Admittedly, music-based games are not my forte and not something that I would actively look for to play. But in Songbird Symphony, I have gained a newfound appreciation for the medium.
For the uninitiated, Songbird Symphony is a sprite-based platformer/rhythm game that follows the story of the ever-enthusiastic fledgling Birb. At the insistence of the forest’s wise owl, Birb sets off on a journey to learn new songs in his quest to find out who his real family is.
Birb’s story of self-identity is a simple one, but that doesn’t mean it lacks substance. The five or so hours I’ve spent with Birb has been heartwarmingly wholesome, with the bird’s ever-growing resolve providing ample reason to root for him. Coupled with the wonderful animations for the character, you really can get a sense of what kind of personality Birb has.
Throughout Birb’s journey, you will visit various other worlds that are inhabited by other bird creatures and animals that roam in the background; they too, are also animated beautifully. For example, the dance-loving penguins from the mountain level move with great exuberance. These all further add to the characterisation of the world.
But it isn’t all perfect. As you continue to roam and explore the areas, you’ll begin to notice that these animations start to repeat themselves. Several creatures also make repeat appearances in other levels as well, which dampens the experience of visiting a new area a little.
Speaking a little more about the world, they do vary differently enough from each other that it at least keeps a fresh perspective as you play the game. You’ll visit places that range from the calm tranquil of the forest to the frantic, party atmosphere of the casino level.
One disappointment is that the developers did not implement a map of any sort for each level. This decision was probably made to encourage players to explore, but the maze-like structure of some levels makes it very easy to get lost, especially for later sections of the game.
Navigation is also complicated since there is no way to teleport or travel quickly to a particular location once you’ve completed the game. If you have missed any collectibles from your playthrough, you’ll have to slowly make your way back to the specific level in order to collect it eventually.
As mentioned before, Songbird Symphony is primarily a platformer, but to navigate around the world, you’ll have to make use of the rhythm mechanics. That means there are instances where you have to time key presses in order to move a block. This presents a plethora of opportunities for puzzles within the level, either to progress forward, or to get something.
For the most part, the implementation is well-done, with the background soundtrack of the level complementing the sounds Birb make when you hit those key presses. The puzzles themselves also scale well as you progress through the game, increasing in difficulty but never getting too hard that you get stuck.
The only problem with it is that if you miss a single note, you’ll have to wait for the whole sequence to restart in order to try again. Admittedly, it’s only a few seconds, but it starts to get frustrating if you fail several times in a row.
The full extent of the rhythm gameplay is put on display during the game’s boss battles, with you having to use the game’s full arsenal of inputs.
Unlike other rhythm games which have you timing button presses to the actual beat of the song, Songbird Symphony instead employs a ‘repeat after me’ type of style. Boss characters will sound off a sequence of notes and you’ll then have to time those same sequences when the inputs appear on the screen. Button prompts also appear in a variety of ways, meaning you’ll have to be on your toes and it also keeps the gameplay fresh.
This sounds simple, but the difference might put off people who are more used to the style of the former. In particular, there are sequences that are so long that you’ll have to start pressing buttons before it ends.
In my experience, being used to the other style meant that I was instinctively trying to hear the beat of the music, but I also had to contend with the incoming button prompts – it eventually became very distracting to the point that I missed notes and ruined my score.
To be clear, you’ll probably get used to just focusing on the button prompts for these battles, but it defeats the purpose of actually listening to the music from the boss battles, which are fantastic.
There also isn’t actually any real consequence to doing badly during these boss battles. The story will continue regardless of whether you get an S or a C rank on a battle. It is rather amusing to see a boss complimenting my skills despite purposefully missing every note.
For those who have some extra time and like to challenge themselves, they can revisit these battles under the ‘extras’ menu upon the completion of the main story.
There’s no doubt that there are little aspects of the game that might frustrate or keep you down. But like Birb’s journey, there’s always something that immediately perks you back up: from the beautifully joyful soundtrack that will stay in your head for days, to the enthusiastically cheerful Birb himself who always bumbles his way forward despite the obstacles. Songbird Symphony is worth a try.
Reviewed on Steam. Songbird Symphony is also available on PS4 and Nintendo Switch.
Visuals courtesy of Joysteak Studios.