I'd planned to play through Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP-a new title developed exclusively for iOS platforms by a group of independent Canadian game makers including Toronto-based Capybara Games-this weekend and write a review today, but it turns out you can't rush art. I'm not saying my review is art, but rather that the game is.
After working my way through the first two-fifths of the adventure, which sees a sword- and shield-toting hero questing for three triangular pieces of an artefact known as the "trigon trifecta," I was informed that the next portion of the game usually takes approximately one lunar cycle to complete. I assumed, mistakenly, that this meant game time. Turns out I have to wait for our real-world the moon to work its way through the Earth's shadow to unlock the next part of the story.
At first I was a little irked and found myself tempted to tweak my iPad's clock to, in effect, fast forward time. But then I considered how magical the first couple of hours were and decided against it in hopes of not spoiling the spell that the game has managed to weave over me up until now.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is an ode to a variety of games, books, movies, and television shows, including The Legend of Zelda, Conan the Barbarian, and Twin Peaks.
It is also something completely new; a meta-game framed as "a brave experiment in Input Output Cinema" featuring a pipe-smoking self-aware narrator and a protagonist who references herself using the royal plural. That, or she simply assumes a symbiotic relationship with us, imagining she and the player to be of one mind.
The result is an interactive experience that feels both intimately familiar and refreshingly original.
Presented in 8-bit animation, the game's flat worlds are composed of nothing but blocky pixels, and yet they have a curious depth and beauty. By walking up and down natural rocky steps in the lush foliage we can move into the background or foreground, perhaps frightening fluidly animated rabbits and long-legged deer into nearby bushes in the process. Eight-bit graphical rendering has been around for decades, but it's never looked like this.
Meanwhile, the accompanying music, composed by Jim Guthrie, is downright ethereal. It draws heavily from the electronic scores of games past, as well as films like Blade Runner and Dune. The swelling instrumental track from one of the game's boss fights has been reverberating in my brain for two days. I've been left with a strange longing to dig out my old Tear Garden albums.
The music isn't just dressing; it plays a role in some of the game's puzzles by allowing us to become part of the soundscape as we interact with the screen. Unfortunately, I can't really discuss these puzzles in any depth without ruining them. Suffice to say that they require players to experiment by tapping and swiping the screen to see what they might discover, almost like an old point-and-click adventure game. The random tapping can grow a little frustrating at times, but the clues provided are fair; I haven't been stuck poking around any one scene for more than a few minutes.
You can also expect a bit of simple fighting. Upon encountering an enemy we're prompted to tilt the screen to portrait mode, then tap sword and shield icons as necessary to attack and defend. It's more a pattern recognition test than anything, but-thanks in large part to the stirring music-these battles can be strangely emotional and serve as a nice break from exploration.
Early in our adventure we acquire a book called the Megatome, which acts a log for all of the discussions we have with the game's small cast of characters. These dutifully recorded dialogues are the soul of the Superbrothers experience. Our narrator uses purposefully obtuse phrasing and nonsensical jargon to further the notion that he is indeed leading some sort of Byzantine interactive experiment. Meanwhile the thoughts of our hero are written with modern, text-message-like flare, and filled with phrases like "totally awesome" and "what's up with that?" Messages from other characters are similarly distinct, such as those from our faithful canine companion whose lines of text barks are interrupted by the occasional meditation on why he is barking.
But while these short sentences show a sly humour and shrewdness that rarely fails entertain, they fail to deliver much meaning. Human insights of either the micro or macro variety simply haven't come (though remember that our uncooperative moon has restricted me to the first 40 per cent of the story and that things could change).
That said, the narrative flow is nonetheless oddly compelling, striking just the right balance of quest relevant information and random, witty weirdness. Like everything else here, it works within the context of the game's artsy unusualness.
It's worth noting, too, that all of the hundreds of short text dialogue messages we see are less than 140 characters and can, in fact, be tweeted with just a couple of quick screen taps. Is this shameless self-promotion, or just another example of the gamemaker's ingenuity? Whatever it is, it seems to be working. This decidedly non-mainstream game is currently the fourth-highest paid app on the App Store, just a couple of spots behind the juggernaut known as Angry Birds.
I suspect the majority of people who decide to give Superbrothers a whirl simply because of its high rating will wonder what they've gotten themselves into the moment they encounter the game's strange home screen, which shows a spinning 45 playing a creepy guitar track alongside a couple of wordless icons. Part of me thinks Capybara and company must be laughing like Andy Kauffman at the thought of people furrowing their brows and scratching their heads over what they've bought.
However, the less cynical part of me believes that they've managed to accomplish an impressive feat by tricking the mainstream world into trying something they may not have previously known existed: A game that's also a form of creative expression.