Review: Of Bird and Cage
If there’s one thing that I dig about the breadth of human creativity, it’s the willingness to smoosh two things together and hope that it works. Comic books are notorious for crossover events happening on a fairly regular basis. But movies, video games, and music are also rife with plenty of examples of cross pollination with elements that one generally doesn’t expect to see in their given space.
Did you ever want the Justice League to fight evil with the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers? That’s a thing that exists. Comedic movies with a horror twist? Sure, I’ll watch some Zombieland. Make a rhythm game segment in your platforming game while also staying true to the platforming mechanics? I’d be happy to listen to a goofy version of the 22.214.171.124’s “Woo Hoo” in Rayman Legends. The possibilities go about as far as you can imagine, and more often than not the mere idea is enough to pique interest.
One such combination that I wasn’t quite expecting to see here was the opportunity to play what’s being touted as a playable symphonic metal album. The concept alone had me interested, but part of me also wondered how this was going to work. Where is the focus, will everything mesh, and will the experience be a worthwhile one by the time the credits roll? Budget, skill, and proper execution are obvious factors. Whether or not it’s all going to come together is another matter entirely.
Developed by Capricia Productions and published by All In Games, Of Bird and Cage is available on PC via Steam as of May 20th, 2021.
Lost in Myself
Before I started this up, I was warned that this game would touch on some pretty heavy topics. You know, the kind that usually involve substance/physical abuse and the like. Those warnings gave me pause at first. But I’m just going to be honest and say that by the time that the credits rolled, I couldn’t have cared less about this story at all.
The story focuses on the life of Gitta, who we quickly find out had and is leading a life of misery. When the game opens, she’s a preteen in the midst of a traumatic event involving her parents. With her alcoholic father being the instigator, this brief but traumatic moment unsurprisingly scars her for obvious reasons.
Flash forward to her mid-twenties, and her fortunes haven’t exactly changed for the better. Her dad is still a walking trash bag, she works at a shitty diner under a shitty boss, she longs to make a life for herself in music, and to top it all off she’s hopelessly addicted to a designer drug called GSBV that causes her to vividly hallucinate if she doesn’t get her next fix from her dealer. Big surprise, her dealer is a piece of shit too. To top it all off, she goes through the game perpetually wearing her apron. It’s a weird touch.
What generally follows from here isn’t a straight line thanks to a choice-based system implemented through gameplay, but the results that follow never feel especially deep. In fact, most anything that happens story-wise is skin deep at best. I shouldn’t be surprised that a music-focused game would have a storyline that befitting of music videos seen in the mid 2000s, but I find myself underwhelmed anyway. Certain beats in the story make sense as things unfold, but more often than not that lack of depth left my investment in what was going on low.
Even with what amounts to a feature-length film in terms of runtime, it all feels super shallow. While the aforementioned abuses on display are prevalent, there’s no real room to develop it. Everything unfolding in front of you has a choice, yes. But really it just feels like you’re wading from one depressing scene to another with no effort to give it room to breathe. Even the more shallow theatre productions have some level of investment with what’s going on with the story. Here, it just exists.
Lucidity and Lack of Tranquility
When you think of the concept of playing what amounts to a rock opera, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Do you think of something more like a rhythm game in the vein of Rock Band, or maybe something more third-person with musical elements that lead into music video-style cutscenes? While it’s definitely not a game that requires plastic instruments, the latter gets swapped out with a first-person perspective and throws in gameplay elements that don’t quite mesh with everything else.
The first-person perspective isn’t quite the issue here. It’s more that when you get into core gameplay, none of it feels especially cared for. Oftentimes you’ll find yourself wading through one set piece to the next just doing things that make sense in context, but aren’t the most engaging despite several moments presented as pretty exciting. Don’t be expecting gameplay on the level of Skyrim here, most of this stuff is super simplistic. Sometimes it involves solving puzzles, other times it can be dull chase sequences, and occasionally the conveyance for some of these things aren’t exactly clear. Even when the game basically encourages you to seek out and take the drug in question to keep things on an even keel, that part only feels like a mild annoyance. Weird as that is to say, the mechanic itself is inconsequential at best.
What makes this even worse is that the bulk of these segments are time limited. So if for some reason you can’t quite figure out what’s going on quickly enough, the game just presses on regardless. Though the inverse can be said as well when it gives you a fair amount of leeway for the more complex sequences. If you find yourself stuck in one of these segments and are lost for whatever reason, you’ll be doing a lot of lingering around. Not exactly something that instills a lot of confidence in the player. But when environment design leaves a lot to be desired and you’re finding yourself at a loss on how to proceed, something was definitely lost in translation here.
Even with core gameplay being what it is, the Telltale-esque choice system does steer where the story goes. Really, it depends on how much you care about it. The whole thing is pretty binary, and the story will progress whether or not you succeed, fail, or make a positive or negative decision for the person in question. Again, it just doesn’t feel like there’s any weight to these decisions anyway. Sure, some of them might be in the midst of something self-destructive or even exciting at times. But with all of these opportunities to feel like an active participant, it often doesn’t feel like anything you do holds any sort of real significance. Top that off with the occasional glitch, and the gameplay gets a hearty shrug from me.
Crunchy Operatic Bits
Laying eyes on this game is kind of a weird sight to behold. First impressions were mixed, because it does make an effort to at least let a little bit of some artistic flourish shine through. Sometimes things can get a bit esoteric, but any sort of graphical style the developers were going for here just comes off as punching under its weight and looking somewhat doughy as a result. I mean, the human models definitely look human, but oftentimes it felt like the uncanny valley was on speed dial. Lump in the fact that the animations don’t always feel all that natural when pushed up against the music video aesthetic they’re going for, and you might end up having some prime meme content on top of that. Ultimately, it isn’t god-awful. But it does feel like the developers were working within the budget they had. Thankfully, decent PC builds will run at a decent framerate. So there’s that.
But really, the star here is the soundtrack. I’m no music theory guy, but it definitely feels like this is where they put most of their effort and probably budget as well. When you get names like Ron Thai (previously of Guns ‘n’ Roses), Rob van der Loo (Epica), and other people from that scene, you’re gonna get at least something that’s pleasing to the ear. Especially if metal’s your thing.
Musically speaking, this is not a bad listen at all. True to the genre, you get plenty of heavy guitar riffs, competent drumming, occasionally heavy bass, and good vocal stylings. While the lyrical content does get to be plot specific at times, it does feel like something you’d come across turning the dial to your local metal station or flipping through a random playlist on your streaming service of choice. Would I listen to it regularly? Metal isn’t quite my bag these days, but I wouldn’t protest it.
Really, I wish the graphical presentation matched up with the musical side of things. The effort is there at the very least, but in execution one doesn’t do the other that much justice. Which does disappoint me a little bit, because the amount of effort put into the music seems to far exceed what was possible on the graphical side of things. It’s a bit conflicting, because it definitely feels uneven when in motion.
Lost My Mind
The thing that gets me with Of Bird & Cage is that it feels like a missed opportunity. This is one of the rare instances where I feel better about the effort put into the music than I do anything else presented here. That said, everything else surrounding this game doesn’t really do the music justice. I can’t call it a rhythm game, because it’s not trying to be one.
Instead, the aim of basically making you an active participant in what amounts to a drawn out and disjointed music video doesn’t really work. Mechanically speaking, the first-person gameplay is poorly thought out and almost superfluous to the experience. The effort here wasn’t something I wanted to power through multiple playthroughs for just to see different endings. The story is not only lacking depth, but the themes of substance/physical abuse are used as a prop to accent how Gitta’s life of misery leads her into predictable directions and have been done to death. The clear star of the show here is the album in question. It definitely nails the symphonic metal aim that the developers were going for, and should be able to pass the sniff test for several metal fans that are into that genre.
But really, Of Bird and Cage is a really hard sell. It’s not only the kind of game that you can finish in an afternoon, it’s also the kind that doesn’t leave much of an impression on you after the fact. While it’s able to roll down the road, it’s doing so holding things together with zip ties and a dream. It’s the kind of hot mess where the best experience would be to just give the album a listen on Spotify, because everything else just doesn’t do it justice.
Review copy provided by All In Games for Steam. Screenshots taken by reviewer.