There’s been a terrible accident and you, dear gamer, are now stuck on a dangerous planet that’s completely devoid of sentient life playing as a moody teenage boy with nothing but a boost-equipped science-y glider and an AI voice for company – it’s not the most enticing elevator pitch you’ve ever read, is it? But in spite of these potentially questionable first impressions Tori no Hoshi‘s sci-fi survival alien-bird glide ’em up setting is exactly the sort of thing this hobby was made for, a true one-of-a-kind experience that will still feel special long after the initial novelty’s worn off.
Now if you’re anything like me you’re probably tired of overly emotional children saving themselves/the world/killing God with the help of grizzled eighteen year old war veterans, spending forty hours or so of life-changing questing acting like they’re the first people who ever felt anything or did anything worth talking about, and you’d be forgiven for taking a quick glance at Hugo’s – this game’s teenage lead – glum expressions on here and bracing yourself for a very familiar emotional ride. Fortunately there’s been some thought and effort spent on explaining our reluctant adventurer’s moods, and the game’s all the better for its smattering of reflective in-flight chats and longer audio log recordings. There’s no doubt that Hugo’s in real trouble here, so his sassy comments and frequently sour outlook feel like an entirely reasonable response to his life-threatening surroundings and even the standard-issue fractious relationship he has with his dad is revealed to be equally justifiable as the plot unfolds, and far more layered than the usual choices between a perfect dad who’s being unfairly pushed away or an absentee deadbeat who insists on needing one more chance to put things right. Dr Ramanski, as most people refer to Hugo’s dad, is a passionate and capable researcher who’s been eagerly studying the alien bird life on Corneus Blue, the distant planet that serves as the backdrop for the game. He’s not deliberately neglectful of his son by any means but it’s made obvious in Tori no Hoshi’s flashbacks that his heart belongs to his research, and there’s nothing Hugo can ever do to compete with his dad’s all-encompassing devotion to his work. They both know this, and the game’s quiet melancholy as yet another conversation returns swiftly to the topic of his father’s work lingers with you as much as it does Hugo. Having said all this fair and thorough explanations can still only take “Person is sad because sad things have happened to them” so far, which is why those precious brief moments when Hugo’s in absolute awe of the beauty around him – smiling at rainbows or excited by a flock of birds following his futuristic glider – exist to acknowledge the natural wonders all around him and thoroughly skewer all the doom and gloom, even if only for a short while. To see him pumped up and ready to get going to the next island or even apologising for something he’s said all help to show that Hugo’s got a whole personality locked away inside his spiky-haired head, even if you don’t get to see as much of it as you might hope. He’s not a miserable kid, but a kid who’s miserable.
And who wouldn’t be if they were in his shoes? Hugo’s fancy protective suit may be able to keep his body warm and functioning (although he still needs to scavenge for food) but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s all alone with no-one to rescue him but himself on a world filled with unknown dangers. Effectively communicating the totality of this isolation to the player is a crucial part of Tori no Hoshi’s success – every emotional beat hinges on the player really feeling Hugo’s loneliness in their bones, and the only reason the scavenging/survival aspect doesn’t feel like a lot of tedious busywork is because it’s clear that it’s all part of the necessary struggle to continue existing on a harsh and indifferent planet. There are no abandoned human camps to find to give Hugo just one decent night’s sleep, no hope of stumbling upon an abandoned cache of useful items or even mysterious ruins left behind by an ancient civilisation – Corneus Blue is nothing but sea, sky, and birds, and as the night wind whips through Hugo’s makeshift camp, the rain’s lashing down, and you’re desperate to find him something – anything – to eat you really, really, understand how this place can be so vibrantly alive yet utterly desolate at the exact same time.
And then the storms roll in.
These deadly combinations of biting winds, endless rain, and streaks of lightning are the worst thing Hugo can get caught out in, and the tension as you rush to the safety of the nearest camp is up there with any chase sequence found in the mightiest of survival horror adventures. Even if you ignore the physical damage they do to Hugo if he’s caught in one they’re simply frightening. For all the gnawing anxiety of potentially starving to death or being lost forever on an alien world nothing makes you uncomfortably aware of how small that glider is, or how uncertain this young boy’s future is, like getting caught out in one of these squalls.
As with Hugo’s darker moods so to do these times of scant supplies, dangerous weather patterns, and the occasional scrum of vicious birds give way to something more pleasant: Corneus Blue is a beautiful world, and although the PlayStation 2 may not be quite up to the task of giving the landscape the fine detail it needs to survive low altitude scrutiny on the whole these uninhabited islands look like the verdant untouched wildernesses they should be, and when you’re lazily rising on a thermal over the sea as the sun peeks above the horizon and everything becomes a blaze of orange flecked with birds it really is a breathtaking sight to behold (and the reason why at least ninety percent of the screenshots I’ve got of this game involve lens flare). These extraterrestrial birds navigate this beautiful landscape in flocks (murders, parliaments, seiges, charms, mobs, and bouquets too); gliding through a group of a wholly unknown species for the first time, trying to take a decent photograph and catch a good glimpse of them up close as you attempt to work out what the heck they are, is honestly unlike anything else I’ve ever played. They all strike a fine balance between four-eyed otherworldliness (they often appear to have distinctly Panzer Dragoon-like influences) and familiar Earth birds, often having a clear base silhouette (like a duck, crane, or raven) that gives your mind enough of a foundation to think “Yep, that’s definitely a bird” while still possessing an unusual twist you couldn’t have seen coming – birds whose mouths unfold into a net-like shape is one memorable example. As these birds are all complete unknowns to everyone it’s up to you to observe them in the air and gathered around campsites for survival tips; they’re more than just a bundle of feathers, these birds have their own behaviours, preferred locations, food types, and even bedtimes if you care to notice. Some will stick to the coastline, some like the mountains, and others will even attack if you get too close to their territory – unless you can find a way to trigger their pleasant social call which you can then transmit back to them, causing them to view the glider as an odd-looking ally. Food’s the most surefire way to make new feathered friends, although as with the birds themselves you have no idea what any of it is without careful observation and a little hands-on practise. Offering the birds found around safe campsites (the sort of camp you’d make on a fertile plain, that is. The desperate one you found on an exposed hillside on evening will probably be barren) food is a great way of learning what’s safe to eat, although if the birds accept you’re offering you’ll then have to spend more hours foraging for a replacement, and you can’t ever guarantee there’ll be any more around for Hugo to find. The level of detail in the game’s bird behaviour is incredible, but slightly spoiled when you notice a group of aerial avians completely ignoring the terrain – birds will fly straight through actual mountains with alarming regularity – which is extremely frustrating if you’re chasing an unknown colony down for a photo and find yourself crashing into bare rock as they happily sail straight through, but at least there’s some solace in knowing this precious data is well worth the risk.
It’s no Pokemon Snap but the small photos you take (sadly they’re for capturing data rather than viewing for pleasure) help build up a catalogue of all the birds you encounter, with the option to create names and brief notes for every last one of them. Even if you’re not interested in playing sci-fi ornithologist and writing up your own behavioural memos these photographs still offer a tangible reward: Good close-up images grant Hugo various small stat boosts that can build up into a significant advantage for conscientious players over the course of the game. I’m pretty sure no real wildlife photographer got a +1 bonus to their health for taking a good shot of a pigeon, but knowing there’s not only acknowledgement but a definite benefit for making the effort helps make it all feel worthwhile.
For all my enthusiasm Tori no Hoshi may still sound like a whole lot of nothing – fly around a bit, land, fly somewhere else, try not to die – but there’s actually a clear plot and progression structure tying it all together, you’re never left at any point just doing “whatever”. To help the player stay focused the game keeps an organised log of all the quests you currently have available with accurate descriptions as well as obvious separation between compulsory and optional tasks. In keeping with the game’s feel of venturing out into the unknown there are three potential routes you can take across the planet from initial landing site to the game’s ending, with only one of those covering all ten of Tori no Hoshi’s islands. These islands are all treated as self-contained chapters in the story, which has the welcome knock-on effect of silently reassuring you that no matter how tough things may get you know the answer to your troubles will be somewhere nearby – that you’re not stuck in a “dead man walking” scenario just because you didn’t over-prepare for something you could have never predicted. Allowing each island to exist separately from the others also frees them from the usual obligations to geographical continuity too: There are extreme storm cycles to contend with, giant Hugo-eating insects to glide away from like your life depends on it (Protip: It does.), canyon mazes, aggressive birds, birds so friendly you can get fish from them, places with a dangerous lack of food or so much that you can’t possibly carry it all with you – considering how limited your interaction with the game might look on paper (you can only glide across the land or use a menu-based UI in camp) there’s a lot to do, and the environment has a huge impact on how you play.
Even when you know what’s ahead the game will always be so unpredictable (but never truly random) that you can only ever hope things will go your way, but you will always have to prepare for the worst: You can’t “grind” a good campsite for food or make a beeline for Camp X before Y Day to set yourself up for an easier ride across the rest of the island, you just have to take things as they come. For a game that’s centred around a life-or-death tale of survival the slow pace definitely feels a little jarring at first, but you soon get used to not venturing out because of the unsafe weather or waiting a few hours more in camp (I should stress these are in-game hours) to dry out some fish. Not being able to rush through and pay the bare minimum of attention blesses the game with almost Final Fantasy XI levels of immersion, and before long you’ll find yourself noticing the satisfying way the wings of Hugo’s glider flex and bend in the wind, recognising the sound of a familiar flock of birds calling out, and even feeling a little homesick for older, less hostile, campsites.
I’m sure I’ve said “There’s nothing like this” far too many times on this blog but I promise you that if there’s ever one time where I really pinky-swear mean it for realsies, it’s for Tori no Hoshi. It’s not “Pilotwings with birds” or any other easy comparison you might spring to mind, but genuinely in a class all of its own. Just like Hugo you’re dislocated and detached in unfamiliar surroundings, and learning how to navigate this deadly paradise by his side is an adventure as unforgiving as it is unforgettable.