I remember sitting in one of my English classes when I was still in high school a few years ago. Bored, having already finished the classwork, I had been browsing my youtube feed, when a trailer for SkateBird came up. I thought, “Oh, that’s kind of cute, and I haven’t played a skating game in years, I wonder when it’s coming out?”
Since then it’s had a permanent spot on my wishlist on steam.
Well the game came out last week and I’ve now played it all the way to the end- was it worth the almost three year wait? No, No it was not, which it really kills me to say so let’s dig into why.
First off, the game is really janky in both graphics and gameplay. The physics system at first feels fine, but the more I played it, the more it irritated me in how I could hit an object a certain way and be fine, but if I did the exact same thing two minutes later, it would make my bird fall off their skateboard. Grinding on one object, jumping to another and grinding on another was imprecise at best, and non-functional at worst. In the later levels, my bird would frequently bail in a way that got it stuck in the floor, and there were a few times my board got embedded in a wall. I get the feeling the developers knew about this issue, as in the pause menu you have the option to tweak a value that dictates how hard it is for your bird to be knocked off their board. The camera is similarly fine at first, but when the game starts asking you to navigate larger levels with lots of verticality, it can get really annoying. I played the game on PC with a mouse and keyboard, and it asks you to control the camera by holding down the right mouse button and moving the mouse. But crucially, you cannot move the camera if you are moving, which is mind boggling given that, being a skateboarding game, you are moving for 99% of the game. Additionally, the game has a very frustrating way of limiting the player’s speed.
On the lower left hand side of the screen, you’ll colour up the word “Fancy” by successfully doing tricks and combos. But it also acts as your speed gauge. You’re given a little bit to start off with, but after that you have to do tricks to gain speed, which is maddening. You cannot push off with your bird’s feet, and if you fall off of your board, you lose all of your speed. What this leads to is lots of frantic ollies and air tricks to gain speed, before you can actually use the ramps to gain air and reduce the chance of bailing, which is required for a decent amount of the missions. It’s especially annoying, when you realise that with most of the missions, the game starts you often facing a wall, and the controls aren’t tight enough to let you turn around without hitting it awkwardly most of the time. You also can’t ride up certain bridges and ramps without a fair amount of speed. With that speed though, going over these bridges and ramps seems to break the physics again, and your bird becomes really hard to stop rolling to the left or right, off the platform and back to the ground floor. Lining up jumps are a pain; trying to move your board left and right on the spot sometimes works, but on some surfaces, both the left and right keys just seem to say to you “Nah, we’ll just keep going left if it’s all the same to you.“
Additionally, it seems like the later levels were rushed through development, because as you’re skating through certain points, it feels like the game is actively fighting against you. Mission routes that seem like they’re supposed to be fairly straightforward, are incredibly annoying to traverse with the imprecise physics and the frustrating speed mechanic. The graphics within the levels leave a LOT to be desired; The game looks pretty washed out and de-saturated, and there’s not much in the way of interesting lighting effects. Additionally, anything not right next to you is given this hazey blurriness thats really unpleasant to look at. It’s a shame because the levels do have interesting layouts, and with the right colour grading and effects it could look really beautiful. The very first level reminded me heavily of a level out of a game in my childhood where you skated around disney-themed locations, and one of them had been Andy’s room from Toy Story. But then that warm regard towards that level was muted a bit when I realised that same concept was copied for SkateBird’s last level too, just rearranged with a few new assets.
The mission design is a bit hit and miss. There’s a small amount of missions that are actually pretty fun with the right amount of difficulty, but most are either absurdly easy or stupidly hard. The missions that ask you to zip about the level and grind on certain objects are the worst, as it requires both speed and precision. Precision that the game’s controls and physics often do not allow you. But then there’s some missions that ask you collect some floating letters, and they’re all lined up in a line. It feels like the developers just haphazardly designed the missions without playtesting them to check how difficult they were. Additionally, as a side note: Who in their right mind thought it would be a good idea to ask the player to ragdoll off their board and roll slowly and clumsily along the floor through a series of markers, in a skateboarding game? Really?
The birds themselves are an interesting lot though. They all have distinct personalities and appearances, and some of their dialogue is written pretty well. I say some, because the developers seemed to really love Hackers and internet humour. No, I don’t mean people who break their way through online security, I mean the film with Angelina Jolie. A large portion of the story is about “hacking the gibson” in order to help your human owner with his job… somehow. To be completely honest, by about halfway through the second level, I just started skipping almost all of the dialogue as it felt like the story wasn’t particularly interesting or funny as it seemed to think it was. It felt like the jokes were largely variations of the same kind of humour you’d find on a reddit thread. I was simultaneously chuckling a little and cringing when the game used the word “yeet” in one scene. Is it the most heinous thing? No, Did it bother me personally a huge amount? Also no, but that kind of comedy will annoy some. Additionally one of your main bird friends wears a pair of night vision goggles, and is called “Sam King”, a reference to the Splinter Cell franchise’s main character. So that’s two heavily laboured references that pulled me out of the game frequently.
Speaking of the appearance of the birds, you can customise your own bird, but the menu to do so is pretty basic. The options are fine, but you can’t swing the camera around to preview items on your back, and your bird stands on your board, so you can’t see the decals on it. Personally I went for a bit of a “if-Elvis-was-a-Kookaburra” aesthetic. You can also set-up a mix-tape of music unlocked in-game, some of which is pretty chilled. Personally, I thought that some of the music was pretty good, but most of it wasn’t my personal taste, but the game gives you the option to filter out the songs you don’t like which is great. You can also unlock more cosmetics and music by collecting floating items throughout the levels. Most of these items are extremely easy to find and collect, but a small handful seemed next to impossible for one reason or another. One asks you to climb on top of some vents by awkwardly ollie-ing onto them, and not falling off until you reach the other end. The vent curves around a bit, and has a few levels onto which you have to ollie onto, which means you will be falling to the ground a lot. Thankfully the game does allow you to set a custom respawn point outside of missions, which helps a bit.
So would I recommend this game? Well, the physics is pretty bad, the game looks average, the controls arent tight enough, gaining speed is awkward, and the difficulty is all over the place. No, it’s certainly not worth the price tag right now. Not without, at bare minimum, some updates addressing the physics system. Perhaps wait a bit for those updates, and then get it on sale. But for the moment, stick to Tony Hawk, or if you’re like me, think nostalgically of playing Disney’s Extreme Skate Adventure.