reviews\ Apr 19, 2012 at 10:03 am

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP review


Indie games often strive to create experiences beyond the merits of gameplay and graphics. For example, To the Moon aims for excellence in storytelling, favoring narrative detail over player control. Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP, which recently moved to Steam from iOS, borrows the simple mechanics of a point-and-click and the symbolic might of Zelda’s Triforce, inverting it to form a Trigon much more dark and dangerous than Nintendo ever conceived. Armed with a sword and shield like the green-clad hero of Hyrule, the female adventurer of Sword & Sworcery embarks on a journey that balances serenity and peril with beauty and death, and it does so more seamlessly than a flip of a record.

Sword & Sworcery compounds the designs of Superbrothers, the technical engineering of Capybara, and the prog rock score of artist Jim Guthrie for a soulful trifecta of music and exploration. These two pillars of S&S’s foundation work in tandem, giving players a rhythm to swing their swords and raise their shields to during the game’s sparse battle scenes.

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Players spend most of their time travelling on foot, a tiresome exercise that’s made worse by incessant mouse-clicking but redeemed by the commanding quiet of the surrounding wilderness. The game gently reminds you to “observe,” “dream,” “reflect,” and “believe” — teaching you that enjoyment can come from a calm and curious mind that seeks a strong unity with nature. The environments teem with life, from timid white rabbits, noiseless apart from the light falling of musical notes as they dart into the overgrowth, to deer that graze contentedly on the grass until your lone wanderer draws near. Puzzles are solved through “sworcery,” magic that physically requires a tap or swipe of the mouse but intrinsically involves attention to the disharmony and harmony of nature. Three rain-drenched songbirds come together to one nest; the moon bends toward its own reflection. Each act of magic restores the equilibrium of nature, which has been disrupted by the awakening of a deathless spectre that haunts your step.

S&S falls apart when it tests the limits of those mysteries, expecting the player to scrabble for an answer when the environment holds no clear clues. The worst puzzles show off how finicky the controls are, requiring players to interact with the screen in an inscrutable way.

Patience is the player’s greatest virtue. The game offers only a few hints that can be gained through exploration and dialogue (each time a satisfying, tongue-in-cheek exchange, but stubbornly unrelenting) or by looking at the sacred Megatome, but finding the right path is a task largely left to the player. The willingness to persevere lends great satisfaction to each moment of progression. Retracing your steps as the world changes according to the cycles of the moon brings wonder to each person and place, but in its smallness the closed system you move within creates a greater sense of connection to all characters, animals, and things you see.

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While skirmishes with the deathless spectre are frequent and annoying, dragging down gameplay more than they enrich it, the success of your efforts pivot on three key moments: the confrontations with the Trigon shards. Here, Guthrie’s eerie music, which provides cues as to when to strike or dodge, elevates the suspense of anticipating the enigmatic and slow-moving Trigon as it rearranges itself into different patterns for its next attack.

These segments offer the only real challenge out of the various battles, but even then they share traits among themselves. Each piece must be placated, but “taming” them one by one feels more like conquering. The most triumphant moments occur when Guthrie’s music culminates in victorious tones and your sword points skyward, giving way to the game’s title like an earned medal of honor.

In between these crucial developments, players are welcome to relax and take in the sights and sounds. Listen to the dog bark. Heed the advice of ghosts and the living as they muse about every shift of the moon and release of a sleeping sprite. Their return to the sky is a “miracle,” the characters tell us, or rather, think to themselves. There’s something comforting about setting your burden of sword, shield, and tome down by the fire and resting your aching feet near the hearth, or slipping into a blissful dream world where musicians lounge under a bright moon and a spirit animal guides you to a secret door — a mythical place where if only you believe, the world will open itself to you, and evil can be undone by selfless good.

Follow @wita on Twitter for tales of superheroes, plumbers in overalls, and literary adventures.


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Stephanie Carmichael Twitter: @wita
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