Indie Game of the Week 136: Songbringer

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Look. I try to give all games a fair shake. I'm the type of frugally irksome person who hates abandoning anything I've spent money on, whether that's leaving food on my plate or a well-regarded game that looked to be up my alley. Due to that sunk cost fallacy, I make an effort to understand them, from the nuts and bolts of the game mechanics to the broader and more elusive ways the total package appeals to its particular audience. I make an effort with every game I cover for this column, even though I usually only give myself a couple of days total to play them and write up a review. In that time I've been unable to figure out what it is about Wizard Fu's Songbringer that could be considered attractive or compelling in any way, shape, or form.

I get that it's a riff on The Legend of Zelda. Kind of hard to avoid a comparison when you start right next to a cave with a sword in it, and a voice in your ear telling you it's a bad idea to proceed. You explore a grid-like overworld and progress through dungeons found just under the surface, through a series of interconnected rooms until you meet a boss and net a health upgrade for your troubles. I understand that the game is, to some extent, messing with you with its obtuse story, silly characters and script, and messy visuals. I appreciate that the game chose to introduce a procgen element and treats it in its promotional material like some never-before-seen conceit for games made in the Zelda-like format, despite being beaten to the punch quite famously by The Binding of Isaac: a game equally perturbing but far more approachable. Songbringer's oft-inexplicable visual language evokes visionary sci-fi artists long dead, discombobulating the player as they explore this strange alien world filled with hallucinogenic cacti, goat-faced demon soldiers of a war fought long ago, and a spaceship full of "revelling" ne'er-do-wells who are either pirates or explorers or both. Individually, these parts make sense to me. It's just at every turn this game does its darndest to make me not want to care.

My antipathy is really more of an emotional, instinctual response of revulsion than a rational series of arguments against the game I can easily delineate in a review, but I'll try to go through the standout reservations piece by piece. First, the game is hideous. It's aiming for this pixel art aesthetic where there's a lot of effects like glowing, bloom, reflections, fog and rain weather, whatever the 2D pixel version of ambient occlusion is, and so forth, but the overall effect produces an enormous optical mess that is hard to parse at the best of times, and especially so when you're trying to navigate through the visual noise to gameplay-critical aspects like dropped items (money, represented as scratchy diamonds, is hard to see even with its glowy aura) and the specific types of obstacle presently blocking your egress. You have equivalents of bombs and other Zelda mainstays, though they've been changed to be more "kooky" or sci-fi, but if you can't clearly make out through the dense pixel muck what it is that's blocking your way it's a big problem: the Zelda games have always put visual acuity as it relates to UI and gameplay elements first and foremost, making it obvious from a glance alone what everything is and does or how it will react to your inventory, but in its attempts to get "fancy" and "big aesthetic" Songbringer tramples all over the necessary clear visual language that games use to communicate in unambiguous terms with its player. It could be something that I'd adjust to in time, no doubt, but those early few hours are critical for selling someone on your game, and spending that time with your perplexed head slightly askew trying to parse what frequently looks like a thrice-artifacted jpeg crossed with a magic eye painting is not something one should anticipate from an indie Zelda clone.

Like a certain Friends cast member, you could argue that the game is handsome in an ugly sort of way.
Like a certain Friends cast member, you could argue that the game is handsome in an ugly sort of way.

Beyond that, you have the absolute lack of direction early on; again, trying to invoke the original The Legend of Zelda, which was made in a time when fancy opening cinematics and in-game codices were unfeasible and the manual had to tell you everything you wanted or needed to know early on. Miyamoto intended for you to explore those caves with no fixed imperative like he would do in the rural mountainsides of the prefecture he visited in the summers as a child, but he had the wherewithal to give you all the basic information on how you could go about doing that and why in the included instruction booklet. Obtuse and withholding for the sake of being obtuse and withholding isn't compelling game design; even the mercurial Phil Fish with Fez had the sense to create a normal platformer first and hide all the cool, weird, "gotta poke around a bit" stuff deeper in for people to chance across and then share in hushed whispers. The procgen aspect just seems like unnecessary bandwagoning; who's going to be playing a game of this type over and over? In what universe would the idea of every dungeon being thrown together by an unthinking algorithm be preferable to dungeons carefully designed to take players through a determined route or give them clever and possibly thematically apropos puzzles to solve? Nothing about what little I could ascertain about the game's plot pointed towards alternative routing, beyond choosing not to pick up the sword at the start of the game (which just feels like a self-inflicted hard mode more than a narrative choice). The difficulty of the foes ranges from nonentities that just stand there while you toss a top hat - the "hilariously random" ersatz of the classic Zelda boomerang - at them over and over, to fast-moving enemies that drain your health from being constantly up in your grill, since none your weapons seem to have a sufficient knockback effect to create some distance (besides maybe the bombs, but they're not great for getting enemies off you since you also get hurt by them). A lot of enemies have special vulnerabilities also, requiring you to jump into your inventory to switch to the right tool for the job: the game does at least give you six slots for items rather than the usual two to four in the Zeldas, but there's still a lot of them you'll find and use frequently. Then there's the small but still, I would argue, significant problem of how the game will crash whenever you alt-tab or try to quit out to desktop, and then you're met with a button to send an error report to the developer the next time you boot it up. I almost feel rueful that I've flooded that poor dev's inbox with several identical error reports, but then maybe they should've built a game that works dagnabbit.

Sigh. Sometimes it's nothing too specific. There are some glaring faults outlined above, but the majority just read like petty cavils. It's really when you add it all up that you're able to put a cap on why you've been souring on the experience, and a game you aren't enjoying isn't one worth pursuing any further than you have to. There's a lot of well-regarded games out there that didn't click for me about which I could write similar kvetchy litanies - ultimately, life's too short for games that you don't like, and an adult's free time is shorter still. Songbringer certainly has its own style and personality and Goddesses' know we could always use more weird spins on The Legend of Zelda, but after saying my piece I really have no desire to play it further.

Rating: 2 out of 5. (DNF.)

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