Sword. Also, Sworcery
Long and shameful list of links: Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP from Superbrothers and Capy, and featuring the delightful tunes of Jim Guthrie, is now out on Steam, which marks the first appearance of this well-received (including by Time Magazine) game on PC. Whew!
I wasn’t expecting to enjoy S:S&S EP. As it was only available on iOS-powered devices (my phone may be useless, but I pay half as much for the privilege of that uselessness), I hadn’t seen any of the reviews or buzz surrounding it. When I saw that it had made the pilgrimage from the ‘Pad to the PC, I figured I would take a look, but I assumed the transition would be marred by poor resolutions, wonky ported gameplay, and perhaps a bit too much—dare I utter the word?—pretentiousness. I mean, have you seen that title? I’m glad to have been wrong. A few hours later, I’m pleased to say that although there are times that S:S&S EP stumbles, those few instances are dwarfed by refreshing accomplishment.
One of S:S&S EP’s best design choices is its economy. You, a Scythian foreigner on an urgent and dire quest, appear on the edge of one-home village in the Caucasus Mountains. A dog precedes your journey to this isolated speck of civilization, barking and dashing away as you draw closer. You meet a sheep-herder only known as Girl, then Logfella, the woodcutting-obsessed owner of the house by the river. And right there, you’ve met all the game’s major characters. As one might expect of people without any connection to the main arteries of society, these people speak in terse sentences, and are a bit shy. Even with such limited conversation (and a few snippets of mind-reading once the titular sworcery shows up), this modest cast is better realized than most games even bother to aspire to (hi, Skyrim).
The gameplay is similarly slight, taking a less-is-more approach. In the first of four “sessions,” which lasts about half an hour if you enjoy the scenery, the Scythian meets the characters, walks up a mountain and into an otherworldly fortress, fights two easily-defeated enemies, and walks back down to Logfella’s home. There are a couple details I’m leaving out so as to not spoil anything, but the game sticks with a similar lean delivery throughout. You will never find yourself slaying dozens of inept soldiers or scores of woodland creatures playing suicide-by-armed-adventurer. You won’t have to bother with dialogue wheels or trees. Your inventory is basically a book, some fungus (a Mario reference?), and the occasional key. And as a consequence, S:S&S EP is a fraction the size of other adventures, but it burns many times brighter.
Most of the time, anyway. About halfway through, the game does its best to blow out that flame with a number of puzzles that are almost all variations on hidden picture games. These are mixed in quality. While it was nice to do some sightseeing, dragging the cursor around the screen and clicking on bushes in varying sequences to find the right match didn’t constitute my fondest memories with the game. Crud, even as a terrified kid in the dentist’s office, I couldn’t stand the tedium of the puzzles in Highlights for Children—which is a horrible comparison, really. I don’t mean to portray these segments as bad, just as a bit of filler in a game that seems to be eschewing that sort of thing.
Much worse for me was some of the text. Most of the dialogue and descriptions were a pleasure to read. They’re often delivered with a modern twang, and rather than being jarring, the results are usually endearing and fun. Hearing that Logfella was willing to help the Scythian up the mountain but wasn’t “super jazzed” about it caught me off guard and gave me a laugh. Time and time again, these snippets were joyous to discover, and the use of modern colloquialisms often helped set the scene.
The exception was that some of the game’s text was nothing less than jarring. Take, for instance:
The instant I see something like that, I’m no longer the Scythian. I’m pulled—no, ripped—from the adventure, from the world that seemed so effortlessly real about five seconds ago.
The game exists on two planes. In the first, an intimate story about the quest of a Scythian warrior-woman to end an ancient evil. In the second, a framing device that is more than just the game’s cigar-chewing narrator, but such offerings as the game informing me that “‘Setting’ also includes the social aspect. We have found that social support networks play a significantly positive role.” So a social support network is going to enhance my enjoyment of a single-player game?
I’ve heard S:S&S EP described as a “stoner” game more than once (not from the actual Superbrothers folks, mind), but that seems like an easy way of explaining away misplaced elements as subtly brilliant. While some of the game’s eccentricities—the vinyl record imagery that occasionally pops up, for instance—somehow fit right in with the fun, others are incongruous.
I’m making a bigger deal of this than I need to, but these elements felt heavy-handed and pulled back the curtain a bit, which was disappointing in a game that did such a complete job of drawing me in. But enough of that: these were minor concerns in an otherwise delicious experience. And I’ve saved the best part for last.
The music is phenomenal. Written by Jim Guthrie, the soundtrack complements the game in that perfect way that spends half its time hiding in the background and the other half swelling up to sock you in the stomach. Unlike most games, the music is more than just background noise. One could easily consider the music as S:S&S EP’s prime focus, with the actual gamey stuff as the backdrop to a really good concept album. This interpretation even helps the “EP” suffix make more sense. In a way, it also makes the game’s few missteps easier to forgive.
I was going to embed a sample of the music, but after working for ten minutes it decided to break. Instead, I’d recommend going here to hear a selection that may have been chosen by Guthrie himself. It isn’t my favorite piece from the soundtrack (which is easy to find more of online and comes with the Steam version of the game), but it’s a good example of the style. The music is such a delight that in one of the game’s most transcendent scenes, when the Scythian happened to meet Guthrie in the forest, she was more than happy to sit on a stone bench while he gave her a little one-on-one jam. Like many of the things that S:S&S EP does right, it was unexpected in the best sense of the word. Like finding twenty bucks in your coat pocket, or discovering that friend you thought was angry with you wasn’t mad at all.
Final Score: I hate to say things like “flawed masterpiece,” so instead I’ll say that I recommend it. I’ll say that the Scythian’s story was a pleasant surprise, and the tunes even more so.