In Bittersweet Birthday's demo, I'm just a precocious young boy with a head full of hair and a backpack slung over my shoulder. And yet here I am waking up in a cold, sterile cell deep in the bowels of an abandoned lab. A voice on the radio warns me to be careful, and I creep past damaged hospital beds, blood splattered doors, and big buttons meant to activate containment measures. For what initially appeared like a cutesy adventure ala Earthbound or Undertale, this is not the tone I expected from the outset. Before too long, I'm stuck in a giant metal room, and a young crow-boy hybrid calling himself the Dark Sun is shooting hundreds of arrows and fireballs at me.
It's the kind of bullet hell experience anyone who's played Eldest Souls or Titan Souls will be familiar with. My screen quickly fills with waves and waves of feathers that cut into me, or explode on a delayed fuse. Periodically, my foe sprints across the arena, leaving trails of fire in his wake. My only solution is to dodge-roll and quickly counter with a three-punch combo, laying on the pressure when I break his focus and stun him on the ground. After several brutal attempts, I finally claim victory. Rather than answers, I'm greeted with a sudden shift to a scenic cliffside view overlooking a vast seaside mountain range. Bittersweet Birthday certainly isn't afraid of massive tonal shifts.
My crow acquaintance reappears in the sky, vowing revenge with the theatrics of a 13-year-old goth kid discovering Edgar Allan Poe. Turns out he's my brother Rocc, and he's quickly scolded by our mutual mother, who reminds him he needs to get to work guarding the town from calamity. Only mom isn't...a mom. She's a walking, talking pile of glitchy pixels, like a Tetris block come to life. Even in this strange, rapidly shifting world, she sticks out. But if it matters to the player character and his supposed bird brother, no one comments on it.
Bittersweet Birthday's demo quickly shifts to a familiar old school RPG adventure format from there. Mom reminds Rocc and I that there's a concert happening tonight in our bustling village, and it's my brother's responsibility as Guardian of the region to make sure no harm befalls either the townspeople or any of the metalhead concertgoers. Rocc scoffs, reminding mom that "the great evil" hasn't been seen for nine generations, and none of the similarly bird-man Guardians before him had to do anything of note. It's quite the lore dump, but it's handled with enough conversational grace and trickled out slowly enough that I'm interested to see wherever this peculiar tale of two brothers might go.
Heading into town, Bittersweet Birthday ditches combat for simple adventuring—chatting with townspeople about their problems or the latest gossip, and playing the occasional game of darts. No one bats an eye at the bird boy who's responsible for guarding them all, but that doesn't stop Rocc from being a bit of an angsty kid, someone who loudly proclaims his greatness but clams up when talking to a girl. We eventually make our way to the concert, where the headlining band's frontwoman, wearing a skull mask that would make Slipknot blush, teases us with some sort of impending doom.
Though the writing can occasionally lean a little too into tropes, especially with regards to Rocc's teen attitude (if I read "tch" one more time…), I really enjoyed getting to meet the multitude of characters in Bittersweet Birthday's demo. There's a fun variety of friendliness and menace that makes me want to learn more about this world, why it needs a guardian like Rocc, and what the hell is going on with that abandoned lab that seems to slip from our memory. That's what you want in an action-adventure game, right? A story and cast that stick out, but are warm and familiar enough that you give a darn what happens to them. The game is very much aware that it needs small moments of character growth to balance the big sweeping arcs. The demo also only contains the one boss battle, but so far it's approachable enough that I was able to power through the frustration that's customary to the genre.
Bittersweet Birthday shows a lot of promise, enough so that it recently achieved full funding on IndieGoGo, so it's clear that other folks are curious where this tale of brotherly bird bonding goes from here. Judging from the last few terrifying moments of the demo, and all the weirdness that preceded it, it could be literally anywhere.