Take a look at that cover image. Vibrant in its presentation, full of a springtime essence and wondrous energy. The amount of detail to it would suggest a game that understands a variety of different moods and conflicts. One look at a cover like this is almost guaranteed to make an impact—it certainly did with me. Songbird Symphony is graced with a fantastic cover image.
Yet the actual game looks almost nothing like it.
This isn’t to indicate that I think the game pulls a bait-and-switch, but it presents something or an ironic twist to the quality of the whole. Playing through Songbird Symphony has a similar trek to that of a grand epic or adventure tale. Ups and downs permeate the spiritedness of the game like an ever-going metronome. By its end, one is understandably exhausted, though filled with elation at a goal successfully conquered. How much each emotion resonates will depend heavily on what one expects to find here.
To combat any filibuster, the story of Songbird Symphony is, in my view, the game’s strongest point. Many times, especially with indie titles and the like, story tends to take a backseat in developers’ mindsets, either out of a lack of interest or inability to flesh it out properly. These factors could not be said here, as the story is as prominent here as most other aspects. For its efforts, Songbird Symphony allows for some narrative flourish to stick to the mind of the player if others should fail.
It’s a rarity to find a game with a full package of story, gameplay, and visual/auditory gusto, all tied to a family-friendly embodiment. Some have said that this game is Disney-esque, with which I would agree. There’s a sense of magic behind the layers of wholesomeness attributed to the characters in Songbird Symphony. Even if the story is somewhat clichéd, there lies a foundation of commitment to providing an uplifting, simple message of encouragement and togetherness that I appreciated.
One plays as Birb, a birdie who’s adopted into a community of peacocks one fateful day. Through a series of events, Birb becomes enticed with the prospect of finding out who he is really is and where he belongs, aided by the forest’s “wisest” bird, Owl. His journey will take him to a variety of different places, meeting unknown faces and singing/dancing to his heart’s content. It’s typical by the genre’s standards, though provides a character-centric motivation that is never put into doubt.
Characters are what give the story to Songbird Symphony most of its charming quality. Seeing the various relationships between different species and the (occasional) opinion of passersby about the negative situations situated in their communities builds a world that harvests multiple perspectives and personalities. Birb, ever the young optimist, is never one to shy away from what he feels is wrong. He’ll readily help those in need and stand up for those abused by those in power. Even the dialogue, which can easily be smug in its moral positioning, provides some awareness of Birb’s age and inexperience throughout the adventure.
I only wish others characters got the same treatment, though they get much less screentime. Throughout Songbird Symphony, one will travel to an area, meet with a “main” bird, and interact with whatever trouble they have. In this time, Birb meets a collection of different people with personalities that typically clash with others. In some capacity, this could be interpreted as a means of displaying that those with differences can still get along. From a singular perspective, however, it gives a bit of simplicity to others that may fall flat. By its end, I cared about Birb and his plight—and maybe Egbert, a companion met later on—but few others carried similar weight.
Technically, Songbird Symphony is almost as sound as the catchiness of its tunes (to be discussed later). What it wishes to do is easy to identify and easier to settle into. The issue that occurs is that, perhaps, the eager accessibility of the title may have convinced the developers to throw a bone to rhythm-game veterans.
A major component of the game’s gameplay functions is that of rhythm-based button-matching sequences. One is required to hit specific buttons at specific times to match the rhythm of a song or a level’s ambience. Not too complicated. As the adventure continues, new ways to make this sequence as complicated as possible comes to the forefront. To put things into perspective, the final “battle” of the game was an overlong, overreliant mess of different ways to make things difficult. It was only the last of a long line of musical duels that made me wish it were over.
For context, these sequences begin when Birb is face-to-face with a major character that offers for him (or challenges him) to sing as a way of achieving “notes” (more button inputs); necessary to progress the journey. In total, there are eleven or twelve (can’t quite recall) that challenge the player in rhythm-based combat. Of these, those in the beginning aren’t too complex; hit the right buttons at the right time. Later battles will incorporate things like strobe-like buttons that make it hard to see, memory-based inputs, and bunching the notes all together to further test auditory memory. Sometimes battles will incorporate more than one of these, others plaster them everywhere. There’s a bit of a problem with this.
Songbird Symphony isn’t just these rhythm-based battles. The game is also a puzzle-platformer, which actually takes up more time than the musical ballads. To have all sorts of different playstyles wrapped up in one, it makes it more difficult to truly acclimate oneself to the musical side. Initially, I liked the musical duels and thought them fun. When they tried to make things overly complex and added even more button inputs, it got to the point where it vastly overreached my skill level and left me to suffer—the incessant beeps of missed notes. Though, an interesting point is that it never gave the indication that I would fail a challenge (I never tried). Part of me wonders if one can actually lose one of these duels.
Where the musical sections are too complicated, the puzzle-platforming elements are conversely too simple. Seeing as one will spend more time jumping and pushing boxes, I felt there should’ve been different ways to incorporate “pushing boxes.” By the ending areas, the time it takes to collect everything necessary to progress will feel like an eternal drag. Having it end with an over-complicated musical duel only adds to the disappointing concoction.
At the very least, the game performs fairly well. Some gradual signs of slowdown here and there, it generally performed at a good pace and there were rarely times when it felt it didn’t register things. However, I should specify that I played this on PC with an Xbox 360 controller. During musical duels, the up directional key had a nasty habit of not registering a hit. Unsure of whether it was the game or the controller, I’d suggest any incoming players to play with a controller with more precise directional buttons. That loose flow could hamper one’s ability to hit notes correctly.
Graphics & Audio
First, we went up. Then, we went (way) down. Now, we’re trending back upwards. Aesthetically speaking, Songbird Symphony is a really nice-looking, detailed game. Much of the effort is shown in the design of the areas, the specific birds, and the commitment to animation. When one is idle (or spamming the note keys), Birb will start dancing vigorously. Songbird Symphony is one of the most animated pixel games I’ve played in a very long time—perhaps ever. Levels of phenomenal animation in almost every area are part of what makes the story and adventure feel fresh and alive. While the pixel quality itself isn’t too spectacular, it more than makes up for it with how cute and bouncy everything is.
And the sound! Oh, how marvelous it is to play a game where the musical score is more than just convenient background ambience. In Songbird Symphony, almost everything is tuned with specific, unique sounds, from character dialogue to interactable objects. Much like the bounciness of the animation, the sound quality is top-notch, instilling a festive atmosphere at its highest point. Those of all age ranges could get down to some of the beats and rhythms found in this game.
Leaving aside the gameplay aspect of the musical duels, the songs themselves (complete with sing-along lyrics) are fairly memorable and catchy. I’m not sure there was a single song that I didn’t like from an auditory standpoint, providing different versions of cultured flair. Though, my favorite by far was the “main” theme of the game, sung about three (or four?) times throughout the whole game. It even had me emotionally riveted once it was sung at a crucial point in the game, which had me realize how immersed in the story I was. Music is often used to invoke said emotional raptures. Songbird Symphony knows this and uses it to great effect in almost every condition.