The draw of Skatebird is summarised early on. “Remember when I told you about human skaters?” says one bird to another. “They can only Ollie once. You’re a bird. You can fly.” True enough, triggering a second ollie while airborne tugs you upwards, amid a flurry of feathers. If you wish to spin, your customised bird will lunge downward, as if pecking at a worm, and whirl without a care, board in beak. The question is, Why? What tethers these creatures not quite to the earth but to the limbo just above it, borne along on wheels of thundering polyurethane?
One answer is: a human. Our hero, Birb, has a keeper, referred to as “Big Friend,” who, we learn, is not having the easiest time. His job, apparently, is a real grind, and his apartment is strewn with pizza boxes, drinking straws, and other assorted bits of rubbish—bad news for the living of a clean and upbeat life, good news for the birds, for whom such detritus provides not, as you would expect, an appetising vista of scraps but a park of skateable wonders: of ramps, rails, and bowls. You rumble around, taking on tasks from your fellow-birds. One assignment has you affixing balloons to the corners of an unkempt duvet, and thus wafting it back into place. Another has you skimming over the tops of makeshift half-pipes, the better to clean up discarded cans. Is this the first example of skateboarding—traditionally a pastime littered with rebellion—redeployed as good housekeeping?
Any game that arrives bearing the title “Skatebird” has already given half of itself away, and it would be churlish to deny the essential glee of seeing a red-breasted nuthatch swivel and twitch atop a skateboard. Furthermore, from this central hook the developer, Glass Bottom Games, hatches a flock of ingenious flourishes. For example, I draped my bird of choice, a rakish little quail, in a striped scarf and planted a bright-red fez on its head. Plus, as you would hope, no opportunity for jokes is passed up; one character, named Sam King, shows up sporting the glowing goggles from Splinter Cell. How come? Because it is a kingfisher. Sooner or later, though, such delights must, if not wear thin, then give way to less migratory thrills. Otherwise, you have a game whose pleasures feel, by the time you have taken in the title and dressed your preferred bird, half-plucked.
The skating in Skatebird imitates that of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games. And fair enough, too. The problem is that the hero of that series suffers no shortage of avian advantages himself, and the fact is that he puts most of the squawkers here to shame. For instance, he was able to negotiate his way out of a tight corner with unflappable panache, whereas Birb is all of a flutter—a blizzard of brown as the camera judders to squeeze free. In addition, while the boarders of, say, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 may only have been able to ollie once, their human heft charged the act with a pang of defiant exhilaration. You could fly. In Skatebird, you can flap. You don’t feel free; the weightlessness of the action makes the skateboard feel less like a conduit to the air than like a weight, cuffed to your claw.
In an odd way, then, Glass Bottom Games has captured the truth of the situation; contrary to its mission of cuteness, it has made a game that feels hollow-boned, caged by unflattering mechanics. Predictably, the best parts of Skatebird are spent preening, choosing the right hat to frame the scowl of an owl, or a pair of headphones to hang, aloof, round its neck. There are plenty of other diversions to be had: floating letters to collect, cassette tapes stashed in hard-to-reach crannies, and a string of unlockable levels through which to roll. But it wasn’t long before I began to empathise with Big Friend, feeling the drag of routine. Good skateboarding is a tricky thing, and there is nothing that Birb and his friends can muster to trouble Mr Hawk, whose rule of this particular roost remains unruffled, and who has plied his trade far closer to the clouds.
Developer: Glass Bottom Games
Publisher: Glass Bottom Games
Available on: Xbox One [reviewed on] Nintendo Switch, PC
Release Date: September 16, 2021
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