Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP is an experimental amalgamation of music and video games where your lady-hero named “The Scythian” explores a surreal world in search of the three Trigons after discovering the all-powerful Megatome. A cigar-munching businessman dubbed the “Archetype” guides her throughout the journey. Trigons? Archetype? Megatome? Yup, this is a video game.
With its chunky retro visuals and unbelievable soundtrack, it’s easy to fall in love at first sight. Deny it all you want, but graphics are a huge component of video games, and Sword and Sworcery conjures the perfect mix of retro pixelated graphics and deliciously smooth animation. It’s just a shame the game portion wasn’t able to hold up its end of the bargain, and Sword and Sworcery constantly trips over its own artistic ambitions.
There is something to be said for a game that knows its audience, and Sword and Sworcery plays its geeky target fans like an 80s Casio keyboard. Everything about this game shrieks that it was created for someone with more than a passing knowledge of games who will soak in its not-so-subtle references to Zelda, Twitter synchronization, and self-referential erudite dialogue: “We were like, groan not another fetch quest amirite?”
Yes, another fetch quest. Winking and nodding about the tedium of fetch quests doesn’t excuse a game from sinking into that same muddy marsh. Most of the game is spent wandering through the same dozen or so locations in search of the Trigons and collecting an army of sprites. These little critters are procured by clicking the mouse in for a few seconds to enter Sworcery mode, and then feverishly clicking around the screen to figure out what objects you are supposed to be interacting with. Come up with the proper order and presto! You’ve bagged a sprite.
There are also adventures into the dream world, which the game ingeniously integrates into its musical theme by flipping a record over to the B side. It’s impossible to divorce Jim Guthrie’s ambitious soundtrack from the overall experience, which provides the perfect narration with its seamless transitions from moody indie rock to eerie John Carpenter-esque synth masterpieces. Exploring this unique world is something entirely unto itself; it’s like exploring inside a somber painting with deer that trot into the bushes, serene waterfalls, and birds that flutter around.
That may sound a little touchy-feely for a video game, but you don’t actually get to do a whole lot in Sword & Sworcery. Although there are trippy dream levels and locations change slightly based on the lunar cycle, the world feels quite constrained and small. It probably doesn’t help that I re-visited every one of the areas about a fifty times while I wandered around trying to figure out exactly what I was supposed to be doing. The feeling is amplified by the hero’s lethargic pace when traversing the path. I frequently doubled clicked the exit of an area and continued taking notes in my journal while the hero trotted along the linear path. Backtracking is a major issue, and it’s accentuated by the game’s cutesy, cryptic dialogue that obfuscates the objectives.
Every once in a blue moon, a dark spectre pops up and impedes the Scythian’s progress. Combat! Excitement! Well, not really. These battles are theoretically timing based and should require clicking on the block icon right as the spectre attacks and then counter-attacking in a basic Punch-Out fashion. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the system is completely broken and nothing prevented me from mashing the block button incessantly and then clicking on the sword when the spectre whiffed its attack. Is it gaming the system? Absolutely. But should a game that is so obviously designed for people who play a lot of games expect any less?
The Trigon boss battles are slightly more involved, and the dramatic pacing as the triangular structures shift between phases and the way the music syncs with every laser blast is captivating. The battles are still fairly simple timing-based patterns, but it’s one example where the style helps it overcome its rather simplistic nature. When the eerie soundtrack moved into a triumphant rock melody after defeating each boss, it was like a rock band was performing a private concert in my cerebellum in my honor.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is unforgettable, frustrating, beautiful, and laborious. Many of my sessions ended with me wondering why I was even playing the game, but whenever I dove back in, I enjoyed that fresh splash of pixelated water on my face. The game just makes you feel so damned cool while you’re playing it. It’s an experience unlike anything else, and while it isn’t always necessarily fun, it’s also the kind of game I can’t stop thinking about. I don’t know if that makes it a good game, but it at least makes it worth trying. Of course a free soundtrack with the Steam version doesn’t hurt.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP was provided for review by Capy Games. This review is based on the PC version, which is available on Steam for $7.99