Of Blade and Spell
A crudely-rendered 2D man stands in an old grey suit, intermittently taking puffs from his cigar. He looks like something that could have walked straight out of an Atari 2600 game, but he stands against a more modern backdrop of slick grey and white. He talks of a kind of experimental treatment for “Soul-Sickness” for you, the player. His therapy will consist of dropping you into a virtual fantasy world where as a hero known only as “The Scythian” you will embark on a grim quest to banish darkness from the land and restore peace. This is Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, a bizarre but engrossing side-scrolling adventure game from the fine folks at Capybara.
I say an adventure game because that’s the best existing categorisation for what this game is, but you shouldn’t expect to a find a Monkey Island or a Wolf Among Us in here. Superbrothers is only an adventure title in the loosest of senses. The gameplay consists of tiny pieces taken from a few different genres and the product overall is deliberately light on gameplay. It could be fairly accurately described as being “narrative-driven”, but more to the point the game is atmosphere-driven, mostly trying to evoke emotions through the medium of its unique audiovisual blend. The GUI is almost non-existent, giving the game a particularly clean look, and scenes are composed of pixel art just detailed enough to give the impression of a complete world with its own recognisable features and personality, but just simple enough for you to be able to see how it was put together and for it to have its own slightly alien style. From the greys and beiges of the mountains to the browns and greens of the forests, the colour palette has also been carefully balanced here, making every inch of the world a gorgeous and beguiling place. A lot of indie games over the past several years have adopted a pseudo-retro look not dissimilar to Superbrothers’s and it’s easy to become bored with this style. We’ve seen it a hundred times before and many games feel as though they do it simply because it was what was viable from a production standpoint, but here I can honestly say that it adds something to the experience. Each screen is almost like its own digital painting and few other art styles would convey the sense of character this one provides the game.
Superbrothers’s sound is also nothing less than lovingly crafted. The game’s music was composed by artist Jim Guthrie and accompanies the rest of the game in conveying the idea of a spacious but slightly oddball place to find yourself in. The sound here is obviously not meant to blend into the background, it’s intended you be consciously aware of it, but despite this being very much a hero’s journey, the soundtrack is not the kind of sweeping, epic collection of music you’d find in something like a Legend of Zelda. Here the sound is slightly subtler. It has its dramatic moments, but it usually takes a more steady approach to present tracks that don’t go in all-guns-blazing. Some of the music has a more earthy or homey feel to it, while other tracks are meant to be downright unsettling, but a running theme throughout is natural and traditional sounds being fed through or contrasted against synthetic instruments, making a resonant collection of tunes you won’t soon forget. Sound effects are also an important part of the mix. Bushes rustle playfully as you click on them and bells both high and low ring out as you go about your in-game tasks to flesh out the world a little more and keep areas from just feeling like big expanses of unfeeling graphics.
One of the game’s strongest tools is a slight sense of detachment it gives you which makes you feel like you’re pleasantly wandering through an almost dream-like world. Part of this comes coincidentally, if not accidentally, from the way the game’s controls have translated from mobile devices to PC. There’s little one-to-one control of your character, instead your arrow keys control your camera, while moving your character around the current screen or to the next screen is done simply by clicking where you want to go. Some of the game’s weakest elements can be found in the navigation however; it’s not always clear where you’re meant to go next to achieve your objectives. There might be a puzzle on one specific screen of the game which you must complete before you can continue, but not only are you not given any indication where it could be, it’s also often not made clear that there’s a puzzle to be completed at all. This isn’t much of a problem early on, but further into the game it can be a bit of a drag, particularly because while the click-to-move navigation is more than fine when you’re smoothly gliding through the events of the story, if you’re doing a lot of backtracking and searching, not quite sure where you need to be, it gets a little tedious repeatedly watching your character just walk from one side of the screen to the other.
When you do find puzzles they mainly consist of fairly basic challenges like clicking every object on a screen which shares some characteristic, or swiping your mouse across certain environmental features in a logical order, and this all works well enough, hooking into the game’s pleasant environmental and sound design to present something engaging. You’ll also occasionally find yourself in one of the game’s combat scenarios which can provide significant difficulty, but are again, designed with a particularly minimalist approach. You are prompted at intervals in the battle to either hit your sword or shield button on the screen, and doing so successfully can block attacks or damage the enemy. Holding down your shield during quieter moments in battles can also be used to help recharge your health, although this is only usually done at the start of fights when you’re returning from a previous defeat. It’s actually a little unexpected that this gameplay exists in this configuration at all. The large gaps at the start of battles are partly for show. You get to see your enemy gearing up for combat as the music slowly rises, and it’s an enjoyable and slightly intimidating experience the first time, or maybe the second time, but it’s not the sort of thing that lends itself to repetition incredibly well, so you find yourself asking why you’re not just fully healed after every battle, and why when returning to a fight the game goes through the same lengthy song and dance every time. Clicking a button to strike or defend yourself also doesn’t feel the most intuitive thing. Still, while the fights may be very tightly controlled by the game’s scripting, this gives them a sense of rhythm and spectacle which suits Superbrothers only too well.
One thing which really keeps the game’s locations and gameplay feeling fresh is the way it strongly encourages you to play it over a number of moderately lengthed sessions instead of gobbling it down all at once, and it’s rare to see a game make this as clear and crucial as Superbrothers does. It gives you some valuable time to digest what you’ve experienced and keeps things ticking over in your head even when you’re not in front of the game itself. It’s worth noting that as experiences go, the ones in Superbrothers are also deliberately solitary at times, making you value your conversations with characters when they do happen all the more. The woods, cliffs, and shores of this universe are large, vacant spaces, and there are only two speaking characters central to the story, a friendly local tree cutter named Logfella, and his wife Girl, although your character is also capable of plenty of internal monologues at the right time as well.
Often the language of the game is peppered with surprisingly modernised turns of phrase and little nods and winks to itself. The Scythian might observe that a character doesn’t “seem super jazzed” about doing something, or that they have “a serious case of the heebie jeebies”. I’ve seen people say that this hyper self-awareness is representative of an inability of the game to be earnest, instead only communicating in snide self-referential jokes, but I don’t think this could be further from the truth. Seeing the game able to throw in these more playful lines indicates that it’s not afraid to have a little fun and makes the characters feel more like relatable people than bland fantasy tropes poured into human form. When I’m sitting in front a game like Superbrothers I’m also often thinking things like “This guy doesn’t seem super-jazzed about leading us up this path”. The game also picks its moments with these things, and sometimes it’s whimsical, sometimes it’s comfortable, sometimes it’s sad or foreboding, but the whole thing feels more emotionally rounded because of this range. There are even questions that Superbrothers brings up that it never really answers, and that’s okay. It adds to the mystery of the world and the sense that the virtual forests and gorges you find yourself exploring are slightly foreign.
Really, if there’s one thing Superbrothers has it’s heart. This isn’t the kind of game that’s about complex and rigid gameplay systems, or even a particularly involved story, it’s instead a chance to spend some triumphant, touching, and mystifying moments with a loveable but out-of-the-ordinary quest, characters, and setting. If the unusual and slightly artsy is something that you look for in a game, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP will be right up your street.