Black Bird (Switch) review – Eat the Rich

“When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Black Bird is one of the most enthralling shoot ’em ups I’ve played in a long time. There are no space ships, aliens, shrine maidens, here; rather, Black Bird casts you as a vengeful spirit waging a war against the aristocracy in a surreal, steampunk-ish fairy tale kingdom. Instead of bright colours and thumping techno, it sports a muted, not-quite-monochrome palette and a score made up otherworldy opera music synced to enemies’ movements. It’s bizarre, oddly funny, shocking, and powerful.

Related reading: It’s been a good month for Japanese indies! Like Black Bird, The Missing takes a transgressive approach to an important topic, and does so brilliantly. Read our review.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise when you consider that Black Bird is directed by none other than Yoshiro Kimura, the same person behind the cute but unexpectedly dark Little King’s Story and the extremely controversial Rule of Rose. Kimura isn’t one to shy away from tackling confronting subject matter head on, and doing so with enough style and substance to stand out and get his point across.

Black Bird is no exception, and the message this time is a simple one: eat the rich.

The game opens with a sickly-looking young girl inching her way forward along a road, while shadowy figures glide past. Before long, she collapses, but nobody seems to notice; everyone just carries on their way, oblivious to a dying girl in the middle of the road. When someone finally does take notice, it’s only to prod her a couple of times with his cane, shrug when there’s no response, and move on.

Related: We’re giving away eshop codes for Black Bird on Nintendo Switch!

People suddenly start to pay attention when this poor little girl is reborn as a giant black bird whose sole purpose is destruction: destruction of the people by whose negligence she passed away; destruction of the society that they inhabit and that was built on the backs of people like her; and, most importantly, destruction of the capitalist hellscape that has inequality as its very foundations.

Playing as the Black Bird, you enact this by flying through a series of levels, killing the hundreds of people trying to stop you (or, in some cases, fleeing for their lives). Enemies spawn endlessly from a series of towers, and it’s your goal to destroy them all, prompting the arrival of a boss. Defeat that boss, and you’ll get a small glimpse into the girl’s transition from a recently-deceased spirit into a calamitous force, and then it’s on to the next level to do it all again.

It’s a fairly standard structure for a shoot ’em up, but a perfect delivery mechanism for Black Bird‘s tale of revenge and anti-capitalism. Each new level takes you to a higher-class area of the game’s unnamed kingdom, pitting you against a series of increasingly opulent foes. One level, Aristocratia, is full of hilarious caricatures of the aristocrat class, all wigged up and hiding in their ivory towers. You can (and should) shoot them, but the main threats in that level are all outlandish robots—when you’re that rich, you don’t need to fight your own fights. All the while, strange machines build new workers and drones out of spare parts, presumably left behind by those workers who’d previously stopped being useful.

The poor fighting the ultra-rich is a common theme in video games (despite the industry’s atrocious track record for exploitation of workers), but Black Bird goes further. Aristocratia is the final level of the game; before that, you have to fight your way through the middle classes and even the working class with the same reckless abandon and indiscriminate destruction.

That may seem at odds for a game that’s so focused on condemning the rich, but it fits. To the girl who became the Black Bird, pushed to the very bottom of the social ladder, the working, middle, and upper classes are all the same. The aristocrats may be the most at fault for creating a broken system, but everyone else is complicit in it. Everyone else ignored her in her final moments and let her die, focused only on the mad rush to chase the myth of social mobility. For the Black Bird, the only victory to be found is by destroying the entire capitalist system and starting again from scratch—there’s no room for “social democracy” or other such half-assed measures.

The genre’s usual focus on frenetic action and score-chasing all work in service to this. Black Bird‘s scoring system encourages both speed destruction, with an end-of-level bonus that’s at its most lucrative when the completion time is low and the kill time is high. Similarly, chaining kills together to drive up the combo counter is the key to driving up the score within each level, so you’ll want to be quick and thorough in your eradication of the wealthy pests.

Likewise, quick and efficient destruction is also your quickest route to more powerful weapons (and, therefore, even more quick and efficient destruction). Gems dropped by enemies both increase your score and fill a gauge that, when full, levels up the Black Bird, giving her shots more power and speed. At higher levels, she’ll grow extra beaks to create more of that familiar shoot ’em up spread; at higher levels still, she’ll gain homing shots and a very useful backwards shot.

And then there are the bombs. A mainstay of shoot ’em ups, bombs typically act as a defensive tool, clearing the screen of enemies and their bullets and giving you a brief respite. Black Bird‘s “bombs” do that, but they’re also a very useful offensive tool, too: at the max combo multiplayer, a bomb will produce far more gems than killing those enemies normally would, making it one of your best options for quickly powering up your Black Bird.

(“Bomb” is a bit of a misnomer though, despite being referred to as such in game. A “bomb” in Black Bird turns you into a howling, terrifying vortex of death and destruction that consumes everything in its path.)

Ideally, then, you want to be bombing as often as possible. Hidden throughout each level are treasure chests—usually guarded obsessively by the wealthy, like a dragon guarding her treasure—that drop power-ups when destroyed. Aside from a handy redistribution of wealth, these can grant you either an extra life, a speed boost, or an extra bomb.

Fortunately, you can cycle through the options by shooting the power-up, so you don’t have to rely on chance. Extra lives are particularly handy when you’re just getting a feel for the game or a new level—and they help ease the pain, somewhat, of a lack of any sort of continue system—but the score possibilities that bombs make those particularly appealing when you’re chasing the leaderboards. Either way, it’s nice to have a choice about the power-up you get in that moment.

For shoot ’em up purists, Black Bird‘s Normal Mode will offer little challenge. I’m terrible at them, but even I was able to get to the third stage boss on my first attempt, and I it didn’t take too much more effort to see Normal Mode to its finish. However, completing the game unlocks True Mode, which offers a far greater challenge, while also expanding on the story and offering a range of different endings for those skilled enough to get there.

Whether in Normal or True Mode, Black Bird‘s frantic action and the drive for ever-better scores are a part of what keeps me coming back for more. But they aren’t what’ll make this game stick in my mind for a long, long time to come—that honour goes to its transgressive style, twisted sense of humour, and unflinching attack on the inhumanity baked into the capitalist structure.

Black Bird
Genre: Shoot ’em up
Developer: Onion Games
Publisher: Onion Games
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC
Release Date: 18 October2018
The publisher supplied a copy of the game for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.