What do kids know, eh? Those squawling little micro-humans, what do they even do all day? We ought to send them to a farm, get them constantly running and leaping over suspended platforms, gathering large blue eggs and floating keys on their way to the castle. Y’know, farm work.
Bird of Light is a curious thing: a runner game with a puzzle element, that attempts to elevate itself by being about something. In all honesty I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it, as if not for that latter point it wouldn’t have attracted my attention. But it’s a better puzzle game than it is a story. So let’s start there.
Each level starts with a tiled overhead map. Between your starting point and the exit (always a castle) is some arrangement of floating land tiles and empty space. The basic objective is to grab a key and reach the castle, but in order to progress, you need to collect at least one ‘badge’ – i.e. succeed either in beating a time limit or in fully exploring the level, collecting all of those large blue eggs I mentioned earlier. In order to do this you must carefully place your very limited selection of platform tiles on the map in such a way that’ll let you reach your goals.
They can never just sit still, can they?
It’s all very simple, and the interface is bright and clear and pleasant. To complicate matters, the location of the keys and eggs (plus any special items needed to get anywhere) are hidden, and must either be found by trial and error or their locations pinned on the map in exchange for tokens. Tokens are given along with the badges, so you’ll likely need to play through most levels a couple of times to nab enough badges if you want to reveal everything. Which, by the end of the game, you’ll likely need to in order to have any idea where to place your tiles.
Perhaps this sounds complicated, but it’s really quite straightforward in practice, and the difficulty curve is steady but gentle, and it’s hard to go wrong to begin with. Once you’ve set the level up, it’s on to the main event.
Later levels demand many attempts, unless you’re less stupid than me.
Tara (that’s you) is a little girl (still you) who, the story informs us, is rather ill, and taken by her mother to live on a relative’s farm, away from the disgusting sickly city full of miserable arseholes and overpriced everything. For unclear reasons, Tara spends her time at the farm dashing through the maps you’ve been seeing, never ceasing, only dodging between the many obstacles in her path, leaping, and later teleporting, across the huge expanses of unexplained void. Your control in these 3D sections is limited to jump, sidestep, and a 180 degree spin, and any collision sets you back to the start. This is far from revolutionary, but between the surprisingly challenging demands of collecting everything without ploughing into a cow or stack of firewood, and the charming graphics, it was jolly good fun.
I’ve set this one up all wrong. Don’t know what I was thinking.
Neither puzzles or runner games are really my forté, but instead of inducing impatience or frustration, Bird of Light had me cackling at my own panicky mistakes and fat-fingered doltery. It’s tricky but fair, and its art style is big and chunky and charmingly cute without any of the grotesque saccharine or soullessness that permeates the plurality of cutesy puzzle games. Presentation is definitely a strength.
This feeling is helped along by that story, or rather, by the themes. Between every few levels are short cut scenes where named farm animals chat with each other about Tara, about each other, about life in general, and increasingly often, about some mysterious and faintly sinister force called the Bird of Light. Pigs grumbling about not getting enough food or gossiping about the sheep becomes much more of a tempting narrative hook when it’s interspersed with ominous hints about death and futility, a feeling encouraged by the increasingly desolate land tiles that appear late on.
I bet pigs really do have some dark thoughts, though. Sheep less so.
Unfortunately, however, either something symbolic went way over my head, or all these scenes came to a disappointingly inconclusive ending. The story seems to have a great idea about where to go but never gets there, and Tara herself isn’t much of a character (although fair play to developers Roach Interactive for sticking to their guns instead of making her a boy, which apparently at least one publisher requested). It’s obviously leaning into some thoughts about childhood and our relationship with animals, as well as death and freedom and that now-untouchable space in imagination and wonder we as adults had to leave behind. But it doesn’t quite come out and say it. It’s a shame, because that conceptual space is thought-provoking, and it has a touch of the darkness that anything about childhood should have.
The game itself has some niggles, most notably that ‘dying’ before you reach an in-level restore point forces you to go back to the map before restarting. This is a small, small thing to complain about, which speaks highly of how well the core design works, but towards the end of the game the levels become really quite fiendish both to puzzle out and to perform. Minor niggles in any game with an instant fail state will grate after a while. It could also do with a few more items to vary things up a little.
Remind me I left my keys hovering in the void, ok.
Gauging whether or not to recommend Bird of Light is tricky, as I’m not sure who exactly it’s for. On the surface it’s very kid-friendly but without some options to customise the difficulty it’ll be on the frustrating side for younglings, and dismissing it as a kiddy game isn’t fair. While it won’t blow you away, Bird of Light is a charming and accomplished lightweight puzzler that’ll comfortably while away a few enjoyable hours, imbued with a philosophical bent that’s a little too slight, but leaves me looking forward to seeing what its creators do next.
I meant to do that.