There is something inherently evil with cats. How they seem to follow your every move, staring at you in uncomfortable ways, as if they have full control over your life. Pouncing from unfathomable places at just the wrong time with a loud meow that scares you to death.
I’m not the only one that thinks so. Birds also consider cats to be their mortal enemies… well, so do dogs and mice, which is further proof of the evilness that lies within these furry feline creatures. However, those will have to wait for better days as now it’s time for the birds to rise against their evil cat overlords in Steambirds Alliance.
Toucan Play at That Game
As you may guess, there is no shortage of wackiness in Steambirds Alliance, a game that nearly defies description. This is a 60-player co-op bullet-hell twin-stick shooter where birds make a stand against their eternal sworn enemies, cats, all of this from the comfort of different kinds of airplanes. It’s a clever mix of hard-as-nails shmups such as Ikaruga or DoDonPachi with Realm of the Mad God, the cult classic retro-styled MMO that Spry Fox co-developed. Now they are back with a new game that features less pixel-art and more birds on planes.
Steambirds Alliance begins with your feathered fighter on a plane, merrily flying around the rebellion’s sky base – all of you Avengers fans can think of this ship as the bird’s very own Helicarrier. Your starter plane will be your trustworthy companion during the first hours, but your progress will unlock other, better planes. These are the classes in the game, further offering other choices of weapons and strategies – some planes are even named Paladin, Medic or Assault, in case you had any lingering doubts about their roles.
Your pilot rank unlocks skill options that you can learn using skill points. I had a hard time getting to grips with the way that the skill tree worked, and I have no doubts whatsoever that others will feel the same. You need to pay close attention to each skill row, understand how learning a skill will sometimes replace other one, and work out how some skills are tied to a specific plane. For a game that tries to evoke the feel of old-school arcade shooters, this is an area that could benefit from a serious overhaul.
Thankfully, permadeath is one thing that doesn’t carry over from Realm of the Mad God. Or should I say that it does, but with a twist that turns Steambirds Alliance into a more accessible, less nerve-wracking game. When your plane gets blown to pieces, your current plane level resets but you keep your hard-earned overall pilot experience level and unlocked skills. This approach makes progress much more manageable, while still providing a tough-as-nails challenge that requires tactical thinking and nerves of steel in order to slowly discover new, more robust planes. However, all the loot in your possession also disappears, so make sure to thread extra carefully when you have a sweet piece of gear that you don’t want to lose.
Your inventory is extremely limited, or at least in comparison to the colossal amount of loot that you’ll find in your quest. An option to auto-equip superior items is a godsend as it saves you the trouble, and it’s also nice that you can get rid of low-level items with the press of a button.
Your home base in the skies is the place where the bird alliance decides on its next target. In theory, at least, because it’s mostly a matter of entering the dropship that will take you to the open world battlefield. But before you take the fight to the cat army, you should make the most out of the available facilities. The Pilot School is where you can learn skills; the Storage is where you can safely store some of your best loot for later; the Hangar is where your plane collection sits tight, waiting for your choice; the Workshop is where you can craft new stuff; in the Store you can buy all sorts of things with gold or scrap, from special missions to upgrades and even emotes; and the Pilot’s Pub, where you can sip a refreshing cocktail… well, actually no – this is where you accept missions that grant you special rewards.
Wake Me Up Before You Dodo
By now you’ve probably guessed that Steambirds Alliance’s pace is frenetic and hardly lets you stop for a quick breather. As soon as your firepower is one to be feared and you climb experience level after experience level, the cat menace becomes more imposing with larger ships, more erratic movement patterns and countless projectiles of different shape and size. The pure definition of bullet-hell is a mere dozen or so experience levels away.
Controlling your plane is as responsive as you would expect from a game where twitch reflexes and split-second reactions are crucial. With a gamepad you can play Steambirds Alliance just as you would with your average twin-stick shooter, using the right thumbstick to aim and fire. If you choose to play using WASD, the mouse can be used to aim and shoot, but I couldn’t get used to the compulsory circular turret movement – against all odds, I prefer the more immediate gamepad feedback. You can also give your plane a small speed boost and believe me, you’re going to need it.
One of Steambirds Alliance’s claims to fame is that 60 players can fight the war together. With a few partners you can already get a sense of the chaotic, bullet-ridden elegance of the action, but I can only imagine when a few dozen players are taking on the same boss – it should be quite a sight… if you manage to see your plane at all. There is a handy option that teleports you next to another player so that you can jump straight into his fight, cooperating and hopefully reaping the rewards faster than going alone – this is a nice, straightforward way to motivate co-op play.
Somewhat unexpectedly, PvP is out of the equation. The focus is entirely on co-op and while Spry Fox seems adamant about keeping it that way, they have admitted that some sort of indirect player versus player feature such as guilds may eventually make it into the game. While I reckon that a full co-op PvE game is nice for a change, Steambirds Alliance just feels like the perfect fit for some epic high-altitude arcade clashes. I’m a bit torn on this issue, but I’d rather have a competent, fun co-op experience than having to deal with a tacked-on PvP mode to please the “masses”.
Transitioning between zones is seamless, with a huge sign warning you of the recommended player level, as to prevent any erroneous wandering through deadly areas. No biting more than you can chew, slowly but surely growing in power is the strategy that will take you places.
I positively admire the graphic style chosen for Steambirds Alliance. The tiny planes and smooth animation bring back fond memories of arcade classics such as 1942, SWIV, Banshee or Flying Shark. Everything is a bit crowded but that won’t stop you from appreciating the backgrounds that change for each zone. From rocky mountains to factories or rustic villages, it’s a testament to the developers’ abilities that these never get in the way of the shooting – if you failed to spot a bullet, it’s most likely your fault. And those boss explosions… now those are some truly eye-catching fireworks.
I have to hand it to the cats for what they truly are; masterminds. You wouldn’t guess that these lazy furry creatures had it in them to create dozens of remarkable ships. It’s not just about the sizes and practical use against the bird uprising; it’s the way that some ships take inspiration from other animals and objects such as crabs, sharks, dogs, centipedes, trains and much more. You’ll come face to face with some clever ship design, particularly the bosses.
Steambirds Alliance probably isn’t going to replace your main MMO; nevertheless, it is more than capable of providing some frantic exhilaration. It is both suited for short gameplay bursts and long hours of relentless evil cat shooting. While it won’t set the world ablaze, it seems to have “cult classic” written all over it, just as it happened with Realm of the Mad God. It’s a chip off the old block… or should I say, a chirp off the old block?