Reviewed on PCAlso available on Apple Mac, Microsoft Xbox, Sony PlayStation 4 and Linux
The great production wheel of nostalgia-fuelled games turns on, and developer Wizard-Fu’s recent release is no exception. Songbringer, an ARPG with a sword-wielding party-hungry boy at its centre, joins the ranks of new games hidden within the guise of old. While immediately comparable to games like The Legend of Zelda, Hyper Light and classic Doom, Songbringer manages to carve out a niche with its own sci-fi Arthurian adventure.
Songbringer has tricks hidden within its pixels. In order to generate the map of Ekzera, the planet our protagonist Roo has crash landed on, the player must provide a seed word. Through procedural generation the letters you type create a unique world. Made up of fuzzy forests and desolate deserts, the squares of the map are ordered according to algorithms rather than obeying any of the usual rules of geography. Somehow despite this fact, the experience of roaming the world is fascinating rather than confusing.
No matter what seed word you produce, the story begins the same. Our protagonist wakes up discombobulated and shirtless on the planet Ekzera after a raucous party goes wrong. With his floating skybot Jib concerned for his mental state, Roo must come to terms with his surroundings quickly. Fortunately, just behind his crash site sits a well-place cave and within it a humming Nanosword - because no great adventure has ever begun with a boy pulling a sword out of a rock.
From this point onwards the gameplay is a mixture of exploration, dungeon-diving and environment-based puzzle solving. The map’s squares, like large pixels, hold a set of enemies and obstacles and sometimes even the chance to find secret objects and caves. It is not immediately obvious how best to navigate through these squares, but with practice it soon becomes easy to spot the exits, entrances and how each cell winds into another. Through exploration Roo and Jib come across the bikes of their fellow party goers, the relics of Ekzera and the numbered dungeons that hold the keys to progressing through the game’s story.
The throwback animation style that renders the characters in geometric impression is a welcome break from larger games’ tendency to rely too heavily on aesthetic realism. There is something really captivating about the world of Ekzera, and the long forgotten history of the war that took place upon its surface. We find out the history of this battle from 700 years ago in spits and spats. Songbringer does not give you narrative without the player first giving something in return. Monuments to the forgotten war are sparingly placed on the map, and discovering them enriched the experience of exploration.
Without a linear sense of progression, the overarching narrative is instead pushed on by completion of the numbered dungeons, higher numbers indicating difficulty level and also a handy guide for what order they should be beaten in. If you’re not usually a completionist, pay heed to these labels, as without objects found upon defeating early dungeon bosses, you won’t be able to get past the obstacles of the later caves.
These intricate caves full of goat-headed men and snake people with swords are dark and winding. While all the dungeons have a similar aesthetic and combat boils down to rapidly swinging the nanosword, running away and placing bombs, there is something addictive about navigating these weird tombs, helped along by them each having individual soundtracks. Completing dungeons also gives Roo the addition of new dragon teeth, the game’s health system. Although killing enemies can produce little teeth with which Roo can replenish his health, and cactus candies that do the job with a bonus of hallucination, it can be tricky to get the health bar back up to full capacity.
With very little dialogue and no journal or quests to guide you in the right direction, if you haven’t completed each dungeon as soon as you’ve found it, you can easily become lost and objectiveless in the pixelated world of Ekzera. The little treasures and expansive strangeness of the world does a lot to mitigate the underwhelming story, but it isn’t enough. Dialogue between Roo and Jib is characterful and amusing, but with other characters it is far less engaging.
The inventory system can also be fiddly and annoying. With only a few available slots to map actions to game keys, you often have to switch and change abilities during battle, going into the inventory each time to move things around. This becomes a little tedious when combat is around every corner, and when so many abilities are often needed in any one dungeon.
Despite these letdowns, Songbringer’s world is a joy to play in. With focus placed on gameplay and player experience, Songbringer doesn’t attempt to shoehorn in narrative, instead allowing the player to discover it for themselves, spurred on by the electronic mix of its soundtrack. This certainly makes the game aimless at times, but with its satisfying conclusion and difficult bosses, this doesn’t last for long. Experiences will differ according to the seed word used, but while Songbringer might not be a symphony, its separate players do a good job of stirring up an enchanting melody.