Of Bird and Cage Review: Meagre Metal Misfire (PC)

Of Bird and Cage is a narrative-driven game mixing first-person shooter, environmental puzzle, walking-simulator, driving, platformer, and boxing mechanics - all hammered into the shape of a roughly two-hour-long metal album. A valiant effort by a fledgeling studio with some serious star-power providing tunes to match. But, how does it all fit together?

Of Bird and Cage Review: Meagre Metal Misfire (PC)

Metalheads may already be familiar with a particular type of music video, which became more common with the advent of new metal and its offshoots. The one where a kid battered by life’s harsh circumstances struggling through everyday abuse undergoes a dramatic transformation. That setup would then veer into some sort of escape or revenge fantasy. These typically end with the kid getting back at parents, classmates, or teachers, and in rare instances, feature a tragic twist near the ending.

Of Bird and Cage is the first-person video game equivalent of that kind of music video cranked up to 11 and stretched to album length. For an indie experiment, it’s an interesting idea. It would be great to see more studios try to do something similar because, in terms of execution, Capricia Prodictions’ attempt leaves much to be desired.

Developed by newcomers Capricia Productions and published by All in! Games, the indie title launched for PC and Nintendo Switch on the 21st of May 2021.

Of Bird and Cage is available for purchase on Steam for your regional pricing.

Of Bird and Cage | Release Trailer

STORY – RAPID FIRE VAGUENESS

We join our female protagonist at a young age for a brief intro sequence featuring alcoholism, spousal abuse and a generous serving of ham. Growing up in such an environment left the main character craving fame in place of familial affection, so she decided on living the “waitress struggling to start a music career” dream. As far as tragic rags to riches cliches go, she’s well on her way to complete a full starter set. Drug addiction, daddy-issue-induced abusive dealer boyfriend, a naive and submissive demeanour, harmless or innocent puppy-eyes exterior, and so on. In plain English – the perfect victim.

Her name is Gitta. I had to look that up because my mind defaulted to calling her Apron-girl for reasons we will get into later.

Gitta meets her mirror-universe counterpart, both have a thing for aprons

Gitta meets her mirror-universe counterpart, both have a thing for aprons

After what appears to be a chance encounter in a bar, she swaps her sugar/drug-daddy boyfriend for a bearded, grizzled war veteran turned murder-kidnaper. While I’m still fuzzy on the exact nature of this new relationship, it can be called anything but sane or healthy. There was also a bit about a deadly car accident involving the wife of Gitta’s kidnapper, but it all flew by so fast I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. The story branches at the tail end depending on player choices. Your narrative experience will vary somewhat based on how much suffering one might want to put Apron-girl through.

Without giving away any of the possible endings to the plot, none of it’s pretty. Think blood, violence, drug abuse, insanity, and more implied sexual assault than you can shake a switchblade at.

Allusions at narrative parallels with The Beauty and the Beast only fit on a surface level. The developers have put some effort into hinting in that direction but never got too far. The details of the story are somewhat hard to follow, and a decent chunk is filled in through collectables in the form of newspaper snippets and the like.

The two linchpins of the story singing at each other through a door

The two linchpins of the story singing at each other through a door

Gitta’s designer drug habit also led to her having severe hallucinations every time she experiences withdrawal. Of Bird and Cage features these vaguely defined or explained visions as a storytelling tool in a clumsy and inconsistent manner. I assume the idea was to steer the player by weaving some hints into these mirages, but the moment-to-moment gameplay leaves little room to explore drugs and addiction in a meaningful way.

GAMEPLAY – FRANKENSTEIN’S PLAYGROUND

Of Bird and Cage was faced with an uphill battle from the start. The developers wanted the game to play out like a gamified music album. Anything the player actually does has to take place within the duration of individual songs. This leads to a ticking clock situation that looms over every second of the game. Regardless of what the tone, rhythm or pacing of a particular chapter is or should be, tasks have to be performed within a specific timeframe. If not, they are counted as a fail-state. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if player choice, just as much as failure, didn’t lead to one of the four possible endings.

The timer at the bottom of the screen is an ever-present killjoy

The timer at the bottom of the screen is an ever-present killjoy

In other words, unless you complete objectives at an “optimal” and often hectic pace, your ability to actively shape the story on the first run is hampered to the point of absurdity. This is made worse by obtuse level design. A lot of the time, I was stumped by what the game actually wanted me to do and spent entire levels running around confused until the music-timer at the bottom of the screen decided it was time to move on to the next thing. As if to add insult to injury, I would figure it out just in time to see the timer run out before I could execute whatever action was required.

Apron-girl’s movement mechanics didn’t help either. Of Bird and Cage has one of those movement systems where crossing any distance in a rush feels cumbersome, but the protagonist’s shoes turn to roller skates the moment you try moving with any degree of precision. Compounding on this omnipresent bit of clunk, you are expected to perform bare-bones yet somehow still unforgiving boxing segments while simultaneously wrangling with inconsistent footwork.

A fist clearly about to find its target with a bang

A fist clearly about to find its target with a bang

Going one step further, someone thought it a good idea to enable friendly damage for a fight involving several parties. That was the impression I was left with at least, as damage would register with no obvious punch flying my way on screen. I’m not even going into the silliness of a bulky war veteran needing assistance from a half-weight drug addict waitress in a bare-knuckle brawl. We’re in over-the-top music video territory here, so I guess it’s fine.

The game’s locomotion-related issues don’t end there, because brief vehicle sections are thrown into the mix as well. They play out as one would expect by this point – floaty and unresponsive for a bit, then suddenly sensitive to the slightest touch.

Driving straight into the tentacle nightmare on the horizon

Driving straight into the tentacle nightmare on the horizon

As if everything involving player input wasn’t enough of a clunky mess, the developers decided to add a shootout with the police in for good measure. Bullets bounce off invisible obstacles; some enemies can absorb a number of hits that would otherwise put down a rhino, relevant UI elements are so poorly placed they might as well be absent, and Gitta’s apron is apparently as good as kevlar in a firefight.

I haven’t even mentioned the surrealistic dream portions involving a dash of first-person platforming. By now, you can likely picture what those amount to without another word from me.

Then there are the quick-time events. Nothing wrong with quick-time sections if they are used to convey some sort of meaning or add weight to certain actions. Why they would be appropriate for things like downing shots at a bar is beyond me.

The entire bar level is actually just an awkward tutorial

The entire bar level is actually just an awkward tutorial

Interacting with most of these haphazardly thrown-in bits feels like the developers wanted to make sure that Of Bird and Cage doesn’t get labelled as a walking-simulator. The actual implementation of those mechanics makes me wish they left well enough alone. Firmly in walking-simulator territory, the extra time could have gone towards polishing exploration and environmental interaction to a point where they are serviceable, or at least remotely gel with the idea of an “interactive music performance”.

It’s possible that the target demographic for the “game” part of the project was presumed to be unfamiliar with games in general and wouldn’t mind or notice. Perhaps it was assumed that newcomers who were just there for the music would be out of their depth, but then why put a timer on literally everything and add an everpresent sense of urgency? I’ve spent the better part of the last 30 years playing PC games and still struggled with some parts due to incredibly sloppy implementation. How someone just along for the musical component is expected to “do well” on their first run boggles the mind.

A firefight fantastic enough to rival The Matrix

A firefight fantastic enough to rival The Matrix

Most levels took multiple restarts, as I wasn’t happy with the outcome and wanted to see if I can do better. The game would have happily just kept on going regardless of failure. So, it had to be manual restarts. Ignoring the fact that you can’t skip any of the cutscenes on repeat runs, since that would mess with the music tracks in terms of flow and presentation, I’m not sure how my fumbling about affected the ending I got. A lot of completed objectives wouldn’t register with the game either, even after a number of successful attempts.

There was some temptation to go back and play through the whole thing in one go. Unfortunately, Of Bird and Cage had already exhausted any goodwill on my part necessary for that kind of endeavour. I presume that the entire story would play itself out with literally zero input on my part. Just step away from the screen and watch what happens, but that would require sitting through the entire mess again, start to finish – so, no.

Fire appears prominently in Gitta’s withdrawal visions

Fire appears prominently in Gitta’s withdrawal visions

If memory serves, there were only three names listed as testers or QA in the end credits, and it shows. They should have realised that something was wrong when basic tutorial messages started appearing one level after the player was already expected to walk around and execute quick-time events. Assuming you need a tutorial, it belongs in the first level and before asking the player to do anything without knowing how – this is basic.

I have to believe that all of these problems were down to a lack of testing and useful feedback; otherwise, the conclusion has to be that it’s just rushed or sloppy design and even sloppier implementation.

The harsh reality of indie game development

The harsh reality of indie game development

Looking back, there’s more entertainment value in trying to figure out how and what exactly went wrong backstage than there is in actually experiencing any of the game itself. For what it’s worth, I somehow doubt this is the mindset of anyone paying the price of admission.

GRAPHICS AND AUDIO – FACEPLANT STAGEDIVE

Setting aside the fact that a game is supposed to stand on its gameplay since this is an experimental undertaking, Of Bird and Cage relies heavily on aesthetics, tunes and motifs taken from a variety of headbanger subcultures. In theory, they should be able to carry the whole experience. Yet, in practice, they don’t.

There’s no blood involved, but it’s safe to say she’s dead

There’s no blood involved, but it’s safe to say she’s dead

The exaggerated nature of the story requires visuals to match. If this were a musical in a vaguely theatrical sense, then the actors on stage would have to emote and perform with some serious skill and attention to nuances of the already over-the-top elements in play. Since Of Bird and Cage is presented in game form, anything conveyed to the player visually emerges from work done by texture artists, 3D modellers, animators, level designers, etc. Sadly, the ball has been dropped so hard that the bang almost drowns out the music.

Environments are just dry and barren enough to still be confusing to navigate in a rush. Everything on screen has an artificial, drab, and dull quality to it. The detailed texture and fine-comb animation work required to bring the otherwise implausible characters to life just isn’t on display. It looks and moves like a release from 10 years ago, and I’m not sure how much of that can be excused by the fact that it’s an indie project on a budgetary level. Especially considering the involvement of some considerable musical star-power for the genre.

A gun and a magic apron is all it takes for true happiness

A gun and a magic apron is all it takes for true happiness

This goes both for overall fidelity and visual design. For example, the protagonist has a single character model for the bulk of the game – blue jeans, a short red shirt, and that already mentioned apron. It’s hard to ignore after a while, especially since it would have been such an easy piece of clothing to discard at any time. But, this would have meant having a second character model for Gitta without the apron. Or maybe an animated cut-scene of her symbolically ridding herself of the filthy piece of cloth as a sign of character growth or change or something along those lines. But it never happens as far as I can tell.

If this was the amount of effort and consideration put into the appearance and believability of the main character, then it is no surprise to find the same guy, or rather the same character model, hanging around in a bar in the city, as well as in a middle-of-nowhere roadside diner.

The visuals are uninspired, underwhelming, and are only utilised in service of any kind of metaphor or message in the most heavy-handed and frankly boring ways possible. This approach is so consistent throughout that I’m almost tempted to assume it deliberate. But who in their right mind would bore an audience on purpose, especially while metal is playing in the background?

This has to be the creepiest baby I’ve seen in a game in a long while

This has to be the creepiest baby I’ve seen in a game in a long while

It would take some of the negativity burdens this review is packing off my chest if I could claim that the centrepiece soundtrack somehow vindicates Of Bird and Cage. Sadly, it doesn’t.

The entire affair features about two decent tracks, which can both be heard in the game’s trailer. This leads me to believe that all parties involved knew what they had on their hands and decided to promote the game with their best material. Nothing wrong with that, but one shouldn’t go in expecting some sort of musical masterpiece.

Looking at the music alone in album form would make those two tracks the ones that get released as singles, where the rest is akin to filler or runtime padding. Bar a few genuinely impactful tunes, most of it is just “alright”. None of the songs can be considered extreme or only for metal fans. One’s personal music preference shouldn’t be a hindrance in enjoying those moments when the score does briefly shine.

Excellent acoustics, terrible escape route

Excellent acoustics, terrible escape route

There’s no accounting for taste, especially in music. If you have any doubts regarding my metalhead credentials or musical assessment here, you are more than welcome to vent in the comments.

That being said, a game’s soundtrack is only as good as far as it highlights or contextualises gameplay and narrative. Of Bird and Cage does this in a few clever ways on several occasions. Vocals appropriately screaming “RUUUNN!” accompanied by a sudden downpour of riffs and an aggressive drum section, which kicks off a chase sequence. Apron-girl’s hallucinatory platforming adventures have some obstacles and the like synced to the drumbeat of the background song. Such moments are there, but few and far in-between.

No place like fantasy hell-home

No place like fantasy hell-home

All those big-name artists relative to the genre feel somehow wasted on the game they contributed to. It’s possible that there wasn’t enough communication between the musicians and developers. Maybe the idea was to try and forge a game around a metal album while leaving the music as it would have been released usually, without consideration for intricacies, constraints, and practices inherent to games.

In any case, as convenient as it would be for wrapping things up on a positive note, I can’t claim that the music saves Of Bird and Cage by any stretch of the imagination. Diehard fans of some of the artists involved might be able to appreciate it more on a subjective level, but I doubt any of those artists would describe the soundtrack as being among their best work to begin with.

Of Bird and Cage was reviewed on PC, with access provided by Evolve PR.

Summary
Of Bird and Cage is an interesting idea fatally flawed in almost every aspect of its execution. It ultimately fails to reach even “so bad it’s good” status due to poorly thought out and implemented mechanics wrapped in a visual and narrative tedium. Too clunky to appeal to gamers and too incoherent to impress newcomers, it lands nowhere and looks sloppy while doing so. The few moments where everything clicks into place are few and far between.
Good
  • Interesting concept
  • A few catchy tunes
Bad
  • Garbled story
  • Haphazardly implemented mechanics
  • Dated and uninspired visuals
  • Deeply flawed overall design
  • Eternal apron
2
Awful