NOTE – Lots of spoilers for SkateBIRD ahead, particularly late game areas and plot details!
Normally whenever I try a game I can tell pretty quickly if it is an experience for me or not and usually that tends to stay true throughout. That sense of whether the foundation of a game is strong enough to keep me compelled and maybe even to recommend it to other people. I can’t remember the last time I came across a game, especially one that I’ve finished, that has left me so divided on what I think of it. From start to finish, SkateBIRD by American studio Glass Bottom Games is a crash course in duality – so wholesome and compelling while simultaneously being a nightmare to navigate.
Tony Squawks Toy Story Funhouse
The world of SkateBIRD is an interesting convergence of games like the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series combined with the “small characters in a big world” trappings of something like the Toy Story films. The game focuses on you as Birb, a bird you can customise in many more ways that I was expecting. Birb is lonely as his owner, affectionately known as “Big Friend” is rarely around anymore, no longer skates and has a new job they do not like. SkateBIRD is a short but sweet journey of a skateboarding pet trying their hardest to help Big Friend out and return them home.
While you never see Big Friend on screen, along the journey Birb meets other friends – many birds each with their own personalities and full of cute, “trying their best” energy. Some are more memorable than others but I was quite surprised how attached I ended up feeling to some of them by the end. The handful of levels you can skate through all have their own charms even if they layouts of these areas can sometimes be a bit contrived to make it work as a skatepark experience. And an experience it certainly is…
Team Rocket Blasting Off Again!
As I mentioned earlier SkateBIRD seems clearly inspired by the Pro Skater series. Unfortunately if the movement is anything to go by, the inspiration was Pro Skater 5… Being blunt, the way this game feels to play is terrible. I have completed this game 100% and I feel like I’ve had a great time with it. I do want to go back at some point because I find the world and the characters quite appealing, but unfortunately I know what I’d need to go through to do so. I really don’t want to have to be so negative of the game as a game, but I simply couldn’t recommend this game to other people because of it.
The biggest problem is the physics, or more accurately the lack of. If you’ve ever played a Tony Hawk game, or even a good handling platformer like the Mario games, you’ll know what good physics feel like. When games like these handle well, especially in the Tony Hawk’s and similar series it can push you to be creative as you have a good sense of what you can and cannot do. But in SkateBIRD, almost every input feels like a gamble between the game doing what you expect it to do or declaring the laws of physics dead and making it up on the spot. Ram into something at full speed and nothing might happen, slightly bump into the same object when barely moving and Birb falls over. Land upside down and you might be fine, land right way up and you might bail. I always feel like I’m fighting the controls and it really is a shame because essentially I’m enjoying all the parts of the game that don’t include the game itself.
I’m sure some of it could be explained away with logic along the lines of “You’re a bird on a skateboard. What did you expect?”, but at the end of the day if the game isn’t fun then most people won’t be like me, pushing forward to find the good bits. Unfortunately this is reflected in the achievements. “They Trained You Well”, the achievement for being in the first level and able to play has been earned by 82.55% of players at the time of writing. “They Worried You Were Lost”, the achievement for reaching the second level Scared of Heists falls all the way to 2.00%. This is easily one of the biggest post-intro drops I’ve ever seen in a game and while it is a terrible shame that so many players quit, I can see why they did.
For some reason the physics also don’t seem to work consistently. To give an example, in the third level Big Business, a collectible rests on top of the end of an air vent system. I’ve grabbed the collectible already, but below shows the vent in question.
Unlike similar games there is no wallride move (not that I could find, anyway). This leaves trying to jump on top. I spent a good 20 minutes throwing myself at it over and over and just couldn’t get up there. There are no stat points or anything like that so coming back later with better jumping height etc. was an impossibility. Perplexed, I looked up how others were getting up there. You can see in one of the pictures there is a massive drop along the far side of the vent tunnel. For some reason I can’t understand jumping towards the side over the big drop worked for them. I tried it, then again and again, worked every single time. I don’t understand how anyone would work that out naturally, it seemingly ignores all logic. Anyway I’m done venting about the vent now, lets move on…
Birds With Boards
SkateBIRD is split into 6 levels, the original five levels and an extra one added after release. Each level has around 18-20 missions and some collectibles – tapes for new songs as well as new boards and clothes. A few of these are hidden in tricky places, but for the most part they are just there to aid exploration and they serve their purpose. There are some mandatory missions that progress the story, sometimes even leading to the environment changing which is one of the coolest aspects of the game. Once I realised the game was doing this it was consistently fun arriving in each new level wondering what would change by the time I was done.
The story missions and some of the side missions start and end with dialogue and despite all my problems with how the game handles, these little interactions are lovely and really add to the feeling of being on an adventure and making friends the game is going for.
The rest of the side missions are nothing more than harder versions of things you are already doing – collecting Tony Hawk SKATE style letters, maintaining combos, hitting high scores etc. Honestly despite how short the game already is, I do feel like the game would have been better without these, keeping the focus more on the character interactions and less on the mechanical side of play. Particularly given how limited the trick selection is as well, many of these side missions just feel like needless filler with no meaningful reward unless you are working towards full completion and I just didn’t really find them to be much fun.
For the most part once you work out a route and go for it the vast majority of the missions in this game are pretty straightforward really. Clever use is made of the whole being tiny in a human world perspective to involve the surroundings as both part of the story and part of the objectives. The only times I never really felt like this was working was the small number of missions that ask you to bail and roll yourself towards the goal. The first time I came across this objective type I completed it and wondered if I’d done so by accident as it just didn’t feel natural or right to be rolling around like that but this mission type isn’t used often so I didn’t mind it too much.
One other thing I should mention is the FANCY meter. I initially assumed this would work the same way as the SPECIAL meter in the Pro Skater games but that doesn’t seem to be true at all. As the FANCY meter fills, Birb’s speed ramps up quite significantly. Unlike the SPECIAL meter however, it doesn’t appear to fill up by doing fancy things like tricks, or if it does I couldn’t ever get it to do so consistently. Instead the only way I found of consistently filling the meter was to approach a quarterpipe and curve into a u-turn instead of actually jumping off the ramp. Progress varies, but usually I was filling out the bar completely just from this. I’m still not entirely sure I understand how this works and it is very confusing, but I understood it enough to finish the game at least.
While not part of the main game, I did also want to quickly mention the Pet the Bird mode. There isn’t too much to say about this other than it gives a small way to interact with Birb outside of controlling him and it is adorable! Can’t help thinking that it is a shame this is relegated to small side moment when it might have been cool to have this kind of interaction starting, ending or even bookending the story, showing a bit more directly that Big Friend really does care for Birb. Even as a small addition though it does what it needs to and I can see myself going back to this if I ever need a quick cheering up.
Boards and Beats
Finally, no review is complete without discussing the visuals and audio. Starting with visuals first and while it certainly won’t be winning any awards the graphical side of things is good enough for what the game is trying to do I think. The bulk of the work seems to have gone on the birds themselves and I think they all look wonderful and easily sell the cute factor I think the designers wanted to convey. The graphical design of the levels is very basic and feels quite dated and I can see how that might also put some players off but I think this is one of those games where the heart of the project matters more than the presentation. A goofy little game where you can help birds become more than they were. In an odd way the basic nature of the design is kind of appealing to me, but that might be more down to nostalgia of an era where graphics like this were more common.
I should also add that the game has Depth Blur and Lens Effects on by default in the settings. I had to turn these both off very quickly as it was giving me motion sickness and normally I never get that at all, so be careful of that if you pick this game up.
The highlight for me is definitely the music. A large number of the included tracks were made by Nathan Madsen, who has also done the music for Glass Bottom Games’ other projects. The OST is rounded out by music from Grave Danger, Illicit Nature and We Are The Union. Last but not least are some tracks made specifically for this game by HolyWOW, who are game developers themselves. So much of the soundtrack blew me away and was much better than I was expecting and very fitting for Tony Hawk inspired skateboarding. Songs can be removed from the playlist if preferred. Overall I’m very impressed with what got included.
Having discussed everything I still feel very torn about this game. The attachments I gained with the characters ensures that the experience will stay with me and I will be back to revisit, but at the same time I really don’t think I can recommend it. If you have Game Pass it will still be around for a couple of days at time of writing, but when it leaves it is currently £16.74 to buy at full price and I just don’t think that is a good value proposition for what is here. If you really want to try it, I’d suggest waiting for it to drop below £10 in a sale. I’ll be buying it full price to support the developers as I can’t help liking it but I know many won’t be willing to do so and I completely understand. The best parts of this game can seen for significantly less stress through videos and streams and that is the unfortunate truth of it.
That being said, if they were ever willing to do a sequel that handles better, or even just an improved version of this game I would be all on board to try it.