Onion Games’ Black Bird and Sega’s Fantasy Zone feel like the sort of creations that come from fever dreams. Both have otherworldly spaces, unconventional characters, strange enemies and leave players wondering about the premise behind them as they shoot through scrolling worlds. The difference is that one is a more colorful flight of fancy, while the other might have you wondering about the dark implications and undertones of its nearly monochromatic world.
Black Bird doles out its stories in silent clips as you advance through its story. A young girl stumbles into the streets of a city and dies. Only one person notices, a man with a cane who pokes her corpse. After he does, she turns into an egg, then into a Black Bird that is supposedly a harbinger of doom. The Black Bird then heads out into four stages called Oppidum, In Agris, Neo Lumina and Aristocratia. What is the Black Bird? What is happening in this world? An initial run tends to leave people with more questions than answers, with subsequent adventures revealing more.
If you are still alive, continuing a combo by constantly shooting down enemies and grabbing shiny baubles to inflate your score, you are succeeding in Black Bird.
The reason I mentioned Fantasy Zone earlier is because Black Bird plays very similarly. Each level is two-dimensional, but loops around. A map on the bottom of the screen shows where the enemy bases are. Your goal is to take all of these out, avoiding soldiers of varying degrees of competence and power as you do. Once all of these bunkers are destroyed, an alarm sounds and a boss appears. You then fight someone in some sort of mech. Your only tools are unlimited energy bullets and a limited bomb attack that destroys all enemies on screen, though certain larger enemies, boxes and destroyed bunkers drop power-ups occasionally. If you are still alive, continuing a combo by constantly shooting down enemies and grabbing shiny baubles to inflate your score, you are succeeding in Black Bird. The only real difference is in the quantity of bullets, as this is definitely a bullet hell shoot’em up, rather than a leisurely flight through a sepia-toned sky.
What is rather cool is that each boss multiple stages to it. It requires you to think about what method might offer the best approach, while also testing you in a way Black Bird often doesn’t in its initial runthrough. Yes, stages get progressively more difficult, but the real challenge comes from the unlocked True Mode. While you wait for that, these bosses really kick things up. Seeing a larger enemy go down and knowing the reward will be an increased score boost and a new sort of bullet added to your arsenal is very rewarding.
The main game having only four levels and bosses does mean Black Bird is a rather short game. A standard mode run took me about thirty or forty minutes, though it did take me about six tries to actually beat the game. (Once you die, you have to start over from the beginning.)
Don’t take that to mean that Black Bird isn’t substantial. If someone ends up enjoying it, it can be a far richer experience. Practice versions of each level are unlocked after reaching them, so you can test yourself and improve your skills. A True Mode also unlocks after beating the game. Completing a standard run does not mean you finished Black Bird. Practice mode versions of each level unlock after completing them, and True Mode only appears after a Normal Mode run. Going through True Mode and earning its extra endings are what make it worth returning to. In addition, I would argue that Onion Games knowing when to end the game and not drag out the experience is a virtue too.
Completing a standard run does not mean you finished Black Bird.
What I really loved about Black Bird, above all else, is its soundtrack. There are weird, haunting vocals and songs scattered throughout. Sometimes, it sounds like an unsettling carnival, as the music is morose, yet peppy. We clearly hear people singing, but they tend to be unintelligible. Then, it throws this ending theme at you that somehow completely fits with the music we have been hearing throughout the story, but is also far more freeing, poppy and even optimistic than everything else. It fits in with a world where everything is dark and dismal, with haunting areas, but the standard enemies, some bosses and even the Black Bird itself could be considered somewhat cute.
Black Bird is a haunting game that is good at cultivating atmosphere with its visuals and soundtrack. It is also the sort of title that only opens up after you beat it once. Which might make it being relatively short a boon, since it means you get to that True Mode sooner and have opportunities to practice so you can be in a better position to earn its extra endings. Just know going in that this is not a long game and that it is a title that requires you to keep playing it to get all that you can out of the adventure. If you are okay with that and are ready to evade all of the energy bullets, you might want to let this one roost on your Nintendo Switch.