Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery EP is for the iPad what Shadow of the Colossus was for the Playstation 2. That is to say that while S&S is an artistic triumph—favoring the moniker of experience over game—it also jostles a finicky-fine balance. Sword & Sworcery is a must-have to be sure, but make no mistake, it is also a casual game for a casual gaming platform for a casual gaming market, and yet it is also none of these things.
The most immediate impression S&S leaves is the glorious amalgam of 8-bit adventure-fantasy with new-age trim. From the hip-hop inspired adventuring tunes and nuanced synth to the very intentionally twitter-sized bites of text—writing style, character names, and amirite’s included—S&S is dripping with individualized style. The mash-up of Zelda and new-age funk feels remarkably fresh, the sounds involved with battles are mysterious and intriguing, and you’re bound to feel pangs of nostalgia when returning to any of the included melodies after being away for some time.
The game is divided up into what the mysterious behind-the-curtain Archetype calls “sessions.” His words and presentation are pointedly outsider-looking-in; he mysteriously suggests the game itself is some kind of social experiment, the Twitter connectivity being the other, omnipresent reminder. His between-session tweets are peculiarly helpful in a gaming landscape long dominated by walls of largely skippable text. Ranging from vaguely hilarious to vaguely helpful, some of his comments are shockingly pragmatic: conveying expectations to the user as to the length of the next session and even recapping previous events at the start of a new session will make you wonder why more games don’t act likewise. It’s one of the very few reminders that this is supposed to be a pick-up-and-play casual game. But it’s not.
The majority of the gameplay is comprised of tap-tapping the player from one side of the screen to the other, or tapping and holding to run faster in a particular direction. You’ll interact with a few hilariously named NPCs and a great deal of environmental objects, scouring for prompts that will lead you in the right direction. Battles are few and well-constructed for the platform—sound being a hugely successful component—but more of the player’s time will be spent unraveling puzzles. It’s important to note here that this is where the “casual game for a casual gaming platform and casual gaming market” comes into play.
Although the game does well through the first couple sessions in guiding a cognizant player along, the latter half, like one Glowing Ghost Dude’s responses when tap-tapped, are “irritatingly obtuse.” Grokking certain mechanics and puzzles and even how to progress forward will at some point be reduced to retracing steps screen-by-screen on baseless hunches, and tap-tapping everything in sight until something happens that was probably supposed to be reasoned towards. And that is under the assumption that the solution can even be seen: the dark color palette chosen by the developers is positively head-scratching considering the iPad’s notoriously frustrating problems with glare. I recommend against playing S&S anywhere other than the pitch-darkness of a closet at midnight.
There is also at least two points in the game where phases of the moon come critically into play. Well, two of the some eight selectable phases are non-useless, but the irritatingly obtuse pointers given to the player provide little to no indication. Instead, the player is presented one or two correct selections and several other red herrings. The player is tasked with a frustratingly time-consuming back-and-forth experience to grok exactly what is happening and why in regards to moon-phase interaction—when limiting the player’s selectable options could have streamlined this portion of the game, it’s a wonder why the developers chose the route they did.
The game at points reaches an almost zen-like flow much to its strength, but then a disorienting respawn following a death, or a cryptic instruction on where or when to proceed or how to solve a puzzle replaces zen with irritation. Toward the end of the game the player is under hurried duress to run to a point, orient the iPad vertically, hit a button, and reorient horizontally before hurrying to the next point. Although I was sure I was solving the puzzle correctly, it turns out the game isn’t programmed to orient vertically with the iPad’s Home button up top. Instead I replayed what should be the gloriously climactic final moments over and over again until I decided to turn the iPad the other way.
When the lore of Shadow of the Colossus for Playstation 2 unfolds through the first few bosses, the player is presented a truly beautiful, epic, novel experience. Cast your sword into the sky atop your galloping steed, and race toward where the fabled steel points you. Across fields and chasms and mountains, you go, following the brilliant sheen of the guiding light firing off the skyward sword. The first bosses eclipse the horizon and you are struck not only by their awe, but by the awe of your next task: scale the colossus, sink into him your sword, and bring the skyscraping beast to his knees. And repeat. With a quick visual pass of these first few bosses you locate the point at which you may mount, and you begin scaling, eventually reaching its weak point and making good on your purpose.
It is the beauty inherent in this experience—of a game transcending its peers into an artful, novel depiction—that makes Shadow of the Colossus what it is. But it is the next umpteen iterations of this experience that weaken the package to its core: replacing what was a reasonable step-by-step progression of reveals to slay a gargantuan beast with a perplexing, irritatingly obtuse trail-and-error game.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP feels, albeit to a lesser extent, like Shadow of the Colossus. For a game so centered around an experience, it ultimately jostles if not fumbles the zen required to forge such an experience as if because it knows it still needs to be a game. The thinking required in S&S is not the kind of thinking that ought to sit on a digital shelf next to Angry Birds and Cut the Rope. Where these games build the player’s skills with increasing degrees of challenge around a simple mechanic, S&S simply wades further into obscurity with each session, never giving the player a firm grounding of much of anything as they attempt to progress. Although the experience as a whole is memorable and entertaining, it is for seasoned fans of games with a variety of experiences, and decidedly not for casual audiences.