Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Sports
Developer: Glass Bottom Games
Release Date: Sept. 16, 2021


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PC Review - 'Skatebird'

by Cody Medellin on Sept. 15, 2021 @ 7:00 a.m. PDT

Grind on bendy straws, kick-flip over staplers, and carve killer lines through cardboard and sticky tape parks in SkateBIRD.

Extreme sports games have mostly featured humans, whether it's real-life athletes like Tony Hawk or Dave Mirra or non-descript kids. A few of these games featured anthropomorphic animals, with most of those featuring some very well-known characters, like Goofy and Mickey Mouse. Actual animals in an extreme sports game, however, is unheard of unless you want to point out the likes of Poomba in Disney Extreme Skate Adventure. That changes with Skatebird.

If you're familiar with the controls for Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, you'll be right at home with Skatebird. Actions like the ollie and flip tricks occupy the same buttons, so there's not much to re-learn. The few exceptions include a squawk button that counts as a move, making it perfect to continue a combo in lieu of a manual. Also, there are no d-pad controls, so you'll have to be comfortable pulling off tricks and combos with the analog stick. There is one addition in the form of flapping your wings for extra height and distance on your jumps, so the developers clearly thought of using the titular bird for more than just aesthetics.

When it comes to the levels, Skatebird takes more inspiration from the later Tony Hawk titles. Instead of going for a two- or three-minute run, the stage is open with no timers in place. You can skate around, bust out tricks, find gaps, or pick up collectibles such as new decks and costume pieces. Once you come across another bird, you can complete quests, which do have timers, and the objectives range from simple score attacks and collecting letters to completing specific tasks. The timers are generous, and the tricks range from being super simple to ones that require a great deal of skill, but the game is kind if you fail; you can automatically restart failed quests instead of having to find the quest-giving bird again.

The game nails down the basics quite well, but some elements hurt the experience. That starts with the camera, which works well most of the time but freaks out when it gets close to an object or edge of the stage. Whenever you bail, you respawn at the spot where your bird ends up. That can be great if you're in an open or high spot, but it's problematic if you respawn near a solid object because you'll have trouble getting around it. If you're in the middle of a quest and fall into an abyss, such as from a very tall building, you'll respawn next to the quest-giver. The quests are great and vary in difficulty, but a few can be frustrating since some of the collision detection feels incorrect. One of the key examples is early on, when you are tasked with placing balloons on various parts of a blanket; two of the four spots won't trigger completion until you hit an area relatively close to the indicated location.

There's an overall sense that players are more tolerant of these issues because the game concept and execution are so appealing. The idea of skating around as a pudgy bird is both ridiculous and adorable, especially when you discover that you can customize the bird at any time. You can choose a different species that is a different color but still occupies the same body size. You can throw all sorts of accessories on your little bird, from hats to eyewear to backpacks and belts. A cardinal wearing a bandana, stunner shades and headphones isn't out of the question. That alone earns the game some points for those who love adorable things, especially since bailing makes your bird roll around like a ball.

Aside from the cute factor, Skatebird is appealing to both skating newcomers and those who want a calmer arcade experience. The ability to restart missions after failing them was already mentioned, but the game also has a small navigation arrow to indicate where objectives are located within the level. The levels are small enough that you can easily stumble upon quest-givers, but the map lets you see their locations. There's a speed meter, so you have a fair idea of when you'll get to your top speed, but there's also a meter for combos so you know how much leeway you have before the combo ends and the points are tallied. The balance meter for grinding, stalls and manuals isn't very sensitive, so you can maintain decent balance time since it takes longer to achieve the point where the sensitivity is impossible to counteract.

When it comes to game modes, there's a focus on the single-player game, since there's no multiplayer. You can skate at any of the available parks, but the main focus is on the campaign, which comes with an actual story. You play the role of Birb, a bird in a small flock that happens to love skating. However, you feel bad that the human you affectionately call Big Friend has given up on his love of skating and works a job that he hates, even though it pays the bills. Feeling sad that Big Friend can't play with you guys anymore, you take it upon yourself to remedy the situation.

The addition of a narrative isn't anything new to skating games, but this only adds to Skatebird's plentiful charm. The ending and methods are pretty absurd, but you'll buy into it because of the cast of characters. Between a bird that designs skate parks to a seagull that is tired of birds performing daredevil tricks, you'll find yourself smiling or laughing most of the time. It also helps that the dialogue is all about positive encouragement and doing your best, leaving you with a pretty good feeling overall.

The campaign is decently sized at about six hours, but it can take longer if you go for the collectibles. You'll love completing all of the objectives for fun, and you can take solace in knowing that you don't have to complete everything to reach the end. However, you will lament that there are only five playable levels, and with no park editor in play, it won't be too long before you exhaust everything on offer.

Aside from the misbehaving camera, the presentation complements the game's charm. The various birds look great thanks to the distinct color schemes, even if using the same body structure makes them look too similar after a while. There is a bit of clipping when it comes to some of the costume pieces, like the belts and chains, but we've seen that before in other titles. The limited number of levels look good, and the ones that make clever use of everyday items stand out the most. The texture work is clean enough that you'll want to stop by the magazines, which are used as ramps, to see how far the developers have gone with the bird magazine parody of famous skateboarding magazine, Thrasher. The music is more of a standout, as you may get indie songs covering punk rock and SKA, but the lo-fi hip-hop match the calmness of the game and put you in the right mood.

In the end, Skatebird is a charming but flawed game. The cute characters and strong environments are coupled with a camera system that acts haywire anytime you're near an object. The forgiving respawn system becomes brutal when you return to a spot where you're near an object that is difficult to navigate around. The sometimes-dodgy collision detection can make some quests go on longer than they should. It's still a game worth checking out, but here's hoping that some patches can elevate it into something special.

Score: 7.5/10

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