Published on January 1st, 2013 | by Gary Kirwan
Cheapskate Gamer – Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery
The holidays are a time for relaxing with family, watching old movies and excessive consumption of food and drink. And then slipping away to play some games when nobody notices. Since you’ll be so weighed down with turkey and wine, we’ve got a quiet one for you this time around, our fellow cheapskate gamers. One to be savoured.
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
That’s one of my favourite sayings. It speaks to the unique effect a beat or a rhythm can have on a person, something so personal as to be indescribable. Up to this point it’s never sprung to mind for a videogame, until I encountered Sword & Sworcery over the holidays. It’s the first game I’ve come across that I would describe as a total experience. The sum of its parts pales next to its tremendous accomplishments. I’m still going to try writing about it though. Otherwise this will be the shortest article of all time, and I’ll be in all sorts of trouble.
A collaboration between Superbrothers, Capybara Games and musician Jim Guthrie, initially the most striking feature is its minimalist presentation. Everything is stripped back to bare essentials, from the virtually textless main menu to the pixel art human representations. They’re not strictly human in the anatomical sense, but four limbs and a head leave little doubt as to what you’re looking at. The 8-bit style adheres to a muted but atmospheric palette, the result is both beautiful and surprisingly detailed. From a distance the vistas are expansive and teeming with life, until you zoom in and it’s clear you’re looking at carefully arranged coloured dots – not unlike an Impressionist painting. Likewise the gameplay strives for a similar elegant simplicity.
Originally designed for touch-screen formats, everything is controlled by clicking. Hold a point and our protagonist, the Scythian, will move there. Double-click (or tap) to interact with objects. It’s intuitive, unobtrusive and perfectly suited to the mood of the game. So far, nothing groundbreaking, right? We’ve seen these elements before.
Then the musical score kicks in and the game takes on a life of its own. Scaling a forest path becomes an epic, heroic journey and taking a breather by a placid lake beneath a crescent moon becomes an ominous, ethereal scene. On its own, the soundtrack (included with any purchase) is simply gorgeous. When experienced through an interactive medium it becomes something so much more. It’s really difficult to do it any kind of justice (refer to the opening quote), so I’ll link the trailer video from an old Humble Bundle in the hope it somehow comes across, and we’ll move on.
The mysterious Archetype begins each of the four episodes by narrating directly to the player, something which occurs often throughout. The sombre, foreboding tone leaves little doubt as to the outcome of our “woeful errand”, but the deliberate use of “We” rather than “I” serves to quickly bridge the gap between player and character toward a common goal. Despite this, I never really felt I was in direct control, but rather along for the journey. As the game progresses, this only adds to the sense of impending doom as things get worse for our hero. Each episode also reduces the health pool by one bar, acting as both a difficulty curve and an indication of the heavy toll the quest is taking.
Along the way we meet Dogfella, an intrepid pooch, Logfella, a stoic woodcutter, and Girl, a huge feathered baboon. Well, she actually is a girl, but that would have been a strange twist. Not enough feathered baboons in games really. Each of these enigmatic personalities will help you along the way and conversations will often produce humorous flavour text, or occasionally hint where you should go next. Even Jim Guthrie himself makes a cameo for an impromptu jam session in a woodland clearing. During the quest you will also obtain the fabled Megatome, allowing you access to their thoughts at any time. It’s a nice way to further explore the storyline and setting through their general ramblings.
Combat is infrequent but superbly simple. You have a sword, click on the sword to attack. You have a shield, click on the shield to block. Knowing when to do what relies on your long neglected pattern recognition skills. Enemies will beat their shield (accompanied by fantastically tribal and evocative thumping) a number of times to indicate how many attacks you’ll need to block. Patterns vary and indicators differ depending on the enemy, but that’s the essence of it. Each episode wraps up with a boss battle crescendo for a piece of the “Trigon Trifecta” (homages to Legend of Zelda are frequent), preceded by a subtle building of tense music and graphical effects.
While combat works well for the most part, the heart of Sword & Sworcery really lies within its often obscure puzzles. Relying on visual and audible clues to tell you when you’re headed towards a solution is a refreshing change from the typical inventory-based staple of the adventure genre. Most involve interacting with the scenery and so an initial click-everything-to–see-what-blinks is called for, before deciphering the correct pattern or method of manipulation. They’re far from difficult, but heavily rely on identifying matching pairs of notes or sequential patterns to avoid frustrated clicking.
The mood lends itself well to this type of puzzle, as you are more inclined to work through a problem when the scene is so serene and the music so soothing. Each episode even ends with the Archetype suggesting you go and do something else for a while and come back to the game later, patiently waiting to be tackled at your own pace.
The use of sound and indirect prompts really stay true to the game in many ways. For extra reading on the stylistic approach, you should have a look at Superbrothers’ Less Talk More Rock manifesto . That’s right, we’re giving homework now, there’ll be a test at the end of the month. It’s a good read for anyone interested in approach to game design though, and a lot of it is evident in Sword & Sworcery. As one message from the Megatome puts it:
“Did you ever notice that sometimes words just sound like noise but other times noise makes the prettiest sound?”
For all its grandiose posturing however, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The language throughout is a mix of mythical and colloquial, which is simultaneously entertaining and somewhat immersion breaking. I can’t quite decide if this accessible conversational style and slew of fourth-wall breaking observations are a pro or con. With one stroke they draw me further into its atmospheric grasp, while overlaying a sarcastic tone with the next. At times I feel it cheapens the experience.
Twitter integration is also a feature which I personally could have done without, prompting early and often to let the masses know how I’m getting on. Perhaps initially a social experiment of sorts to encourage collaboration in solving the game’s mysteries, at this stage (almost two years since its initial tablet release), the option to turn it off would have been welcomed.
One of the most thought-provoking elements is the incorporation of real-world lunar cycles, meaning certain parts can only be completed during specific moon phases. Points for innovation, but it also means the game can take up to 28 days to complete. There are a number of workarounds, both in-game and by being a cheaty-mc-cheater, but part of me feels making the former more difficult to come by would lend a greater emphasis. How much mileage is gleaned from this exercise will depend on the individual, some will find it to be another example of the game suffering a little from its own perceived cleverness, but it’s certainly an intriguing concept. Despite these slight missteps and the game’s sombre mood, the experience is ultimately uplifting.
All of this has gotten me in the mood to go listen to some more of Mr Guthrie’s sweet, sweet sounds so we’ll end our one-sided correspondence here dear readers. I would urge you to try out the game, it’ll only take four hours of your life (unless you’re a fan of the moon as a game mechanic, in which case enjoy your month of gameplay) and you can pick it up on Steam at 60% off for the next week. It’s also just been released on the Google Play Store in the last two weeks for the completely insane price of £1.25/€1.49, so if you want to experience the game with touchy-feely screens you should totally go do that. Play it with the lights off and headphones on, you won’t regret it.