It may not be as perplexing as the cause and effect quandary of which came first, the chicken or the egg, but describing PlayStation Vita title Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken by assigning it to a single specific gaming genre may leave you flapping. Take a glance at screenshots and you could be tempted to make incorrect assumptions about its side-scrolling gameplay, therefore it's easier to define Rocketbirds by explaining what it's not.
During its single-player campaign you acquire stronger weapons and a unique enemy mind control ability, which opens up the environment for puzzles, but each of the 15 chapters is a standalone level, so don't expect an expansive Metroidvania exploration title. There is plenty of shooty action, but this is not a relentless arcade bullet fest, like a Contra or Metal Slug run-and-gun game. Speedy accurate platforming is not a focus either, even if it's necessary for escaping from a zeppelin to earn the Hydrogen Run Trophy. Ratloop Asia has created Rocketbirds as a cohesive package; everything gels from its presentation style, through to its pacing and gameplay variety, which staggers 2D action and puzzles between shmup levels.
The story, conveyed through cartoon cut-scenes and in-game speech bubbles, covers a rebellion against an evil totalitarian penguin regime, led by the cowardly Putzki, and Hardboiled Chicken's heroic quest for redemption and revenge. A juvenile sense of humour is apparent throughout, and a running theme of toilet based gags provides light-hearted chuckles. However, despite the cheesy Schwarzenegger mimicked voiceover for enemy boss Brno, this is not a simple 80s action movie plot. The draconian setting of Albatropolis surprises as it delves into darker subject matter. There aren't many games that depict poultry torture, or the enlistment of conquered enemies to create a child army.
Sian Yue Tan, the title's game director, described the experience as a "cinematic platform adventure game". The independent developer has best achieved this by conveying a consistent sense of mood and style, harmonising audio and visual presentation to add impact to story themes. This is exemplified by the incorporation of music by indie rockers New World Revolution, as the lyrical content of a song like 'Illuminate Me' provides a striking match for events in the cut-scenes. There is a sense of atmosphere revealed by contrasting fuzz guitar rock action sequences with quiet moments, which are stripped back to simple sound effects. The croaking frogs and tweeting birds conjure memories of Delphine Software's Flashback. Blood splats on the grimy prison wall in Chapter 5, with sawing sounds and screams of torture, feel reminiscent of the oppressive world of Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee.
Character movement has a direct impact upon control, in a similar manner to a game like Another World, as there is a minor adjustment needed to account for Hardboiled's slower reaction time, and a slight lag between controller inputs and on-screen animations. However, the design of the Hardboiled character, with short stubby legs, doesn't have the finesse of a rotoscoped Delphine hero. The attention to detail for each background, from a rough landing in a jungle, to a rain lashed airfield, and a penguin history museum, evokes a feeling of visual variety. There is also a sense of style throughout; lighting effects may present only silhouettes for one battle, or the action may be viewed behind a glass window for another.
Rocketbirds also incorporates a nifty feature involving tilting the Vita to pan the camera back and forth for a different perspective of the 2.5D parallax backgrounds, which may hark back to the use of stereoscopic 3D on Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken for PlayStation 3. The addition of rear touchpad controls to aim grenades and Brainbugs is not as well implemented, although it's easier to acclimatise with if you are familiar with the PS3 game.
If you were a fan of the PS3 version, the gameplay mesh of side-scrolling action and puzzle solving stages, with a sprinkling of shmup levels, converts well to the portability of the Vita. Ratloop stagger these three gameplay elements successfully, so the flow of the game feels fun and the diversity of its pacing avoids repetition. Frantically burning Hardboiled's jetpack thrusters in the eight-way scrolling shmup sections, each set in a confined area battle against enemy zeppelins, are perfectly positioned throughout the campaign. The way the camera scales back to create space for the shmup sections is a pleasing graphical touch, although Hardboiled can resemble more of a tiny flea on the Vita's smaller screen.
Unlike a game like Rocket Knight, Hardboiled loses his jetpack for the side-scrolling stages, and it's the more cerebral puzzle sections that will command most of your gaming time. Puzzles revolve around exploring the environment to discover key-cards, manipulating crates to reach higher platforms, and utilising elevators, each of which opens up pathways through a level. The level design is best realised during puzzle moments, especially when you acquire the Brainbug ability during Chapter 5, which allows you to possess and control enemy penguins. This adds an inventive strand to slot together the pieces that structure a level. However, when an enemy wave attack commences and a machine gun fire-fight is orchestrated by a chugging tune, the change of pace is well timed and appreciated.
The difficulty curve of normal mode is steadily balanced, and depending upon your puzzle solving prowess, you can rush through levels using the swift roll manoeuvre to complete all 15 chapters in less than five hours. Exploring the environment to find 45 red signs using chapter select will extend your completion time, but this involves repetitive backtracking. Greater replay value is found by taking a stab at hardboiled difficulty. The plentiful gun ammunition found in normal mode is replaced here by a reliance upon close-up attacks on enemies with a knife, and a gold Trophy awaits gamers who can beat the huge boss, Mega-Brno.
The 10 chapter budgie commando co-operative campaign is a great addition, but it's dependent on organising to meet a Vita owning friend for a game of either Ad-Hoc or online multiplayer. It's unfortunate that you can't hook up with the general PSN community for multiplayer, but as the two-player co-op game is built around communicating to solve problems and coordinating to conquer puzzles, it's understandable that it's restricted to connecting with your friends.
Ratloop Asia's greatest achievement with Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken is the successful combination of diverse 2D gameplay, dark story tones, atmospheric visual settings, and imaginative audio work. This delightful handheld port will surprise Vita gamers who wrongly anticipate a generic platformer or shooter.