Developed by Joysteak studios, Songbird Symphony is a rhythm game and 2D platforming adventure all in one. You are a chick called Birb, brought up in a foster nest by a peacock called Pea, who goes on a quest to find their true parents. This game has a big heart, but one that is often obscured by uninspired level-design and repetitive puzzles. The music’s catchy, though.
There are two alternating modes of play in Songbird Symphony: the boring one, where you explore cute but overly spacious environments and complete the odd rock-pushing puzzle; and the fun one, being the rhythm part of the game, which also serves as the game’s boss fights. These fights take the form of songs, first performed by one of the main characters (sometimes a friend, sometimes not) and then copied by the Player. A sequence of notes will be played which you must repeat at the appropriate time. How well the game does in communicating when the appropriate time is depends on the specific song, because the visual cues change often, and some are easier to follow than others. You begin only knowing one note, and learn progressively higher pitches as you progress through the story, lending to a natural difficulty curve that also includes extra mechanics like held notes and playing two notes at once. I’m not sure how that is supposed to work… in-universe, I mean. I guess Birb somehow masters the art of polyphonic overtone-singing?
I must say, I did appreciate that the notes assigned to each button are static (except in some areas where a semitonal adjustment is necessary), because, as a musician, it can be pretty disturbing when a rhythm game has you pressing a sequence of buttons that have no actual relationship to the notes that come out. I wish that the notes had been arranged in order of their pitch on the Switch controller though (that is, with the lowest notes to the left, and the highest on the right), as this made learning to associate notes with the correct arbitrary button input unintuitive.
A more confusing aspect of the rhythm sections was that I couldn’t tell whether the game wanted me to use the graphics as a cue for timing, or whether I should have focussed on listening to the music itself and learn to associate the pitches heard with the corresponding button (the better way to design a game about music, FYI). It was obvious that the developers didn’t know what they were trying to teach me either, as there were conflicting signals. In one song, you had to start repeating the melody while new notes were being played at the same time. Not only was this canon not harmonically sound, but I found it exactly impossible to focus on listening to the melody being played while keeping track of which note I was supposed to play next all at the same time. But I couldn’t rely on the graphics to help either, because the indications were purposely chaotic. This complaint seems almost pointless when you realise that it’s actually impossible to fail a song. Even if you don’t play a single note, the story will just continue along as if you had been trying your best. While I don’t think this is inherently a bad design choice, having the characters compliment you afterward for doing literally nothing does break the immersion somewhat.
As for the boring part of the game, it consists of jumping around strangely vacant themed areas (forest, beach, volcano – you know the drill) and completing puzzles, which are either platforms that move when you play the correct sequence of notes to activate them, or push rocks, or a combination of the two. They get more complex as the game progresses, but they don’t get any more interesting. There was great potential for intriguing musical puzzles here, but these platforming interludes between the singing sections should have been kept as compact as possible in the absence of good level design.
The later puzzle sections of Songbird Symphony were so tedious I almost gave up completing the story, but I’m glad I did, because the plot picks up a lot later on, and the ending is both sweet and hilariously dramatic. You will see every story beat coming a mile off, but the themes of family and belonging, while simplistic, are earnestly told and genuinely moving in some moments.
The dialogue for most of the NPCs is fluff that adds nothing to the world-building, but the main characters are given a little more personality, especially in rhythm sections, where they will “sing” lyrics that appear at the bottom of the screen, giving the scene an operatic feel. Occasionally you will encounter a bizarre bit of NPC conversation that is possibly for comedic effect, but is so out of place, with no relevance to the game’s themes, story or mechanics, that it always falls flat.
Graphics / Art Direction
I’m in two minds about the look of the game. On the one hand, the various bird species that populate the game’s world are animated in a ridiculous, rubbery way that is endlessly adorable, as well as the cute little creatures that can be found around the place; but the pixel art is often janky and garish, especially the background art, which is mostly unanimated, and has a markedly flat look, with shading that is childish enough that it doesn’t always register as shading. Some deft colour-grouping would have been enough to communicate this, but everything is coloured so indiscriminately vibrantly that it can genuinely be difficult to tell what is a collidable platform and what is behind the Player at times.
Music / Sound Design
I enjoyed the variety of music presented in the rhythm sections. The tunes are fun and appealing and suitable for the characters and scenes they belong to. The voices of the characters tend to favour the slower, more lyrical songs, as the midi instruments used often lack an attack or upper harmonics. This is most noticeable in faster songs, where quick notes are difficult to hear because the beginning of the instrument’s waveform is too gradual to be heard immediately. Birb’s own voice can also sound somewhat feeble in more dramatic moments, and, given that they can seemingly sing two notes at the same time, I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to give them a fuller, less chirpy voice in these moments for the sake of the music.
In contrast, the music in the platforming sections must necessarily be much less intrusive to allow for the fact that you will be using music to progress through each area, but these tracks are so static and repetitive that they are almost as dull as the puzzles they are presumably making way for.
Final Score: 65%
It’s hard to recommend Songbird Symphony outright because the later platforming sections of the game are such a drag, but if the characters appeal to you from the beginning, it really is worth seeing the story through to the end – and what’s more, once you’ve finished the game, you can replay the songs to your heart’s content, without the platforming and rock-pushing between.