A strange and inky crow-like creature rampages across the land, burning and killing all. A strange dreamlike world crumbles, and a nonsense vocal chorus summons fresh defenders to the field. Black Bird, latest from Onion Games (Million Onion Hotel, Dandy Dungeon) is a trip. While it arrived a little earlier on Switch, it feels only right that this strange little shmup makes its PC debut today, as it feels a bit like Sega's old Fantasy Zone if it were directed by 90s Tim Burton. Wrap your head around that as you watch the ferociously fowl trailer below.
While I've not yet finished a run through Black Bird, it feels like a game designed for score-chasers. It's a horizontally scrolling shooter with free Defender-like movement. Each level tasks you to guide your bubble-spitting bird monster through the sky to destroy a number of marked targets. Additional damage is more than encouraged, as rapid destruction cranks up your point multiplier, and the scoreboards are highly contested. At the end of each of the four (fairly short) stages, you fight a weird and wonderful boss. The first three are easy, but the last one requires focus.
What really sets the game apart is its look, sound and musical integration. Each level has its own palette, but the game is mostly dark and sepia-tinged. Bullets tend to be brighter, more easily processed colours and your bird only takes damage if hit in the eye. It's readable, which lets you spend a few mental cycles taking in the strange sights, and the amazing music. A bombastic vocal nonsense chorus accompanies the action, and enemy formations spawn around you in time to the music, allowing you to predict when certain threats will appear despite its levels being non-linear.
Given another couple tries I'm certain I can beat Black Bird's initial run of four levels, although I gather there's a harder mode unlocked later, accompanied by more strange story vignettes between stages. From what I have played, it feels like it's conditioning me to push harder every time. Powerups fade in value over time, so you rush to grab them, and combo multipliers degrade unless you push the offensive. While none of its bullet patterns are especially hellish or hard to avoid, the push to aggression makes them challenging - it's a fun balancing act, and a treat to see and hear.
Black Bird is out now on Steam, and costs £15/€20/$20.