"I have not been this emotionally affected by a game in years... "
How many video games have tapped your emotional wellsprings and legitimately made you cry? In my life-long gaming history I can count on one hand the number of games that tugged my heartstrings to the point of making me shed a tear, the most recent one being 2011's To The Moon. Well, at this point I can add The Last Birdling, a stirring visual novel by developer InvertMouse, to that exclusive list. InvertMouse has been crafting games for five years now and The Last Birdling celebrates those five years with aplomb.
According to the game's thorough lore glossary, humans and Birdlings (anthropomorphic bird people) once lived in harmony in the distant past, but that era is long gone due to The Birdling War. This event was more genocide than a true war, in that the humans sought to eliminate the Birdling race and nearly succeeded. While humans seek to exterminate the remaining Birdlings and erase The Birdling War from their annals of history, what few Birdlings remain simply try to survive while never forgetting their holocaust.
Bimonia, a young Birdling, is curious about the world beyond her forest, but her mother forbids her from ever venturing outside of their safety net. Bimonia's father was cruelly murdered by humans during the genocide, thus his widow seethes with hatred for humans and ferociously protects her daughter from them. In a human village on the outskirts of the forest lives Tayo, a young girl also living with a strong-willed single mother due to the death of her father. Tayo is an outcast in her community because she is not a typically meek and submissive little girl, and her ideals of what life should be like are too progressive for her village. Both girls question the old wives' tales about everything and everyone they're told to stay away from and want to experience the greater world firsthand. The thrust of this coming-of-age story is in how, against all odds, Tayo and Bimonia become friends during a turbulent time that strives to rip asunder anything they hold dear.
The Last Birdling's story is a tightly focused, character driven story that remains compelling from start to finish thanks to descriptive prose in its narrative. The 21 chapters switch between Bimonia's and Tayo's points of view, offering a wider sense of scope. Since both are children, they perceive the world and each other with a charming innocence. Conversely, because they've both been hardened by tragedies in their lives, they're steel-willed and somewhat cynical as well. The theme of "what makes us alike is stronger than what makes us different" poignantly resonates throughout the game, yet the distinctive personalities and idiosyncratic complexities of Bimonia and Tayo brilliantly shine through.
During my first playthrough, I ran the emotional gamut over a 5-hour course. I felt soaring hope, plunging despair, and everything between more viscerally than words can describe. I grew to really care about the heroines and was constantly rooting for them to beat the odds. Sadly, reality can be a cruel mistress as several plot beats are utterly wrenching and definitely not for the faint of heart. The game doesn't present as many choices or have as many endings as the average visual novel, but all choices have intense gravitas no matter how innocuous or subtle they seem. The moment I saw one of the five possible endings (and a harrowing ending at that), I immediately had to go back and play again and again to witness every possible outcome, bedtime be damned.
Enjoying the story is a relatively smooth experience thanks to a clean interface that's compatible with mouse, keyboard, or gamepad usage. My only caveat is that I couldn't find a convenient mouse click button to rewind previously seen text. It took me trial and error to figure out that the Page Up button on my keyboard rewinds text. Rewinding text was easiest using the shoulder buttons on my gamepad. Although there is no way to change the button mapping for a gamepad, the default scheme works just fine.
The Last Birdling's gorgeously evocative music by composer Efe Tozan never failed to sashay its way into my brain, no matter how many times I played through it. I especially love the haunting title music that perfectly encapsulates the vibe of this game, but every piece is a delight to hear. These compositions are very strong, and I think they would tug at emotions just as emphatically outside the context of the game. The soundtrack is available as DLC, and it is totally worth it. There is no voice acting, but the game doesn't need it at all. I loved imagining the characters' voices for myself and allowing the music and sound effects to immerse me into the world.
The game's art consists of crisply detailed backgrounds and character portraits, all colored with that perfect blend of vivacity and melancholy. Basically, the art reflects the main characters. The colorful and sometimes playful nature of the visuals reflects Bimonia and Tayo's childlike vibrancy, but their more subdued and muted tones reflect that they are also children who've had to grow up very quickly. As the story grows more ominous, so do the colors of the characters and backdrops, to great effect. A digital art book is available as DLC for this game for those who dig the game's style as much as I do.
Visual novel fans have enjoyed a feast of quality titles this year, but The Last Birdling needs to be on your list of games to try. I have not been this emotionally affected by a game in years and cannot express how powerful the storytelling was to me. If my review doesn't convince you to check this game out, there is an available demo on the InvertMouse website you can sample. Truth be told, playing the demo months ago is what sold me on this game. As soon as the demo ended on its tense cliffhanger, I simply had to know what happens next. I had a feeling the full version would be a good game, but did not expect it to be something this special.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.