spacebar to get him to jump in some puddles. These interactive moments are short and infrequent; it isn’t always clear when or why the title has taken back control; it isn’t possible to wander far from the designated track; and there are no puzzles or challenges. As such, the gameplay section of this review is going to be quite short because there really isn’t much to talk about.

It can be a little too easy to simply let the story wash over you without effect while waiting for the next keyboard icon to appear on-screen.

I’m not completely sure how I feel about the limited gameplay style. One one hand I don’t have a problem with the restricted instances of control granted to the player and my issue is more that they don’t always feel meaningful. It can be a little too easy to simply let the story wash over you without effect while waiting for the next keyboard icon to appear on-screen, when you’re allowed to move the boy to the next location to start the following scene. At certain points I found myself wondering why the game had decided to give me control. Perhaps A Bird Story would have worked better as an animated short as my presence within the title didn’t seem to add much to the experience.

But on the other hand, actions do sometimes speak louder than words (or text boxes) and there are some lovely moments. For example, breaking apart a piece of bread so the bird can eat or a moment during the final sequence is the perfect time to hand control back to the player and for it to mean something. But as to whether these occasions do enough to redeem the title, I’m not entirely convinced. If you’re not a fan of visual novels then it’s extremely unlikely that A Bird Story will be something you enjoy; and even as a person for whom the narrative is more important than gameplay when it comes to video games, I have to admit that even I myself struggled to keep engrossed enough to reach the end.

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Visuals and audio

As mentioned earlier, the visuals throughout A Bird Story are very similar to those used in Freebird Games’ first project and you may temporarily think you’re playing a SNES RPG thanks to its 16-bit art style. Supporting characters are transparent shadows and the boy is able to walk through the other children at his school; this suggests he isn’t able to relate to them in his loneliness, effectively providing some insight into his personality. I found the ‘retro’ graphics to be lovely but I did have to wonder at the designer’s choice to make backgrounds more of a water-colour style while detailing everything else in pixelated detail.

Maybe a more subtle sountrack would have been more complimentary to such a simple and sentimental story.

One of the highlights of To The Moon is its soundtrack and even now I can’t help getting a tear in my eye when I hear Everything’s Alright by Gao and Laura Shigihara. While the music for A Bird Story is still of an impressively-high standard, it just didn’t quite hit the same mark and at some points during the game it felt a little too much. I understand that the events happening within the young boy’s life would seem extremely momentous to him, but maybe a more subtle soundtrack would have been more complimentary to such a simple and sentimental story.

No voice-acting is used within the title and there aren’t even any text boxes, so all of the plot is conveyed on-screen. It’s clear to see that the protagonist feels isolated at school, occasionally picked on and frequently ignored, and at home the only thing waiting for him is a note stuck to the fridge. But like any other kid he longs to have fun: he’ll jump on the bed when he enters his parents’ bedroom and there’s a humorous scene at school in the style of The Benny Hill Show when he tries to evade his teacher. A Bird Story may have a number of negative points but the fact that it makes all of this clear without using words is a testament to its design.

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Replay and innovation

If I’m completely honest, I have to admit that it’s extremely unlikely I’ll pick up this title again in the future (although I did so recently to write this review and record the video below). While it’s in no way the worst game I’ve ever played I don’t feel there’s enough incentive to return to it. I completed the entire thing in a little over eighty-minutes; I found the plot to be slow and a little too sentimental for my taste; and while a limited gameplay style isn’t always a bad thing, I struggled to keep myself focused on what was going on. Freebird Games’ latest release didn’t provide enough emotional depth for me to be able to overlook its shortcomings.

There’s little innovation here – the story is predictable and one we’ve all been witness to before – and there just isn’t enough substance.

On the official website, Gao says that everyone should take his games as they come and enjoy them for their own merits. And he does have a point: perhaps I would have felt differently had I not enjoyed To The Moon so much. But there’s little innovation here – the story is predictable and one we’ve all been witness to before – and there just isn’t enough substance. However, I do appreciate that he offers a ‘100% no-questions-asked refund policy if you regretted your purchase in any way’ and so he earns himself a couple of points for that.

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Screenshots and videos

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Final thoughts

There’s little in the way of traditional gameplay in To the Moon and its script occasionally lapses into sentimentality, but it remains one of the best examples of how an excellent story can forgive limitations in every other aspect of a video game. Unfortunately A Bird Story just doesn’t measure up and therefore I doubt it will get a place within future 1001 lists. There isn’t enough within it to warrant it being included in terms of design, gameplay or narrative, and I don’t believe it will be one of those titles that sticks in my memory long after I’ve played it.

But I’m in the minority here as over eighty percent of the reviews submitted via Steam are positive and there are some ten-out-of-ten scores on Metacritic. In light of Gao’s kind refund policy and the low price of the game, I’d say it could be worth picking up a copy to see which side of the fence you sit on – but don’t go into it expecting a traditional video game experience.

A Bird Story ends with a teaser for the upcoming Finding Paradise and that’s kind of what the title feels like: a stretched playable teaser for another, better game.

A Bird Story just isn’t for me. It ends with a teaser for the upcoming Finding Paradise and that’s kind of what the title feels like: a stretched playable teaser for another, better game. It doesn’t make me any less excited for Freebird Games’ next project and a proper sequel for To The Moon… I just hope it delivers on the tears.

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Review round-up

Reviewed: PC
Source: We purchased the game from Steam for £3.99
Positive: An effective insight into the mind of a lonely boy
Negative: Extremely limited gameplay and a predictable plot
Score: 20 out of 60
Grade: Disappointing
A Birs Story, video game, review, graph, Disappointing

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3 thoughts on “Review: A Bird Story

  1. I played this game a few months ago. After playing through To The Moon at the insistence of someone close to me, I found that I loved it (just didn’t cry, I’m heartless like that :P), so much like you I picked up ABS.

    For me, and perhaps this was the developer’s intention, the Bird was always secondary. It was there just for contrast, to show you how that little bird was offering more warmth and friendship to the kid than the other humans around him. It’s a vehicle for us to understand how lonely his life is. But also, and you can see this in the happy-life montage they have mid-game where he starts playing with others, the bird is there to help him connect with those around him. And almost as if that were the case, the end starts and the bird leaves when he no longer needs him, when he’s finally connected with his classmates. This isn’t only a boy-meets-animal story but also a classic story much like Mary Poppins, the stranger that comes into our lives and changes it radically before moving on once their goal is accomplished.

    At least that’s how it felt to me.

    I do agree the gameplay lacked substance, and I hope that’s not too harsh a thing to say, but the near absolute lack of control, made it a struggle to finish the game. I won’t deny I found myself nodding off a couple of times because there just wasn’t anything to do.

    I loved the music, just felt it sometimes out of place. A few times there were strong pieces in sequences where nothing really happened and more subdued ones in strong situations.

    You’re right, though, it lacks the overall punch of To The Moon.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I must admit that, while I do see your point that there may not be enough of the game to stick in your mind after playing it, I found it quite enthralling and find myself occasionally reminiscing over the story of both To the Moon and A Bird Story for the sheer amount of emotions it made me feel. If you like, I did a review about both games a while ago so you can see my opinion here. I may disagree with you, but your review is damn good and goes into much more detail than mine do.
    https://chronicchronicler.wordpress.com/2014/11/22/a-bird-story-silently-superb/
    https://chronicchronicler.wordpress.com/2014/10/20/to-the-moon-got-to-love-selene-and-luna/

    Like

    1. Thank you for the kind words! Although A Bird Story wasn’t for me, I will say that it’s a testament to Gao’s talent for design – the fact that it manages to portray the boy’s story, particularly his loneliness, without using a single word.

      Liked by 1 person

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