It’s hard to say exactly when a game turns from just another title in a library to a compelling piece of evidence for the “Games Are Art, Roger Ebert” movement. Usually a game has to propel itself past all others at its side and showcase something unique, something special, something that says that only a game could deliver this experience. It has to have something that no other medium can ever hope to replicate properly. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP explodes in this fashion from the outset, feeling like something out of Joss Whedon’s mind after a week-long trip on Radiohead’s Kid A and old LucasArts games.
We start with a simple main menu with a rotating turntable as music plays softly in the background. The game’s logo makes it clear that the music is specifically by Jim Guthrie and no one else. The turntable is interactive, allowing you to slow down and outright stop the music as you see fit. The very first thing you do before the game begins is a test of the stereo sound. Hell, the game’s name should be the biggest clue. Clearly this is a game that is not to be played on mute while you let iTunes play your bootleg Slayer B-sides in the background. S:S&S EP wants your damn attention.
We meet the Archetype, a cigar-chomping suit who tells us how we’re escorting the nameless Scythian throughout her journey on the Caucuses Mountains to get the Megatome and join the three Trigons for her woeful quest to rid the world of some evil or something. I really don’t know. The game is about the journey and not the destination. Trying to find any solace in a well paced story with foreshadowing, witty banter, and dramatic tension will get you nowhere. What you instead have is a game where you interact with everything that you see fit. The story is there to help you have a sense of what next to do. It isn’t until the end that you realize the game’s world has slowly been seeping in, one inexplicable event at a time, until the ending has you in a worried, panicked mess.
Being an adventure game, the Scythian’s monologue is ubiquitous and often filled with hilariously colloquial observations that would not feel out of place in an Adventure Time episode. She always speaks in second person, talking to the player at all times and remarking on the world around her, casually remarking how super smart we are together or what the useless sheep are doing or how annoying those loathsome rainbows are. Even the names of your friends are steeped in humor with Logfellow the logger, Dogfellow the dog, and Girl. She’s a girl. The Megatome has the ability to let you and the Scythian read other characters thoughts throughout the game which works out to exactly the kind of inanity you would expect from a game that does not take itself seriously. It’s something of an experience to have an otherwise incomprehensible dog speak as if reciting a passage from Lovecraft.
The art style is invitingly simple, resembling the VGA graphics of DOS games with the color palette of modern computers. That small change alone accounts for the world of difference in detail between S:S&S and classics like Jill of the Jungle. Of course, the much larger resolutions and tricks like reflections and screen filters sure help things along. Superbrothers’ talent from bringing detail to life in just a few pixels is unparalleled. It’s impossible for the Scythian to show any emotion with a head literally one pixel big but the animations give her more character than a determined expression ever could. The backgrounds are vibrant and lush when in the forest and claustrophobic in the darker sections. If there was any doubt that pixel art could be more detailed than fully 3D graphics, Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP is the best evidence yet.
The game is a port from the iOS but a flawless one. The original was renowned for using the iPad’s and iPhone’s capabilities to the fullest, making full use of the accelerometer, orientation, multitouch, and the requirement for touch-based gameplay. While it could not all be translated to the PC version, what we’re left with still works beautifully. Double click to inspect and move, click and hold to walk in the direction of the cursor, use the mouse wheel to zoom in and out and click and drag to move the camera. It’s basic but very similar to phone or tablet interface. Orientation is instead replaced by a simple right click on the mouse but combat is made thankfully easier with the implementation of the Z and X keys to block and attack respectively. The game is slowly paced, enough so that you really could not want more from its control offerings.
The puzzles of the game are unfortunately simplistic and mostly devolve into finding the right order of objects or matching pairs. The exemplary dragging mechanic that shows the game’s puzzle philosophy only appears once more while ordering and matching each show up at least half a dozen times. The game’s meta nature and lack of fourth wall break into the gameplay proper in a way that Hideo Kojima would approve of. I’m hesitant to spoil anything about the puzzles, but one could wait days just to progress with the game. It’s frustrating and clever at the same time. Thankfully there is a way to get past such a large barrier and enterprising explorers with keen eyes can easily bypass this puzzle in a way the game allows. Or you could cheat by tampering with your computer settings and be forced to live with a missing 1% completion for all time until you delete your save file.
The real star of the game is Jim Guthrie’s music. While one might initially wonder why his name takes such prominence on the game’s logo, it becomes quickly apparent when you first start exploring the world. His musical cues and background music enhance every aspect of the game. Rabbits flee to a xylophonic motif, picking up mushrooms kicks off a Mario-esque riff, and thumping guitars fill the background. Almost every little piece of the game is interactive and they all generate a musical cue of some sort. Even tapping the bushes was delightful. There are only a few areas in the game, much less than most adventure games, but there is an incredible amount of music in the game. And all of it is fantastic. The game is worth the entry price of $8 for the soundtrack alone, which comes with the game. It’s by far one of the best soundtracks ever put together.
The most memorable moments of the game are easily when the music and gameplay come together. Combat is otherwise simplistic, involving audio-visual cues and timing, but the low-range thumping transforms it into a tense affair. Even the boss fights, in which you are literally fighting a triangle, become enthralling thanks to the soundtrack. There is a moment in a game already marked with Pink Floyd-like soundscapes when the music suddenly explodes into a Black Sabbath-like sound and you know that it’s time to start running as fast as you can. There are frequent bits of music through the game that give better gameplay cues than any tutorial text can hope to.
The moody music, light gameplay, and inanely melancholy world come together to form something greater than its parts. It’s hard to call a game with this little story shallow with so much depth in its world and atmosphere. It’s hard to call a game with such abstract presentation pretentious when it doesn’t hold back from elementary school slang. It’s hard to call the game repetitive when it invites you to explore its locations again and again with curious oddities hidden throughout. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is proof enough that games can be art just as much as Shadow of the Colossus is. It’s the kind of game that Dear Esther wishes it was. This isn’t an interactive story so much as it is a concept album in game form.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP was released on March 24th, 2011 for iOS, and April 16th, 2012 for PC. Review is based on the PC version.