One of the more noticeable titles at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference was Superbrothers: Swords & Sworcery EP. It has already reached the top five on Apple’s paid iPad apps list four days after launch. Developed by Toronto-based indie studio Capybara Games in collaboration with Superbrothers, the deceptively simple-looking game takes players back to an earlier era of gaming in a very artistic fashion.
Swords & Sworcery has a pixel-art-style that’s reminiscent of yesteryear’s adventure games. The game isn’t your typical modern, fast-paced spectacle. Instead, players walk around as an unnamed monk through a slower, point-and-click journey saturated with beautiful sound and music. Despite the game’s slow start, it’s oddly compelling.
Players start out as a character with no name, no premise and no real back story. It’s hard to get lost though since the game coaxes users along behind the trail of a single dog, using brief text pop-ups to tell the user about new control elements. The reason it works so well is that the beginning of the game consists only of tapping a location and traveling until users meet another basic, non-player character that they follow further.
What is interesting is that this entire sequence takes only a few minutes, and just as the player is getting a bit bored, something coaxes them further. The first noticeable element of this is the introduction of basic combat, which is activated by tilting the iPad vertically. From here, users combat a single opponent with a whopping two buttons for attacking and defending.
The first enemy encountered is a strange looking black wolf that players cannot apparently kill. It merely leaves after so many of its attacks are defended against. Upon leaving, players come across their first puzzle. What is so interesting about it is that players don’t actually know it’s a puzzle. They aren’t told. The game merely suggests it.
Users encounter an cliff that looks like it needs to be crossed. The character guiding the player gives up and sits down elsewhere. In order to solve it, users must look about the area in which the cliff resides and find something out of the ordinary. Then they must use it to resolve the problem. This is one of the key attractions of the game. Players aren’t spoon fed everything like they are with many modern titles. However, the play and puzzles are so simple that they don’t need to be.
Part of the challenge is realizing that something needs to be done in the first place. In an industry where everything is highlighted with bright neon lights saying “Touch This!” it is a refreshing change. That said, this makes the game better for an older generation of players who are familiar with the old adventure games of the 90s.
Everything takes place in a real-time, natural stream of progression. Nothing is skipped. If players have to get from Point A to Point B, they must walk there and interact with everything along the way as if they were doing so in reality.
Early in the game, players end up being chased by a menacing (well, as menacing as pixel art can be) creature that they accidentally summon. There is no need to say it is dangerous, but because of the timing of its appearance, shifting of music in the game, and the creature itself, players are given a legitimate sense of danger and urgency. Additionally, well-timed elements create curiosity as well.
What enhances all of this is probably the strongest aspect of Superbrothers as a whole: The sound design. The music is all created by Jim Gurthrie and it is absolutely fantastic. This game doesn’t settle for sound loops. Every step of the way, the game is accompanied by emotionally-driven sound tracks which actually tie into the storyline. The music is often the primary catalyst for many indirect control elements and does a fantastic job of pulling the player into this world.
Overall, the game feels very alive. Players can tap on objects in the world to bring up text blurbs or create a euphonic sound effects. Moreover, there are other bizarre aspects of the world that appear and are amusing in their own right, such as a dancing and singing bear during a dream sequence. There’s also a cool social element. Since the story of the game is broken up into very bit-sized chunks, players can actually tweet their progression in story format via Twitter.
There are a few drawbacks to the game, however. The storyline is doled out in very small increments so players never really know the full purpose of what they are doing and why. It’s a double-edged sword, as the slow pace of the game will often frustrate a user even more if they don’t know why they are doing what they’re doing.
Even so, Superbrothers: Swords & Sworcery EP is a highly compelling title that many older gamers are going to love. It is not for everyone because of its slower pace. Even so, the game’s gradual procession helps immerse players in this fantastical world, especially when combined with the thoughtful and compelling sound design. For an iPad game with such simple visuals, this highly-polished title is one that is far more immersive than many more expensive apps on the market today.