Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP review
Superbrothers is a unique audio-visual experience that turns an old cliché into a refreshing and intriguing adventure, though it sacrifices gameplay to achieve it.
Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP is a quirky art game that wears its quirkiness on its sleeve; it's perhaps indicative that even the title takes a few sentences to explain. First, there's the "Superbrothers" part. There are no brothers in this game. The word refers to the Canadian design collective behind the game's visual style. As for the EP abbreviation, that refers to the focus on music, courtesy of composer Jim Guthrie. (The final piece of the development puzzle is Toronto-based Capybara Games, who've been behind puzzle games Critter Crunch and Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes.) And the "Sword and Sworcery" bit? As you might expect, the game takes place in a fantasy world, but it's far more inventive than the familiar generic Tolkien-esque setting we're used to.
Confused? Thankfully, the actual game is deliciously, refreshingly simple, prioritising experience over gameplay. You direct the actions of a female character called the Scythian. She arrives with no introduction in a bucolic, forested land, seeking an artefact called the Megatome. However, finding the book is only the first part of her story, as in doing so she unwittingly unleashes a nightmarish evil, The Gogolithic Mass, and must then be willing to sacrifice everything to stop it.
It's hard to talk about Superbrothers without spoiling its surprises. A lot of the fun comes from allowing the experience to unfold, and working out the rules of the game world rather than solving explicit 'puzzles'. For example, one quite wonderful moment in a dream sequence comes from the realisation that you have a special ability you don't otherwise possess. It's hard to call this a puzzle, because there's a big text hint on-screen, but it's more of a discovery process than being told exactly what to do.
A lot of the interaction simply comes from walking place to place, tapping objects, and reading text. There is a sole inventory puzzle of the simplest kind: a lock and a key, and there are sequences that require using a sort of meditative magic (the 'sworcery' of the title) by entering the Scythian into a trance-like mode. On such occasions you'll discover, often by trial and error, the correct order to tap certain objects on the screen – tree trunks, for example – with hints given by audio cues.
The whole thing will only take a few hours to complete, although you might want to return to it a few times rather than playing straight through. You're even encouraged to do so by the game's narrator. The passing of time actually plays a vital role in your progress, because a certain scenario is dependent on the real-world moon phases. Of course, if you don't want to wait days and even weeks to resume your adventure, there are ways to simulate the same effect, including cheating.
Overall Superbrothers is a very relaxing, slow-paced experience that's all about exploration and discovery, but occasionally there are combat sequences, including several 'boss' fights. Most of the encounters are very simple; you tap a sword icon to attack, and a shield icon to block or dodge when the enemy strikes. You can also recover one of your available 'lives' by blocking continuously. The skill comes from learning when the enemy is about to attack and perfecting your timing to counter. You can die when your health drops to its lowest ebb, but you can retry the sequence immediately.
In the iPhone version of Superbrothers, some input is handled using the accelerometer. Tilting the display 90 degrees, for example, draws the heroine's sword, which initiates combat and solves a couple of puzzles. The PC version controls entirely through point-and-click, though moving the Scythian is a matter of constantly double-clicking a new spot to (rather slowly) walk or holding the mouse button for continual movement.
As traditional game elements go, that's about it. Instead, Superbrothers is far more concerned with creating an atmosphere than anything else, and thankfully, the audio-visual aspect is impeccable. The art style is chunky pixel-art, but very different from the bright, square sprites such an approach normally entails. The characters have long, spidery limbs and the colour palette is rich but surprisingly muted and mature. The detailed pixel environments depict dark forests, abandoned ruins, tall cliffs and a few dim interiors, and all are pleasing to the eye. The bitmap animation is very smooth, and the game overlays non-pixel art elements such as shining polygon triangles, glowing particles and advanced lighting effects. The sound design is equally magnificent: Mr. Guthrie's ambient prog-rock lends itself perfectly to scoring a video game, full of shimmering layers of synths, fuzzy noise and folksy guitar.
There are also plenty of optional activities in the game, with many objects in the environment that provoke observations when you tap on them. The Megatome, acquired early on, gives you the ability to read the thoughts of the handful of other characters in the game, such as Logfella, a simple woodsman, Dogfella his dog, and an unnamed Girl, all of whom help you with advice on your quest. You even come across Jim Guthrie in certain forest locations, and can sit down to listen to an impromptu jam-session.
The deeply embedded sound and music really work to this game's advantage. Of all forms of art, I would assert that music is the most primal: that sound has a direct back-channel linked almost directly to our emotions. By enveloping even the smallest discoveries, confrontations and explorations in a responsive (and beautifully crafted) soundtrack, Superbrothers deploys an invisible hand ever resting on our shoulder, urging us onwards and assuring us that this world of prompts and pixels does have meaning, and that we, the player, shape that meaning. We may be performing simple actions, but the game is determined that we perform them in a grand manner.
Other self-mythologising preoccupations sometimes undermine this intention, unfortunately. Superbrothers is a game that loves being self-referential: author insertion, archetypical character names, and an art style and theme intended to hark back to the 8-bit era. That's just the tip of the iceberg though, and the experience is at its least atmospheric and most irritating when winking at the player, narrative conventions and itself. Perhaps this is just a personal peeve, but I feel like games in general – especially those with artistic, independent ambitions – need to be weened off the notion that breaking the fourth wall equates to cleverness. Occasionally this game can lapse into the interactive equivalent of a self-satisfied undergraduate turning in an pretentious essay on post-modernism. There is a character actually named 'the Archetype', who appears before every one of the game's four sessions and addresses the player at length. He comes out with pseudo-psychology guff like: "Should you manage to stabilize your lucidity you will be able to co-create with it... instead of fighting, resisting & cursing it."
In fact, the writing is frequently annoying; a sort of stoner-hipster-dudebro stream of consciousness. The Scythian phrases everything she's done using the royal 'we' – because she's referring to the player, too, you see! Examples: "At the rock show we spied one of those skeleton dudes chilling to the ominous beat." "The woodsman known as Logfella was feeling some serious woe about the missing girl." "Inside a titanic hollow tree we approached a solitary grave & a badass ghost showed up to sing us a mad rhyme." Your tolerance for modern slang terminology in a medieval-inspired fantasy setting may vary, but for me, having the characters constantly appraise events with a trippy attitude removed any sense of urgency and gravitas from the situation. It's a unique style, if nothing else, but to me it seemed corny and forced, a self-conscious attempt to sound cool and edgy. Superbrothers even links to Twitter by clicking a button in your Megatome, should you feel the need to share all this nonsense with your friends. (There is no gameplay purpose for doing so.)
It's plainly evident that the developers also love The Legend of Zelda, as many of the thematic cues are taken straight from Nintendo's seminal action-adventure. The Scythian is soon sent after a magical, golden, three part triangle-shaped artefact called The Trigon. The Trigon battles involve using your sword to deflect enemy projectiles back at them. The health system uses heart containers, except here they're stars instead. Sound familiar? If this happened in a big budget or mainstream game, people would call it cheeky; here it hopes to get a free pass because it's a self-conscious homage.
For me, layering on all this nodding and winking risked spoiling the very lovely, magical things this game really does achieve: the beautiful atmosphere, the simple but mysterious gameplay, and at the centre of it all, a straightforward but affecting story about sacrifice with a strong, non-sexualised female lead. In Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP, your health bar goes down, not up, as you progress through the game, and it soon becomes apparent that the Scythian is on a draining, potentially suicidal 'woeful errand' to avert the crisis she's triggered. That's good enough to stand on its own, without the game pulling backflips to show how clever it is. At times I wished the game's beauty was accompanied by more sincerity, but it's certainly unlike any other game if you're up for something different, and at it's best it can be a sumptuous, relaxing, almost spiritual audio-visual journey.