As a self-admitted cynical loner, I find something endearing about a good old friendship story. But more and more, it seems like every story has to have romance in it somewhere. I get it...Romance makes things exciting! It gives the kids something to ship! It adds tension and conflict and maybe sexy times! And all of that is lovely, don't get me wrong. But I feel there's something to be said for the writer who can weave all of these things seamlessly into a different kind of story. (Well, okay, maybe not sexy times. That might be weird in a friendship story. Particularly this one!)
The Last Birdling is the tale of forbidden friendship between Tayo, a young archer, and Bimonia, a Birdling child. Humans and Birdlings have been at war for as long as anyone can remember, and Bimonia and her mother may be the last Birdlings in existence. But when Tayo and Bimonia meet, history doesn't stop the two of them from becoming instant friends. Both children know they must keep their encounter a secret, but with both of their worlds against them, will they be able to remain true to each other, or will they be torn apart?
Tayo and Bimonia, the main pair, seem completely different at first: Tayo is polite and dignified, while Bimonia is overeager and wild, and the two girls have a hard time understanding each other at first. But they develop a strong bond despite this, and they turn out to have a lot in common, most notably in how they relate to their respective mothers. Tayo's mother is a respected figure in the village and encourages her daughter's interest in archery, but her expectations are hard to fulfill. Bimonia's mother is overprotective (albeit with good reason since she and Bimonia are constantly in very real danger) and seeks to shelter her daughter from as much as possible, which ultimately serves to push her away. How Tayo and Bimonia develop, both separately and with each other, is largely influenced by their respective desires to please their mothers, and this also serves to pit the two girls against each other as time goes on. Because Tayo and Bimonia have both lost their fathers and have never had friends before meeting each other, they value their mother above any other person...until they meet each other, and this starts getting challenged. Combine all of that with the war and prejudice lurking in the background, and it makes for a compelling, multi-layered relationship that had me dying to know what was going to happen next.
The setting is well-developed, if a bit typical for a fantasy story. Most of the lore surrounding Birdlings is kept in the form of a glossary feature similar to the one used in the English localization of Clannad. It helps build up the world in a way that couldn't have been easily done in the story (since humans know very little about Birdlings) and it's actually kind of fun to go back and learn more about Bimonia's species. The one thing that does confuse me about the game's setting is the language. It's clear that there isn't any modern technology to be found, and yet characters use words like “pervert” here and there. To be fair, I don't know how far back the word “pervert” was invented (and no I am not going to go looking that up), so maybe it's accurate, but it just feels off to me.
I am, however, a big fan of the character art here. It's very expressive, and a subtle but effective touch is the way Bimonia's ears twitch whenever she's the one speaking; it doesn't sound like much, but it casually raises the immersion almost without being that noticeable. Also on the technical side of things, the scene transitions that I previously ragged on in a long-ago review of Cursed Sight make a return, but are better implemented and feel less jarring this time around; they also serve to clearly switch perspective between Tayo and Bimonia, who trade off narrating chapters. The UI also gets special mention from me, because it is apparently so world-breakingly fancy that my poor old laptop was completely unable to display it and I had to finish the game on a different computer so as to be able to read the text. (This is not at all a point against the game, merely against my laptop's outdated graphics card.)
There are five different endings, dependent on the choices you make throughout the game. Each choice has the potential to net you a “feather” for either Tayo or Bimonia, and when you reach the game's climax, the ending you get will depend on how many feathers you have. A progress menu allows you to keep track of how many feathers you have and how many you need for each ending, which is quite handy for when you inevitably go back through the game for 100% completion. It's also not particularly difficult to get all the endings in the first place, as there are twenty-one choices and the highest amount of feathers you'll ever have to get for a given character is eight. It's very hard to comment further on the endings without spoiling anything, so let's just say that there are no easy paths.
InvertMouse continues to set high standards for the English visual novel community, not just through superb writing and characters, but also through the sheer amount of effort that goes into what they do. All of their games feel like genuine labors of love, and The Last Birdling continues that; I might go so far as to say it's their best work yet. It's probably most similar to Cursed Sight, which I also enjoyed, but irons out some of the issues I had with that game and better captures the inevitable tragedy of trying to maintain a real friendship with so many outside forces getting in the way. All in all, I'm very glad to recommend it.
The Last Birdling is available on Steam.
Final verdict: A beautiful masterpiece of character interaction and storytelling, The Last Birdling tells a moving, tragic tale of prejudice and doomed friendship that packs an impressive punch into its short runtime.
The Last Birdling is developed by Invertmouse. The opinions expressed in this review are my own. I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a review. This review was originally written for Anime Backgrounds.