Review: Capybara Games Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
Genius isn't common in the App Store, and even when it appears, it tends to be buried amongst so much mediocrity that you'll be lucky to find it. If you're a fan of adventure games with an iPad, we're glad to save you the digging today by pointing you directly towards Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP ($5) from Capybara Games. Owing obvious debts of gratitude to the classic adventure games Another World/Out of This World by Delphine and Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda, this title is nonetheless so compelling in its own right that fans of retro gaming should proceed straight to the App Store and carefully consider the purchase. Only players who place a premium on modern aesthetics, non-linear gaming, or iPhone and iPod touch support should hold off on this title.
The trick that Sword & Sworcery uses to charm players from moment one is something that most games get wrong: pacing. This is not an adventure that you’re supposed to rush through, it suggests in implicit and explicit ways, forcing you to learn somewhat unorthodox, indirect controls, and even recommending that you take a break between the 15 to 30-minute-long chapters of its story. As with Another World, which brought a realistically animated but decidedly flat main character into dangerous environments—ones that initially only hinted at the running away from frightening beasts and eventual fighting that would need to take place—this title eases you into 2-D and mostly side-scrolling levels that look a lot calmer and smaller than they soon become.
At times, you’re left just to study one of the game’s deliberately pixelated, low-colored screens for clues about what to do next; pixel-level animations, including water reflections and wind effects, somehow manage to keep the levels interesting. A hint may come in the form of a glowing cluster of blocks meant to resemble a key or a dot, or from a person, landmark, or animal you find standing around. Pinch gestures can zoom the current area in or out, and tapping on a spot will make your character walk over there or interact with whatever’s in that area. Mostly, you move from one place to another, seeking to trigger events and literally make magic happen - the “sworcery” part of the title. When the magic starts, soft-edged glowing effects appear, transcending the otherwise boxy art, while instantly letting you know that something special’s going on.
Other portions of the game include swordplay—think of a lower-resolution, simpler version of Nintendo’s timing-based Punch-Out!!, complete with separate sword and shield buttons—and mind-reading exercises, which give you the ability to acquire and cross-reference clues en masse. Superbrothers’ singular major interface failing is its odd requirement that you turn the iPad from landscape to portrait orientation to initiate combat or use the mind-reading trick, both of which it handles gracefully but unnecessarily. It’s been suggested that this was due to Capybara Games’ original development of this game for iPhone and iPod touch devices, but regardless of the reasoning, it feels forced and unnecessary, stilting the game’s pacing and adding to its complexity without any rewards.
The rewards here are, however, surprising. As with Another World, which managed to suck players into a decidedly flat-shaded environment with compelling little animations, Sword & Sworcery EP is full of little visual and text tricks to elicit smiles. Dialogue is written to wink at the post-hard-core gamer crowd, including all sorts of references that tear down the fourth wall between the game and the player. Your character is being guided from afar by the hand of a god, another character notes, and one mission is all but written off in text as a fetchquest—despite its introduction to one of the game’s earliest genuinely stirring new environments. The developers know they’re smart, and that they’re controlling things really quite well, so they wink here and there just to remind you that you’re enjoying their ride.
If Sword & Sworcery EP has any major structural issue, it’s that the story does feel so stage-managed by comparison with, say, The Legend of Zelda and other classic wander-and-kill adventure games of yesteryear—titles that it evokes with both its visual style, and even triforce-esque elements during the questing. Even at the height of its genre-creating innovation, Nintendo was confident enough to let players move from one end of a huge sandbox to the other, backtracking, carving up bushes, and brawling with enemies ad infinitum until they figured out what to do. There was too much wandering, leading to hint books and eventually visible or invisible fencing in later games, but the openness worked for adventure titles. Capybara instead offers enough hand-holding that your chances of getting truly lost are pretty slim. You can generally rely on a friendly dog that’s anxious to walk somewhere else, a little flashing icon, or a spiritual hint mushroom to let you know what’s next. Casual gamers will welcome the help, but it—and the aforementioned winking—contribute to a sense that you’re going through mostly preordained motions.
Most of the time, you’ll be too engrossed by the puzzles, the music, and the occasional little interstitial twists to care. Jim Guthrie’s audio portion of the title is sparing but enrapturing, with sound effects that range from small voice samples to 8-bit bleep effects run through a 32-bit audio processor with echoing, mixing, and resonance that help the game to maintain at least a simmering level of excitement at all times. Rarely in recent times has the rise of a synthesized tone sounded so powerful in stirring up emotions during a battle, and the shifts between chirps and songs are tactful and intelligent—well-crafted to fit the game’s tone. Similarly, Capybara turns simple screen-to-screen transitions into flips of a record’s sides, or continuation of your quest as the resumption of an album in the midst of playback, playing with the game’s iconography in the process.
As with the best titles in the App Store, a certain confidence as to each of the game’s elements gives Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP a swagger that will win over most of the people who consider playing it: the storyline and charm elevate it to more than the sum of its aesthetic components, which are themselves better than would ever be obvious from screenshots or descriptive text. Our high recommendation reflects our view of this title as the more thoughtful but retro equivalent of Chair’s Infinity Blade, relying on the virtue of more subtle pleasures than a mighty graphics engine to win fans over. It will succeed, and hopefully more Sworcery adventures will follow.