Typically when writing a review I’ll put on some music that is a little metal or rock to get in the right mindset, that sweet spot where I can just switch off and let my thoughts out into words. When describing what you’re feeling about a visual novel you’ll be surprised how well the Doom soundtrack helps with the creative process. Why the look behind the curtain for this review? I found this is the first game in almost a year to make me change my own soundtrack to get in the right head-space. Behind-the-scenes moment aside; It’s time to put on some Hatsune Miku and tell you if Songbird Symphony is worth the switch to J-pop.
Songbird Symphony is a hybrid of light 2D platforming, puzzle and music rhythm all played with the cutest chick ever. Birb may have an annoyingly stupid name but his personality, story and animations are a wondrous thing to experience. Stages consist of large explorable areas with slightly too fast and slippery controls, progressing through the surroundings and talking to the colourful birds that populate each area. The closest thing it feels to is Sonic the Hedgehog on the SEGA Master System, not that this is too much of a bad thing. The most platforming you’ll be doing is simple stuff, exploring or typically pushing blocks in a puzzle. Everything is laid out in such a way that you’ll easily get through the main game without any issues. Birb can glide and jump crazy high which makes navigating the areas a breeze and delight.
After you’ve explored, solved the find the missing item and push the block to press a switch puzzles, you have the music rhythm section to enjoy. Birb uses the same notes to communicate to others and move music based platforms but also uses the same notes for the music sections and this helps you memorize the audio notes than the visual queues. Each song starts with karaoke sing along lyrics and the gameplay across all the different styles is a cross between DDR and Elite Beat Agents. Each song has the character sing a line using notes on their instrument and then you replay those notes back in the same way. There are different mechanics to change up how the notes are fired at the indicators and you unlock a new button and note through each stage. Once the song is over Songbird Symphony grades you but it’s incredibly generous and despite being ludicrously difficult (at times that come close to a Dark Souls reference) you can’t fail. There’s no way to fail at Songbird Symphony. No way to fail at anything.
I’ll just let that sink in. There is no fail condition, no game over, no falling into a pit and dying or repeating the song over because you missed 124 notes. It just carries on and gives you a higher grade if you did well. It takes a lot of getting used to and once you realise this, the pace entirely shifts. You’re no longer rolling your eyes at the song lyrics that take a little too long and you start to enjoy them more knowing that you won’t have to repeat them to clear the stage if you fail. You fall off a platform into lava? Don’t worry you’ll just bounce back as it’s actually jelly. Can’t solve a puzzle because a block fell down? No problem! Just stand on that really obvious undo button until everything goes back into place. It’s such a refreshingly accessible experience that reflects its heartwarming story.
The characters in Birb’s story are fairly cliche but the story it’s telling is so well written and the animation so incredibly detailed that you won’t care. There are plenty of amazingly well made moments, from Michael Jackson dancing penguins to a twerking peacock. Before you know it, you’ll forget it’s just a simple tale being told. Everything fits nicely and the text is easy to read throughout with some absolutely golden dialogue. Songbird Symphony only really lets itself down when the music systems start introducing new mechanics with little warning. What starts off as interesting ways to have music notes hit in time becomes more frustrating as you have to quickly adapt to new ways of hitting notes with a seconds warning. The final song goes off the rails with the screen shaking and fast paced notes making it an incredibly messy affair and getting the timing right is less of a challenge and more a grossly unfair endurance. On large loud songs getting a resulting B grade at the end of a stage because you couldn’t hear the tambourine when it was your turn to press the buttons makes it that little bit annoying.
Unfortunately wonky music mechanics aren’t the only annoyance. Each area has its own piece of music that loops round and round with the ability to improve the track with other instruments by finding and completing tasks and unlocking more notes. The problem is when you’re struggling to find a note to add an instrument that looping music can grate on you as it loops over and over. Some puzzles become far more frustrating when you slightly miss a note to move a platform and have to redo from the start. When this is topped off with some frustrating moments in songs that get progressively more difficult this should make everything a total write off but what sets Songbird Symphony apart is that after a little moment of frustration you’ll find something that just makes you laugh and all that annoyance melts away. It’s not perfect but that’s kinda the point.
Songbird Symphony is an incredible experience that’s the perfect length for a story like this. Finishing the story gives you access to the song compendium which is a basic level of platforms that allows you to replay the songs in each level for higher grades without searching through the world for them to replay. There are feathers hidden away in secret areas that you have to either pair with birds you’ve met before or find hidden away. It’s nothing too taxing but it’s enjoyable enough to do and despite the warning before the last stage you can still revisit a large quantity of the game to see them after the end credits roll.
To make up for the lack of a fail option and give the gameplay challenge the difficulty curve in Songbird Symphony is pretty steep even if it is gradual. The music sections can be just too difficult with no chance to get to grips with the notes that are to be pressed in time to the beat. Songbird Symphony has incredible animation and character design but yet a few areas of sporadic nothingness. Often I’d kill for a mini map of the area I was in and yet there was never technically a reason for one as it was easy enough to find everything and exploring the area is half the battle. It’s an experience that gets a little frustrating for stupid reasons and then cheers you on for equally adorable but stupid reasons. The story has such heart throughout it’s difficult not to be sucked in.
There’s a lot to love about Songbird Symphony but it has to come with a few caveats. The final boss with its shaky camera and cluster of notes is a great summary of the problems the game has and yet every single boss battle is a masterclass in what a boss fight is supposed to be; Challenging you on everything you’ve learnt from the stage, up until that point and being rewarded for resolving it. Songbird Symphony at it’s core is a wild ride about acceptance, learning never to trust predatory hunting birds and indirectly how music can heal almost anything. Don’t worry too much about the notes you miss and you’ll have a blast.
8/10 – Everybody’s heard about the birb! Birb, Birb, Birb, b-birb’s the word
*Review code provided by PQube – Check them out here!*
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