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Review: Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (Steam, 2012)

A beautiful and enthralling game that should not be overlooked

If I made a list of the types of games that I could see myself falling in love with, “point-and-click adventure games” and “iPhone games” would be fighting for the bottom slot.  And yet here I am, head over heels for a point-and-click adventure game that spent most of its life as an iPad/iPhone exclusive.  I only tried the game because I got it along with several others in the Humble Indie Bundle V, and because I thought it was too visually beautiful to not at least give it a go.  But once I started playing, I was immediately floored with the amount of creativity and artistic talent on display.  Against odds, this game managed to work its way into my top 20, and into my heart.

In the game, you play as the Scythian, a female adventurer who is travelling in search of a mystical book called the Megatome.  After retrieving the book from a dark creature in a dark cave, your goal turns to “taming” the three pieces of the “trigon trifecta” (a very clear nod to the Zelda series’ triforce).  To do so, you will enlist the help of a girl (helpfully named “girl”), a woodcutter (named “logfella”), his dog (named “dogfella”) and The Archetype, who is a sort of guide that mostly exists outside of the game.  It is never explained why the Scythian must complete this “woeful errand,” and whether that is a jab at obtuse goals in fantasy games, or just the developers resisting the urge to overexplain, I appreciate it.  Not having a clear idea of the source or reason for your mission makes it all the more mysterious and sad.

And sad it is.  There is a distinctly melancholy tone throughout the game, even though there is plenty of humor on display.  It’s not that the humor falls flat (I found myself laughing out loud at times), it just feels more like the kind of humor that people share when they are in desperate circumstances.  The sense of melancholy is woven into every part of the game.  The music is somber, the Scythian is mostly alone and far from home, you are constantly stalked by a large demon, and as you progress in the game, your health meter actually diminishes.  A reverse of the usual paradigm, the further you get in the game, the less powerful you become, which leads to a sense of foreboding and unease.

The title of this game, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (which I will shorten to S&S from now on) tells you a lot about the game.  “Sword and Sorcery” is a phrase that is often used to describe a huge subset of videogames (and novels, comics, etc.) that share similar tropes, usually in a medieval high fantasy setting.  The developers’ choice to use this as the title shows an awareness of the genre tropes, and signals that the game is willing to riff on them a bit.  The choice to spell the word “sworcery” also shows that the game is willing to occasionally get silly for a laugh.

By far the most telling part of the title, though, is the “EP.” The game uses a vinyl record as a kind of logo, and also replaces the typical light world/dark world trope with “side a” and “side b,” complete with an animation that flips the record when go back and forth.  But those are more surface elements, really - music pervades every facet of this game. In a review, I typically talk about music dead last, because while I appreciate a good soundtrack as much as anyone, the gameplay and the story almost always take precedence. Here, that is not the case. Music and other audio (composed by indie singer/songwriter Jim Guthrie) is front and center in S&S, but in a way that weaves itself so seamlessly into the rest of the game that you never feel like anything else took a backseat.

As you would expect, there are different musical selections for each area of the game, and even some different ones depending on the time of the month.  Each of these are stunning in their composition and their appropriateness of time and place.  I often found myself just sitting back and listening to the score.  The great mix of electronic sounds and analog instruments Guthrie used lends a real sense of mystery to the game.  Additionally, there are several points in the game where completing certain tasks is accompanied by the same somber yet bombastic theme that plays when you start the game.  Even though by the end you’ve heard it dozens of times, that piece never gets less epic and thrilling, and your actions seem all the more amazing for having it as the punctuation. 

However, most of my musical chills came from the “Song of Sworcery.”  This is a technique you learn early in the game wherein you enter a trance-like state and can interact with the world in new ways.  In this state, you can strum a handful of tiny waterfalls like a giant classical guitar, and coax musical tones out of other parts of the scenery.  There is an absolutely gorgeous section where you sit listening to a full song, and all the while you can “play” a number of the bushes on screen to produce 7-10 different notes, all in the key of the song that’s playing.  So, if you’re so inclined, you can play along with the song, compose your own counter-melody, or just riff on top of it.  The developers give you a chance not just to consume their product, but to be an active participant in its creation.  It’s one of the best singular moments I’ve had gaming in a long time.

I hinted that the visuals in this game are what grabbed me first, and they truly are stunning.  The developers chose to employ an enhanced pixel-art style, and it is probably the best use of that style that I have seen.  The background environments are very nice, especially with the use of color in the twilight (or “side b”) realm.  But it is the detail on things like bushes and rocks that really amazed me.  By basically “lighting” certain pixels at certain times, the artists were able to create a world that was pulsing with life.  The screenshots are wonderful, but to see the game in motion, to see fireflies blinking, water running, rabbits dashing into the bushes, and trees swaying is truly a thing of beauty.  Much like the music, there were times I just sat and stared for a while.

The character models are the blocky, 8-bit-inspired designs you would expect, and they work well enough for what they are.  The artists got a decent amount of expressiveness out them, but they are limited by design.  The same can be said for the animations.  They did a decent job of showing you what was happening, but they were necessarily limited by the art style.  Overall, it was a compromise that didn’t bother me, but it could irk some, I suppose.

I described the gameplay earlier as that of a point-and-click adventure game, but that’s not entirely accurate.  Those games are often characterized by static screens, heavy text, and “pixel hunting” - the act of clicking everything on the screen until you hit upon the one pixel that actually does something.  That description would not be fair to S&S.  However, because this was originally an iPad game, playing on PC/Mac means that clicking is indeed your only control over the game. 

The gameplay consists of three basic categories: exploration, “sworcery,” and combat.  In the first, you are walking around the beautiful environments (click the screen to go where you want), clicking on interesting objects to learn more about them, and talking to NPCs to get clues and other interesting info.  When you come upon something that can be affected by your “song of sworcery,” you right-click to enter that mode and look around the screen for something that seems off or different, and try to manipulate it with the mouse.  There is some light puzzle solving that goes with this, as you try to figure out what is interactive and what can be done with it.  It feels great whenever you solve one of these puzzles, but it’s been pointed out that you can usually just wildly click everywhere and stumble on the answer.

You will be forced to do battle about 5-10 times or so in the game.  When you get into combat mode, your options are just to click your shield or your sword.  Most of the combat is dodging or blocking your opponent’s attack and then slashing with the sword.  I didn’t like the combat at first (and it remains the weakest portion of the game), but it grew on me.  The viewing angle and collision detection made for some frustrating hits, but ultimately dodging at just the right time and landing a hit is pretty satisfying, thanks to the audio and animation.  There are more cool features I’m leaving out (such as use of the real-world lunar cycles and Twitter integration), but these are the main gameplay features.

The combat leaves something to be desired, but it is not the only aspect of the game that does.  My biggest complaint is with some of the dialogue.  The game tries to strike a balance between dead serious, epic fantasy text and more casual, colloquial speech.  Most of the time, this is done reasonably well.  It’s sometimes nice to hear the characters talk how people actually talk, and this was the source of much of the humor.  But it sometimes goes too far into “hipster speak,” saying things like, “we were super bummed about this,” and so on.  Sometimes it even takes the piss out of its own story, such as when an NPC told the Scythian what she needed to do next, and the reply was “and we were like, groan, not another fetch quest, amirite?”

I get that they were trying to make a statement about fantasy/adventure games here, and I don’t need my games to be 100% straight-laced at all times, but the hipster insincerity grew wearisome after a while.  Because there was this really cool, really affecting adventure happening, but every once in a while the game seemed to be laughing at you for enjoying it non-ironically.  It was strange that the developers seemed to want to undermine my enjoyment of the game, just to show how cool and funny they were.  These moments are few and far between, and they don’t manage to mar the experience too much, but they were disappointing, and occasionally brought the whole mood down.

Those criticisms notwithstanding, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is one of my favorite games in a long time.  It’s probably not the best game I’ve played, gameplay-wise, but the way it affected me and the way it stole my heart is something I haven’t experienced in a good long while.  As a complete artistic vision, this game is a huge success, and one I can see myself coming back to, just to be able to take in the sights and sounds of this world for a few precious moments more.