Review: Rocketbirds 2 - Evolution

Hot off the success of their 2012 release Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken, Ratloop Asia returns with its action packed followup. Retaining the previous game's focus on 2D run-and-gun action, this sequel brings a variety of improvements to the table, including larger levels, refined mechanics and an overall more polished experience. But in a long-lived, well-established, genre crowded with competitors, does it showcase enough polish to shine brighter than the rest?

Title: Rocketbirds 2 - Evolution (Review Copy Provided)
Developer: Ratloop Asia
Platform: PS4
Release Date: April 21st, 2016
Players: 1
MSRP: USD$19.99
Disclosure: Limited experience with multiplayer

Rocketbirds 2 follows the exploits of one Hardboiled Chicken - a gravel-voiced, shotgun-wielding action hero caricature. Centered around the hunt for Putzki, a rotund and incompetent penguin dictator, the game's single-player side contains approximately five hours worth of action. Featuring hails of gunfire from an extensive arsenal, a fully-voiced comedic plot, and music from returning indie rock act New World Revolution, it's certainly an improvement upon the first game's limited scope. On top of this is a new co-op multiplayer mode, allowing up to four players to blast their way through missions, collect loot, and upgrade weapons and gear in a separate campaign.

Built around a twin-stick control scheme, the player will mainly be clearing the games' large levels of a variety of bird-brained enemies, as most will seal off any room exits upon spotting intruders. Whenever the gunfire dies down, however, one will have to revel in the time-honoured tradition of hunting down coloured key cards to unlock a troublesome door. The game also allows players to take over control of certain enemies via their smartphones in order to open doors, trigger mechanisms, or just blow their former comrades away.

Rocketbirds 2 Gameplay 1 Images courtesy of Ratloop Asia

The game's visual style is quite striking, balancing the whimsical cartoon styling of the characters with highly-detailed 3D backgrounds. The backgrounds in particular are a visual highlight, with the perspective changing dynamically depending on the player character's position on the screen - clearly designed to take advantage of the game's 3D depth support. The game's comedic efforts are also reflected here, with twisted caution signs and visual cues reminiscent of the Oddworld series, if a bit tamer.

The audio design is competent, with the game's soundtrack carrying most of the weight. The fuzzy guitar tones, dance-oriented synth beats, and psychedelic lyrics make for a bizarre match with the game's aesthetic at best, though the dissonance was quite apt in certain segments. The sound design is rather by-the-book, however - the shotguns sound like shotguns, toxic sludge sounds like toxic sludge. Everything sounds as one would expect, which is a slight shame considering the game's ludicrous setting.

Rocketbirds 2 Gameplay 2 Images courtesy of Ratloop Asia

For all that is likeable about Rocketbirds 2, however, there is more that is disappointing. While the game's controls and mechanics are arguably solid, there simply isn't much else to them. Gun play is serviceable, but also quite shallow and weightless. The aiming reticule is positioned very close to the player character, making long-distance shots a matter of guesswork rather than skill. Puzzle aspects like hunting for key cards and enemy mind-control have been explored in a far more satisfying manner by games long past, while any thrill the platforming might provide is taken out of the equation with only a finicky double-jump and near-harmless environmental hazards to worry about. The game does a fair amount, but much like the sound design, it does it all a bit too by-the-book.

Improvements over the first game come off as mostly hollow. The arsenal of weapons is promising, yet it is neutered due to its management via an awkward inventory system. Only two weapons can be equipped at any time, and for the most part one slot will be occupied by an item required for enemy mind-control. This means the majority of the weapons will likely gather dust while the player relies on their most recent option, as most weapons simply behave as more powerful versions of earlier ones. Ammunition is plentiful to the point of it being irrelevant, with the exception of a handful of late-game weapons. Levels are larger and more intricate, but aside from a few secret smiley faces and key items, there isn't much reason to explore aside from hunting down more enemies to slaughter.

Rocketbirds 2 Gameplay 3 Images courtesy of Ratloop Asia

Frustrations come to a head further into the game, as the difficulty spikes dramatically about half-way through. Enemy placement becomes sadistic, with enemies that immobilise the player teaming up with snipers armed with health-vaporizing laser cannons, not to mention tiny kamikaze swarm enemies. The game also tries to mix things up with "shmup-like" interstitials, first involving scuba gear, then a jet-pack. The former is a nice change of pace, while the latter is a teeth-clenching exercise in keeping one's machine gun trained on hyperactive mosquitoes, all the while mashing the boost button and praying that an endless swarm of homing missiles miss their mark.

All this is topped off by the narrative, which is about as shallow as the gun play. The action is complemented by a fully-voiced cast of characters, both friend and foe, who frequently bring gameplay screeching to a halt in order to deliver badly-paced comedic dialogue that falls flat on its face. The occasional one-liner may bring on a slight smile, but for the most part the writing simply isn't good enough to warrant sitting through the often stilted and awkward exchanges. In a way, this is the most disappointing aspect of the game, as the humorous take on time-old action movie tropes could have offered a way for the game to stand out from the pack.

Rocketbirds 2 Gameplay 4 Images courtesy of Ratloop Asia

Sadly, that isn't the case, and as a result, Rocketbirds 2 is an average run-and gun platformer in a crowd of average run-and-gun platformers. While it is an improvement over Ratloop's first offering, and the presentation is charming enough, the game's lackluster mechanics and their awkward implementation make it hard to appreciate, let alone finish. It's a hard game to recommend when far better examples of the genre are available on the same platform - both new and old.

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Audio engineer, sound designer, composer, writer. Hosts a burning passion for the games and audio circuitry of old. Die-hard shmup/STG addict.
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