Skatebird is simultaneously a homage to the Tony Hawk games of old and a celebration of just how stupid birds can be. It's the arcadey kind of kickflipper, handling more like THUG than a Skate game. But don't expect the truly smooth flow of the Hawkster's outings. There's plenty of wobbly physics on show here, much of it intentional and jokey (as you'd expect from a game that seems to have resulted entirely from a single pun). But some of it perhaps not. Still, it's hard to hate on these feathery ones when they squawk so pure, and when their taste in music is im-peck-able.
Didn't like that bird joke? Well, maybe this game isn't for you. There are a bunch of canaries, eagles, gulls and budgies who give you missions and tasks to perform, and they are not serious birds. So buckaw up. We have Session and Skater XL for our kickflip realism. Instead, this is about being a pigeon on a piece of plywood, collecting letters to the word M O N E Y because an investment banker cockatoo said it's important. Even a trailer announcing the game's delayed release date couldn't help itself.
With that tone firmly established, you get to doing ollies and flip tricks in a somewhat recognisable way. On an Xbox controller (you should use one) you hold down A and release to perform an ollie, then tap other buttons and the left thumbstick to perform a trick. There are flips, grabs, plants, grinds, mid-air ollies... wait, mid-air ollies?
This is basically a double-jump, a little flap-flap after you've already hopped. It gets you some extra air, nothing too outrageous, but it comes in handy if you need to leap over a discarded sock. You are tiny after all, and skating amid the pizza boxes or grinding the cereal bowls of your unseen human companion can result in a nasty fall. That's okay. Just press a button to get back up, or you can slap down a "reset" point anywhere, then warp back there with a button touch. It's a forgiving faller.
Your fellow birds are scattered around each level. They'll ask you to noseplant on quarter pipes to clean up soda cups, or roll around attaching balloons to a blanket to open up a new area. Other quests might ask you to collect the letters for the word L E G S, or "screm at the floor ten times". Please understand, this is not a spelling error. You can press a button to "screm". It makes your bird squeak and flap its wings. It works even when you have fallen off your board, turning the game into a sort of avian tantrum simulator.
"This game got birbs who bad at worbs. I know that style of writing will grate for some, but I have yet to tire of rare animals being adorable buffoons."
More importantly, a screm counts as a trick, so the game actually encourages you to squawk like crazy between ramps and rails to keep your combo going. This combo system includes a little counter in the corner, pressuring you to keep up the pace. Do enough neat tricks and you'll fill a bar that says "FANCY", giving you more speed. You'll need that to reach certain heights more easily, or skate up larger verts. How do you animate chubby birds on a skateboard? The answer is you animate the board, and simply let the birds flap in a panic.
All in all, there's nothing too complicated about any of it. There are 5 levels (that I can see so far) and you've got to complete all the quests on each level to unlock new skate parks. It's all tied together with a story about helping your human, known to all as "Big Friend", and there's some fun dialogue to push you along, encompassing the classic "animal as moronic but loyal friend" memery of the internet age, complete with grammatical idiocy. This game got birbs who bad at worbs. I know that style of writing will grate for some, but I have yet to tire of rare animals being adorable buffoons.
The novelty of actually performing each quest becomes diluted quickly, though, once you realise most of them are variations on "collect 6 thingies" or "touch these points". The more fun quests, I found, were those that gave you a list of tricks to perform in certain places, or even the simpler ones that tasked you with getting a high score within a certain area, inciting you to try out crazy combos using one set of ramps. By contrast the most braindead quests include "find this hidden item", which is just about rolling around on the lookout for a spinning object. An aggravating exercise when the camera has a depth-of-field effect that blurs everything further than a couple of human meters away.
I couldn't find a way to turn that effect off, which is odd, because the options are otherwise quite good. Controls are customisable to a surprising degree, and you can turn off the balancing minigame that appears when you perform a manual or start a grind, for example. There's an option to increase the "bird level", which makes dialogue even more nonsensical, going all the way to 11, where it becomes incomprehensible birbese. There's a tick box next to that setting that changes the dialogue to skater boi flavour. If Skatebird should be praised for anything, it is unstoppable dedication to the bit. This is the birb life.
You can customise your bird by giving them a beanie, a wizard's hat, or a bunch of other stuff. A pair of sunglasses, a belt, a camera. There are 38 species of bird to choose from, which is impressive given the trend in games to have two body types and three skin tones. All the birds are more or less the same height but their shapes, colours, beaks and feathers change. I'm fond of the Pigeon's simplicity but the Rose Breasted Grosbeak and Spectacled Owl are fashionable fellas. The dressing up screen is great. It's like a Met Gala for magpies.
But it's not as great as the music. Damn. Having just come from Deathloop's clever dynamic jazz, I didn't expect to like another game's soundtrack so much so quickly. Especially one that's so obsessed with fowl. These beats are funky, lo-fi hip hop with samples of bird facts from old-timey commentators spliced between chill twangs and the odd record scratch. I was bopping my head the whole time. There are also some appearances from bands which fill the ska and punk rock demands of people who still listen to Goldfinger's Superman in their thirties (it me). In short, even if you don't like the game, I'd recommend the soundtrack in a hummingbird's heartbeat.
As for the game as a whole, I'm hesitant to outright recommend it to die-hard skate simmers. Even Tony Hawk fans will find the skating here a little floaty, a little cranky. The intentional physics-wonk makes it a skateboard game that feels purposefully designed to be a bit loopy to handle. I can respect that, but I'm also a disciple of the OlliOlli games, which have controls tighter than a big rivet. So even I find myself fighting the clumsiness of Skatebird. And I especially dislike the Vaseline camera lens (I thought hawks had excellent eyesight?)
Despite those reservations, I'm won over by the birds themselves. I haven't unlocked all the levels yet but I'll crack on to help Big Friend. My hands may never adapt to the precise gravity of these joyful idiots. But bailing as a sparrow is relatively painless. With time, I will become unflappable.
Disclaimer: Occasional RPS contributor Xalavier Nelson Jr did some writing for Skatebird. Which explains a lot.