Fledgling Heroes is a game where players flap a bird’s wings to fly it around obstacles. Its tap-to-flap action brings back memories of the tappy flapping of Flappy Bird, the paper-thin phenomenon that captured everyone’s attention in 2013 until its developer pulled it from the app store after many sleepless, guilt-ridden nights.
(That’s not a joke. That’s actually why Dong Nguyen pulled the game from the app store.)
Thankfully, Fledgling Heroes has a lot more to offer than an endless gauntlet of Mario pipes. Freshman studio Subtle Boom has thought up plenty of ways to alter the oft-copied formula and give Fledgling Heroes an identity of its own.
Right from the beginning, the game treats players to some stylized and charming animations. Combined with dialogue made up entirely of rhyming couplets, it succeeds at creating a cute, light-hearted atmosphere.
The game has a storybook feel, though its story never really goes anywhere. It seems that the story only exists to set a tone and give a thin justification for why birds are flying through danger, avoiding traps, and racing dragons. The game doesn’t need the justification, but it can’t seem to help itself, plugging in narration and character motivations that don’t really do much to string the levels together. It never gets annoying, but it never really gets interesting either, so most players will likely end up ignoring it outright.
The gameplay has plenty of additions that help Fledgling Heroes distinguish itself from the countless Flappy Bird clones that came before it. While the familiar flying formula makes up the core of the gameplay, additional features such as gliding, speed boosts, bouncing off enemies and avoiding traps let the game rise above its predecessor.
The game is split up into three different worlds, themed around a pirate-filled ocean, a magical castle, and a flooded jungle ruin. In each world, players make their way through a branching series of levels via maps that use the old Mario formula: each completed level unlocks more, with occasional forks in the road that allow for different paths to the end boss.
These levels are designed to be played by six different birds. Three of the birds — a parrot, an owl, and a toucan — share the same control scheme. The other three add some variety: there’s a penguin that swims through the water and launches itself into the sky like Free Willy, a quail that runs across the ground and can sort of fly if it flaps its wings like a frantic idiot, and a kingfisher that can dive underwater.
Each level brings its own unique trials, with multiple paths and play styles that switch things up enough to keep the game interesting throughout. New enemies and mechanics are regularly introduced, with level design that makes it fairly easy to figure out how everything works. On occasion, however, the levels pull some cheap shots, resulting in deaths that seem less like the player’s fault and more like the level designer had a bad day and wanted to be a jerk.
From time to time, progress will be blocked by gates that require a certain number of golden feathers to pass. These feathers are found strewn about the levels, and can also be earned by completing certain challenges, like hitting certain objects or finishing a level under a certain time limit.
There’s challenge to be found in hunting down four pots to break in a level, or finding space on the ground to bounce 15 times before reaching the finish line, but these challenges don’t feel tailored to the levels they’re on. They’re just tacked-on objectives that amount to nothing more than busywork. That seems to be their sole purpose: filler that forces players to replay levels a few times before they can progress.
Thankfully, unlocking all the game’s content doesn’t require players to finish too many of these objectives. Accessing every single level in the game only requires about a third of the game’s feathers.
Unfortunately, once the three worlds are finished, that’s all there is to the main game. Only the busywork remains. Hunting down every last feather might have some appeal to completionists, but the levels start growing tiresome after a few playthroughs. There’s no promise of further rewards for hunting down all these feathers, either, so motivation wears thin.
The game does promise more replayability through its “lab," which lets players create and download custom levels. It’s a clear attempt to create a Mario Maker-style community that will release an endless stream of creative content. But the content just doesn’t exist. This comes as no surprise, because the items players can place in their custom levels are also hidden across the game world as part of the completionist slog that the game wants to encourage.
So, Fledgling Heroes ends up in a sad state: a simple but fun game that’s all too short, and attempts to make up for its length by padding it out with pointless challenges and promoting a larger community that will never materialize.