Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken has already won numerous awards as a browser-based Flash game, so it's unsurprising to see the fowl-fuelled action platformer replicate that kind of winning mentality on PlayStation 3. For those unfamiliar with the burgeoning bird-laden series, it centres upon the activities of the stone-cold Coq Of War — a kind of anthropomorphic action hero — in his pursuit of the evil dictatorous penguin Putzki.
Loosely based upon the browser game, Hardboiled Chicken introduces a number of new mechanics including additional levels, cut-scenes and a wholly separate co-operative mode that emphasises the plight of a mercenary group of Budgies tasked with the rescue operation of the General's foxy daughter.
But of course, running on the PlayStation 3, developer Ratloop Asia's also taken to totally overhauling its graphical technology. Hardboiled Chicken is a stunning game, running at a silky smooth 60 frames-per-second in high-definition. But it's the game's unusual camera position that makes it such an attractive visual tour-de-force. Taking advantage of various foreground and background layers, Hardboiled Chicken utilises shallow polygonal objects to give each two-dimensional frame a kind of three-dimensional diorama illusion. The effect really pops when combined with a compatible stereoscopic television, but it looks stunning on a standard high-definition display too, with Hardboiled Chicken's uncomfortable dictatorship environments brought to life with the developer's adept and unusual art-direction.
But it's not just the art-direction that gives Hardboiled Chicken such an uncomfortable flavour. This is a bizarre game with an unusually thought-provoking campaign that's capable of invoking a variety of emotions during its six-eight hour running time. The game's tone shifts between humour and flagrant psychadelica, as a variety of music video-esque cut-scenes — complimented by audio produced by independent "alternative space rock group" New World Revolution — depict the history of Hardboiled Chicken and add context to the narrative.
At times the game feels like it's trying to raise some ethical questions, as the protagonist's biography narrates his transformation from sadistic lackey through to hardboiled hero — but it's really hard to appreciate the emotional sentiment when you spend much of the campaign grotesquely murdering a variety of clones (based on the very same biological components as yourself) and similarly brain-washed patroling penguins.
But thankfully we're not judging Rocketbirds based on the emotional undertones of its narrative, but rather as a video game. And in spite of a few niggling issues, Ratloop's concocted something that's rather remarkable.
Playing with a DualShock 3 is instantly much more accessible than with a mouse and keyboard, with the Coq Of War's abilities easily replicated across the PlayStation 3's various inputs. Movement is smooth and snappy, with the Circle button allowing you to quickly switch between a standing and crouched stance. The latter of which enables the protagonist to move quickly in a kind of rolled position, providing entry to previously inaccessible vents as well as a method of escaping oncoming fire-power.
You'll happen upon a variety of different weapon types during Rocketbirds single-player campaign, each of which helps to keep the action feeling fresh and unfamiliar. Combat is straight-forward but fun, with the R1 button used to unleash a flurry of bullets at your foes, sending them into a mid-flight hover which allows you to ruthlessly juggle their carcass for as long as you feel necessary. Ammunition is fairly restricted, so you're encouraged to be smart with your weapon usage, but it's undeniably satisfying watching a Putzki controlled foe float in mid-air while your bullets prompt an explosion of feathers and gore.
The combat can get frustrating when you're flanked from both sides, with the stopping power of the enemy's weapons making it difficult to adjust your positioning if you're not prepared. The sometimes stickiness of the controls can lead to issues in a number of the game's combat encounters, but thankfully its checkpoint system is competent enough to alleviate some frustration.
Outside of the combat you'll spend much of your time in Hardboiled Chicken collecting key cards and pushing blocks in order to solve a variety of traversal puzzles. The game's level design is particularly smart, with small sandbox environments allowing you to experiment and naturally happen upon solutions rather than be guided by the game.
Similarly, a really neat mechanic involving brain-occupying bugs allows you to assume the role of any of your foes and use them for combat or puzzle solving. It can be a bit obvious when you need to utilise a foe's body as the game will constantly respawn enemies until you get the job done, but there's a real sense of achievement attached to the game's simple but efficient puzzle design.
Rocketbirds is brilliantly paced making it the kind of game you can finish in a single-sitting. It manages to split its running time between puzzles, action and platforming, keeping a good sense of variety throughout. Some levels see the Coq Of War utilise his jet-pack to attack a variety of Putzki's zeppelins, each of which culminate in a high-octane romp through the interior of the airship before it explodes. This all concludes in an explosive finale to the game which we won't spoil here, but it's worth looking forward to.
The dialogue moves between the demented to the laugh-out-loud hilarious, with some of the neatest quips passed between guards when you've assumed their body. "Hey Earl, you look different today," queried one guard before we unloaded a handful of ammo into his head. Other guards exclaim fatigue at their dead-end career. The game tip-toes a weird tone all the way through to its conclusion, with the dark humour adding some respite to the game's underlying sombre tone.
The game's moodiness is emphasised through its art-style, which depicts bland, industrialist architecture. It's colourful in places, but it never really stops being sombre, regardless of whether you're atop a building overlooking a blue-sky, or in a noir subway. The game's art direction is powerful, and its comic-book panel-like scenes are always beautifully framed.
Like some of the best PlayStation Network titles, Rocketbirds has an artistic edge. And while it's much more upfront about its intentions than the likes of Limbo and Flower, it is no less convincing.
Adding to the longevity of the package is Hardboiled Chicken's co-operative mode. Unfortunately this is limited to local multiplayer only, but it's a fully featured compliment to the single-player experience. Here you're able to choose from a variety of armed budgies, and must work together in order to locate a missing VIP — the General's head-turning daughter. The budgies lack some of the abilities of the Coq Of War, but make up for it by working together — for example being able to climb on each other's back in order to navigate higher jumps. The co-op mode recycles much of the artwork from the main campaign, but it's makes good use of the game's mechanics and significantly extends its replayability.
Elsewhere collectable tokens and a full roster of trophies — including a Platinum — give the game plenty of content. But even though you'll probably be done with both of Rocketbirds' campaigns within ten-or-so-hours, this is a heavily recommended downloadable experience. The game's unusual, inexplicable tone, mixed with its vibrant art-style and memorable puzzle design make it something of a surprising tour-de-force. Wonderful pacing and a wide variety of mechanics and settings make Rocketbirds a difficult game to put down, and even though it's over a little too quickly, we daresay we'll return in the future just to give its unique campaign another look.