Free to play used to be a taboo word for me, usually indicating that the game was some microtransaction infested hell hole that would do little more than soak up my time in an effort to get to my wallet. More recently though it seems a lot of developers, including a non-zero number of really talented ones, are choosing to release their games for free with no other strings attached. To be sure most of them are usually pretty short and light on other features you’d see in big name titles but I doubt most of them would lose many players if they’d asked for a dollar or two. Such is the case with BirdGut, a bizarre hand drawn platformer that is equal parts fun as it is weird and obtuse.
A bee hatches in the hive, but something’s wrong. Born different from the others, the bee is exiled from the hive and forced to survive the world on its own. That is, until a bird attacks and eats it. Inside the bird, all of the bugs that it eats are brainwashed and put to work in fantastical, mechanical factories that exist in the place of its organs, except for the outcast bee, whose very disability prevents them from being brainwashed. The bee takes it upon itself to destroy the massive bird from the inside out, and free all the enslaved critters within.
BirdGut’s visuals are all hand drawn in a greyscale colour palette. Honestly the amount of effort that went into putting these visuals together is quite phenomenal, even for a less than 2 hour game. Each of the screens is its own little unique world, filled with all sorts of random detail. The animations are buttery smooth too, something you don’t see often with hand drawn games. This is all then juxtaposed with ludicrousy that this is all supposedly taking place inside a bird’s digestive system, something you’re reminded about in the most weird and unusual ways. It was this weird styling that first attracted me to the game as it’s rare enough for a game to be done this way and rarer still for it to be free.
The main game mechanics are puzzle platformer based with all the usual tropes making a showing in BirdGut’s short play time. You’ll start off slow, just needing to jump your way past a handful of obstacles, and will gradually move up to more complicated maneuvers, many of which will require semi-precise timing to pull off. The game’s simplicity negates many of the opportunities for emergent gameplay to occur so if you find yourself struggling against a particular challenge it’s quite likely that you’re approaching it the wrong way. Other than that there’s not much more to the game other than trial and error.
That of course means that the main increase in difficulty comes from the lengthening of time between checkpoints and the game exploiting that relentlessly. The later platforming sections consist of minutes long timed encounters that will take you at least a couple tries to get past as there’s no way of knowing what obstacles are coming up before you hit them for the first time. I’m not a huge fan of these “fuck you player” kinds of moments as it just punishes you for not knowing something that you had no way of figuring out. That being said it’s not like these challenges waste a ton of time but it still feels like a kick in the pants every time you have to repeat the same section again.
BirdGut’s story is lighthearted and tongue in cheek, with some sparse bits of dialogue providing some comic relief between the longer puzzle sections. It’s not particularly deep but I didn’t expect to be so it did its job of providing a little bit of background whilst I stumbled my way through the various platforming puzzles.
BirdGut was a surprisingly fun distraction that I still can’t believe is free. The hand drawn visuals alone warrant a small entry price and the decent platforming with the lighthearted story make it all worth playing. Is it perfect? Absolutely not but even at $5 I’d say I got my money’s worth with it. So if you’re in the market for something quick, concise and a little weird then BirdGut is likely to fit the bill.
BirdGut is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 88 minutes with 50% of the achievements unlocked.
Games that utilise hand drawn animation are few and far between, with good reason. Whilst the tools to make games have gotten exponentially better, allowing many to try their hand at it, there’s a non-trivial amount of work involved in hand drawing all the frames required to make a game playable. So whenever I come across a title like Forgotton Anne I’m always intrigued as the effort that goes into creating a title like it is always far greater than similar indie games. Whilst this first release from ThroughLine games might not hit all the right marks mechanically there’s no denying that it was created with a lot of passion for the story, artwork and overall experience.
The Forgotten Lands is a place where all the lost and forgotten things end up, from that sock you lost under your bed all those years ago to the couch that was left on the side of the road. These forgotlings live in a whimsical world powered by anima, a magical essence that gives these objects life and a will of their own. You play as Anne, one of only two humans who’ve managed to find themselves in this world. Master Bhoku, your father figure and teacher, has been working on a way to get you both back to the human world called the Ether Bridge. However a rogue faction of rebel forgotlings will stop at nothing to curtail his plans, culminating in a brash attack on the factory just when it was scheduled to be completed. Anne must now go on a journey to find the culprits and bring them to justice.
The Ghibli-esque art style with the majority of the animation being hand drawn isn’t something you see every day and certainly speaks to the level of dedication the developers and art team had in creating Forgotton Anne. Most animation sequences are pretty low frame rate however, something which is quite noticeable on a high frame rate monitor. Still a lot of care was paid to the small details, like Anne’s skirt fluttering as she runs, making it easy to gloss over the lack of animation frames. It’s not all hand drawn however as many sections make use of lighting and particle effects from the Unity engine that powers it. Backing the entire game is a wonderful orchestral score which brings everything together beautifully. For the first title from a new studio Forgotton Anne certainly sets the bar high.
Forgotton Anne is an adventure game at heart, keeping the mechanics simple so that it tends more towards letting the story push forward rather than bog you down in puzzles. The core mechanic is the arca, a magical device on Anne’s hand that can extract and infuse anima. Essentially it allows you to operate devices at range and most puzzles involve trying to figure out which levers you need to pull in what order to open the next door. It also functions as a plot device, allowing you to drain anima from forgotlings which can persuade them to talk or, if you feel like you have to, kill them outright. Of course you may not want to do that as the choices you make will have a meaningful impact on the story and some forgotlings are better off alive and useful rather than dead and out of the way. The simple mechanics will mean that Forgotton Anne should be approachable to a wide audience however there’s a few rough edges (like the platforming) that could do with a bit more attention.
Of the two core mechanics the platforming is by far the weaker of the two, feeling somewhat unrefined and cumbersome. Due to the way that the animations play out it’s hard to judge just exactly when you should jump as she may or may not jump exactly when you command it. Worse still it’s hard to know sometimes if you engaged either her sprint or wings before you jump, leading to a lot of missed ledges or even overshooting it completely. Thankfully the platforming sections are typically pretty forgiving, allowing you as many retries as you need, but when a game demands precision but doesn’t provide it to you it can be a little frustrating. I don’t believe this is beyond fixing however it may demand changes to the way animations work so I’m not sure if it will get fixed any time soon.
The puzzles themselves aren’t particularly challenging, usually just a series of levers or switches that need to be activated in a certain order to get things working. The only challenging ones are those that come with timed aspects, mostly because you’ll have to fight with the platforming mechanics a little bit in order to complete them. The simplicity in the puzzles is, I believe, done so that they don’t get in the way of story progression something which a lot of indie games are guilty of doing. This means that the story continues at a steady pace for the entire game with no part feeling too rushed or too slow. Considering that my play through clocked in at about 6 hours total that means there’s a good chunk of story to get through.
Like adventure games of old Forgotton Anne rewards those who explore with a litany of collectibles scattered around that provide some additional flavour text to the story. Whilst I didn’t personally hunt down every single item I did manage to find just over half of them in my travels. There’s no secret ending for collecting them all or anything so there’s no reason to track them down beyond the little bits of story and an achievement or two. If you were to look for them all I’d guess you’d probably spend another couple hours doing so which isn’t too bad, all things considered.
The story of Forgotton Anne is a complex tale that ebbs and flows based on the decisions you make. The main storyline is immutable as far as I can tell but how the dialogue plays out, how characters react to you and what options you have available all depend on the choices you make. However some choices feel like their antithetical to what Anne’s character was before you start playing the game. When you start out it seems you have a reputation for being a stern enforcer of the rules with many forgotlings treating you with fear rather than respect. However throughout the course of the story you’re able to reshape that significantly and, should you do that, many of the characters will change as well. At the start it feels a little weird, like Anne is spinning on a dime if you play a certain way, but once you’ve started to shape the story a bit it starts to make sense.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
The way the story plays out is somewhat predictable due to the way the mechanics are laid out. Since you know that anima powers everything and your arca can extract it from forgotlings it follows that you’d have to be committing murder on a massive scale to get the anima you’d need. So it follows that Master Bhoku is the real villain, something which takes a little too long to reveal in my opinion. Picking your ending also feels a little hollow, especially for a game that based itself so heavily on player choice. Indeed looking at a blog post from the developer they alluded to no less than 6 possible endings sprouting from 3 different story trees however, as far as I and many others can tell, there’s only the 2 presented at the end. I’m not at all unhappy with those endings mind, indeed the “good” ending is a tragedy done exceptionally well, but it seems like in the months between that post and today several endings were lost, which is a shame. Overall the predictably didn’t diminish my enjoyment of Forgotton Anne at all.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Forgotton Anne is a rare gem of a game, one built with an incredible amount of dedication to the experience and story. The hand drawn art and animation is a gorgeous tribute to the anime that inspired it with the modern game engine embellishments providing that extra dash of visual flair. The platforming is probably the game’s weakest part, suffering from a lack of polish and limitations likely born out of the animation engine that mar the experience. The puzzles are simple, meant not to block you but give the story time to rest between sections. The story itself, whilst predictable, is still thoroughly enjoyable especially given the amount of influence you choices have. ThroughLine games first release is an exceptional one, showing that the team has the requisite skill to build unique experiences right from day 1. I’m very much looking forward to where they go next.
Forgotton Anne is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 6 hours of total play time and 45% of the achievements unlocked.