Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP: Let there be pixels.

This review contains spoilers.

In the beginning, God created sounds and images.

And they were raw, untamed, meaningless. And the Spirit of God moved upon them.

And God said: Let there be pixels. And there were pixels.

Before reviewing Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP, I would like to discuss something that I consider important in gaming and tends to slowly disappear in this modern era. I am talking about the title of a game. Just like any other product of the mind, video games have a certain form of identity, which is expressed first through the title. It may look basic, but a title is actually one of the first things you discover about anything, whether it is a movie, a book, a song, or a video game. Once you read the title, it may or may not remind you of something. Some titles may recall you some childhood memories; others refers back to a cultural notion, something famous and popular. Depending on the title, you may even get what it is about. Titles are constructed and formed with meaningful words. Upon reading for the first time Saving Private Ryan, one can be sure that it will deal with the army, and very likely the theme of war. The mysterious Pan’s Labyrinth summons the Greek mythology and its fantasy background, along with the notion of labyrinth, which is a figure in which you are expected to be lost and confused. A good title can awake your interest, while others barely make you say “meh”, although it is just mere words. This is the power of a title: it gives you a hint of what you are going to experience and awake your sense of curiosity. It drags you into the movie before even watching it, or into the book before even turning the first page. As for games, it is the same process. The title of the game is not something that should be overlooked and missed. It gives you a lot of information about the experience you may encounter in the software.

Unfortunately, video games as well as other media tend to reduce titles to a simple formality. Sequels, reboots and recycled concepts tend to reduce the title to a basic information which brings nothing on the table. A quick look at the most popular games in the market makes me notice how bad titles are most of the time nowadays, at least in the mainstream video gaming industry.

  • Some titles are just reminiscences of the first episode of  a franchise, followed by a number that helps the player to remember the position of the game he’s playing in the series.

Dead Space 3, Killzone 4, Assassin’s Creed 4, Grand Theft Auto 5, Final Fantasy 10, Resident Evil 6

These titles are gruesome, for they are based on the ghost of the past, which is always recalled over and over in every new title. Only the number changes; the ghost remains in the title, always. When analyzing those titles, it came to me that they were barely existing. If you remove the mention of the first episode of the series, the title disappears. It would be just “3”, “4”, “5”, “10”, “6”. What kind of identity is that?

  • Other titles are a little more innovative, that is to say that the ghost is still there, but the numbers is now a word which reflects partially or totally the game.

Bioshock Infinite, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Fallout: New Vegas

Although it still relies on the ghost of the past, there is something quite unique in the title. If the game is good enough, the second part of the title is able to stand on its own and proudly shines for its owner. Ocarina of Time is a good example. It is slightly better than the mere “ghost+number” thing, but still perfectible.

The last category I will speak about (although there are more title variations, just that I reached my point, actually) is the stand-alone titles. These are titles that are worth reading. They are unique, usually meaningful and they awake our curiosity. It is often found in individual game with no sequel, but there are some exceptions. Shadow of the Colossus and ICO are spiritually part of the same franchise, yet their titles are totally different. It is usually in the games with no sequels that we found the best titles. They may not be the best games, don’t get me wrong. I am just talking about the specificity of a title, regardless of the quality of the game behind it.  A lot of titles sound good and unique, despite the game being a total underwhelming experience.

Now back to Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP. The title itself is a mystery for sure. When reading it, several things came to my mind.

  • Is the alliteration in S voluntary?
  • Is the pun on Sword and Sworcery (stands for Sorcery) a warning about the kind of humor that is into the game?
  • Why does it sound both epic and weird?
  • What does EP stands for? Does it mean anything?

Before even playing the game, the title interested me, and this is what every title should do. It created several questions, gave me some hints about what I was going to experience and overall grabbed me into the universe of the game. Without knowing the game, I was already leaning toward it. This would be a game about sword and magic, an adventure. Maybe it was RPG-oriented, with some fantasy in it. The dialogues and the texts seemed to be smartly written, with some humor and puns, the kind of puns that make you smile while you know you shouldn’t because it is lame. It was pure hypotheses solely based on the title, and it was great. The game knew how to be attracting only by the title.

Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP. What a mysterious title for a great game. Here’s why.

I’m currently communicating with aliens. Please do not disturb.

When music meets pixels.

I am not a music expert, but the EP thing at the end of the title rang a bell to me. EP stands for Extended Play, which is used in music to call something that contains more than one single, but not enough to be called album. After some research I found that EP was primarily used for vinyl records, which explains why the first menu of the game displays a huge vinyl below the title. It also helps a lot understanding the true nature of the game. Be warned: Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP (I will simply call it S:S&S EP later, for it is an awesome but too damn long title) is not a traditional full-length game. It is just like an EP which would be compared to a full album. This point is probably the most important, and I feel like it needs to be underlined. If you are looking for a normal game in S:S&S EP, you will probably be disappointed, infuriated and confused. It is far beyond strangeness and exoticism.

The first characteristic that derives from this EP thing is the length of the game, obviously. S:S&S EP is divided into several sessions, for a total of 4 to 6 hours, depending on your ability to navigate through the game. Each session is introduced by a strange business man that is smoking a cigar and serve as the narrator throughout the game. Sessions are basically like chapters and despite the stage curtains going down each time you finish a session, inviting you to take a break and do something else, you can actually just keep playing as you are headed back to the main menu. However it hints the player that the game should be considered like an EP. It invites you to enjoy the sessions and appreciate each part of the whole thing just like songs in an Extended Play.

The other thing coming from the EP particularity is the focus on the music. Right at the main screen we can see that the music and songs were created by Jim Guthrie. Such a highlight in the menu is not anecdotal and indeed the music is one of the best aspect of the game. The beautiful, inspired and surreal tracks on S:S&S EP perfectly fits in the atmosphere of the game. It’s even more than that: some moments will require you to listen carefully the sound environment or the drums beat in order to catch a sylvan spirit or fight an enemy. There are few combats in the game, but each one of these are strongly based on the music, and need you to wave your sword or raise your shield at the right time in order to either hit or dodge. While this may sound annoying for some, others will find it entertaining. In any case, it is almost impossible not to appreciate the richness and the uniqueness of the music.

On the other hand, the art direction of S:S&S EP is extraordinary. It is an effective demonstration of how 8-bit pixel art at its paroxysm can create powerful and detailed universe with just a few pixels. It is certainly not the cup of everyone, and I can understand that. But for those who like originality and freshness, the graphics of the game are marvelous. A large part of the experience consists in looking at the well-detailed environment and listen to the music. It is by no means an action game. Its contemplative aspect is fully assumed, as its gameplay will actually require you to look around to find what you have to do. The universe is gorgeous and somewhat partially displayed, which allows the player’s imagination to fill it. Every scenery could be framed or set as a wallpaper. The game is set in a mystical forest which contains rivers, waterfalls, ancient structures and lonely house inhabited by a wood-chopper and a girl. There are also a huge mountain shaped into a giant bearded head and a haunted temple far beyond it, lost between the rocks. The world is rather depicted in dark tones, but some elements brings bright colors from time to time. Overall, I really appreciated the graphics of S:S&S EP which are truly brilliant and deserved well the narration and the core of the game.

Those Minecraft players, always carving the mountain…

A woeful errand.

The gameplay per se is probably the most repellent thing in S:S&S EP. But at the same time it is what makes this game an intelligent game, that is to say it treats you with respect and believes that you are an intelligent and capable person able to figure things out and think for yourself.

The synopsis is the following: you manipulate a girl warrior, depicted as The Scythian, who is on a woeful errand. She is determined to retrieve the Megatome, a book with strange powers. Upon retrieving it from the hands of a dark spectre, the latter suddenly awakes. The Scythian decides then to collect the three parts of a divine triangle which is needed in order to kill the evil ghost. I’ll come back later to that story and the whole narration of the game, which is amusing and very entertaining. For now I would like to point out that the game is at the same time crystal clear and impenetrable.

S:S&S EP is a sort of point-and-click adventure, with very difficult puzzles. Not that they are complex, but once you passed the few explanations on how to tap, tip tap and hold the cursor, nothing more will be explicitly told you. The game leaves you in the forest, and it is up to you to figure out what to do. Except during combats or upon opening your inventory, no HUD will appear on the screen. It is free from any disturbing options, allowing the player to observe nature and click everywhere. You even have to figure out how to control The Scythian. Nothing is explained, and when it is, the game delivers simple words such as “Tap”, “Tip-tap”, “Guide”, “Rub”. It is very unfamiliar and not friendly at all, and you will struggle a lot just to find what you have to do. Furthermore, puzzles are not logical in any way: for example in one scenery you will need to tap every sheep in a particular order; another will require you to spot the differences between the environment and its reflection in the water. There is no general rule, except that you have to click and guess most of the time.

For me, it was fine, although I struggled from time to time to solve some puzzles. But I appreciated the policy of S:S&S EP towards hand-holding, which is a true plague in popular video games nowadays. Eventually, the game provides you some hints through the narration or the dialogues, but nothing else is told. You can also use mushrooms which highlight the elements of the puzzle when you eat them. I really enjoyed that discretion. I was not forced to read, and I was not overprotected. I could read the Megatome, which included most of the hints, but only if I wanted to. I had the choice of being helped or not, and it was truly refreshing. I could think for myself a little while, and if I was really stuck I could use a mushroom or read the smartly written dialogues. The game treated me as a very capable person, and honestly it was great. I miss this behavior in gaming.

Is that a Pedobear warrior…?

Did you say Zelda?

The story of S:S&S EP is very banal, almost cliché. We have some girl warrior trying to retrieve a powerful item, which awakes an evil enemy. Then she embarks into an epic journey to find three mythical elements that compose a unique divine artifact which will give her the strength to defeat the evil lord. What is fascinating is that the commonplace is fully assumed. It is in fact the whole goal of S:S&S EP, and it is brilliant. Through a simple story and clever dialogues, the game is in fact a pastiche of every adventure/RPG games ever made.

It was very interesting to revisit the genre through minimalist graphics and basic story. S:S&S EP both stands as the first fantasy game and every fantasy game ever made. It is a mirror which reflects every cliché: the lonesome warrior with unknown motivation; some NPCs with peculiar personality; the pointless wanderings in the universe to go from A to B; an immortal Nemesis which requires a specific artifact to kill it, and so on. By the way, this artifact is clearly a reference to the Triforce from The Legend of Zelda, and speaking of references the game contains a lot of subtle dialogues and elements which makes me think that the game, to begin with, never tried to maintain the illusion of being a game. I almost thought it was an attempt to break the fourth wall until I realized that it never built it. The narrator, also known as The Archetype, even appears from time to time into the game and breaks the illusion. It is as if S:S&S EP‘s goal was to show how an adventure game is made. A brilliant “Behind the scene”.

This process of deconstruction is enhanced with the dialogues and the writings. One of the particularity of the texts is that everything is written in 140 characters or less. Why? Because the game includes a Twitter interactivity allowing the player to tweet any text. While I never used it (I found it quite pointless to be honest), it was however impressive to see how an epic adventure could fit into such shortness. It also revealed the linguistic aspect of an adventure like this, through overly epic narration and mysterious words. I often found myself smiling at the dialogues, recognizing some of the tricks used in every adventure/RPG game. The tone is voluntarily forced, before falling into a more common language including words like “dude”, “amirite” and “logfella”. As if the language itself slowly revealed its structure. There was also some humor and I enjoyed it: it was most of the time tongue-in-cheek puns, heavily based on the words and the situation, turning every typical adventure/RPG situation into a fun pastiche.

Bro, do you even lift? the Triforce said to the Scythian

Verdict: Play it twice.

S:S&S EP is one of those games that you either discover with wonder or throw away after the first puzzle (assuming you were able to move the character and go to the next scenery, which is not intuitive). The art direction and the opacity of the gameplay are the two elements that might be annoying. The first play is not enough in order to fully appreciate the value of the game. It is only when one discovers that S:S&S EP is constructed like an EP and is a minimalist pastiche of the adventure/RPG genre that the game truly becomes fascinating and entertaining. The second play, besides being easier as the puzzles are already known and thus makes the experience smoother, gives a second reading to everything in the game. It is only at that moment that S:S&S EP becomes a brilliant and unique game.

 

Credits:

Created by: Superbrothers and Capybara Games

Music: Jim Guthrie

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About Maratz

Ludophilophage. Explorateur de mondes pixelisés. Coucheur de mots sur écran. English. French.

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