Games and music have always enjoyed a strong relationship. The driving 8-bit tunes of yore now live on in their own reverent, nostalgia-flavored musical genre, while memorable recent songs have managed to transcend their own products to be elevated to celebrated hallmarks of gaming culture. But as tightly woven as the connection between games and soundtracks might be, relations of power and dominance tend to be one-sided. With the possible exception of rhythm games, music in games only exists to heighten your enjoyment of the game itself: its mechanics, its set pieces, the act of play.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP goes a step further. Sword & Sworcery is less a game unto itself than it is a palate cleanser, a collection of puzzles and fights designed to heighten your enjoyment of the game’s music. Its cryptic narrative, the deliberate pauses and breaks, all is intended to get you into the right mindset to appreciate Sword & Sworcery‘s peculiar blend of rock, jazz and electronic beats.
To that end, Sword & Sworcery‘s adventure game content is broken up into four individual sessions to click, click, click your way through as you help The Scythian on her woeful errand to save the game’s forest idyll from the dark spirits of nearby Mingi Taw. Everything along the way, from fighting to puzzling to sworcery, the eponymous act of magical song, is controlled through a streamlined system of pointing, clicking and dragging, a testament to Sword & Sworcery‘s iOS origins.
Something has certainly been lost in translation to traditional mouse controls, as some of the tactile challenges of operating on a touchscreen with broad strokes have transformed into the kind of frantic clicking and hot-spot searching that adventure games are now generally reproached for. However, Sword & Sworcery‘s Steam release might also have benefitted from this transition, since the game works best in the kind of calm environment one is more likely to find in front of one’s computer screen than on the subway.
In either case, the real star of the show is not the puzzles or swordfights but the well-crafted soundtrack they are supposed to highlight. In terms of music, but also in terms of ambient sound and the use of pauses and breaks, Sword & Sworcery features stunning audio, and the structure of the game has been designed around this fact, though to varying success.
After 15 varied and melodious minutes, Sword & Sworcery‘s first session ends on a high note by taking you out of the experience and suggesting to let some time pass before you resume play to prevent oversaturation. Unfortunately, this dedication to taut structuring doesn’t continue into the game’s second act, which sends you on two virtually identical fetch quests. The progression of these two is tied to the passage of time outside of the game, and while there is a way to speed up the process if you don’t want to wait, completing the session will require some running back and forth, whether in the digital world or the real world.
As interesting as this connection to the actual physical world may be, it was unwise for Sword & Sworcery to let go of the player’s hand for such a long time, for in games as in music, timing is key. Your mileage going through this section of the game may vary considerably. Not everyone is going to see fault, or experience the amount of frustrated wandering I did, but the fact that its structure even allows for mindless backtracking is a problem for a game that thrives on novelty and variety. Not a big problem, but a problem nonetheless.
However, my complaints about Sword & Sworcery‘s less than optimal structure are easily balanced by the simple fact that its songs, in a way the game’s real content, are really, really good. There is a brief bit at the end of the first section, in which the Scythian and her companion Logfella walk back to Logfella’s hut after the first bout of adventure. As they are walking home, they start to sing and we get to hear the instrumental cover of that moment.
That moment, in a nutshell, is Sword & Sworcery. Mechanically sparse and a little coarse, but nice to listen to. The song in question is called The Prettiest Weed. If you like it, you’re probably going to like Sword & Sworcery too.