I’ve got a soft spot for minimalism, surrealism, cubism, dada — any avant-garde movement that blossomed in the 20’s, really. And while I’ve applauded games for mirroring finer art styles I’ve never really considered how particular movements may incorporate and integrate with the interactive model of video games, especially on platforms as tactile as iOS and Android. Super Brothers: Sword & Sworcery EP really pushes what defines minimalism in game design, as well as what promotes surreality in terms of interaction — while perhaps replicating the former a little too well.
This game owns the concept of pixel art in an era dominated by 3D games. Where most games simply use pixel art to stimulate some vein of nostalgia Sword and Sworcery instead uses it to paint a detailed world filled with bustling woodland creatures and dancing flora. In its heyday, pixel art was an outline for imagination, the player having to colour the picture with their interpretation and creativity. This collaborative effort between Capybara Games and Superbrothers flawlessly communicates the depiction they intended to the player. There’s not much room in this adventure to conjure up visual interpretations of the settings and characters because they look exactly as they were designed to, using pixel art as a style, and not a stipulation.
But even though it uses pixel art entirely to its advantage, it forces a discrepancy between its visuals and its sound design… which is absolutely stunning in its execution. While I tapped on the screen to guide the Scynthian girl, I knocked on the environment, eliciting the sounds of water splashing, trees rustling and animals hopping about. Here’s the catch: they weren’t the beeps and boops that complement the games of yore, they sounded exactly as they would in real life. It’s this collision between what you see and what you hear that really drives the definition of surreality in this game. I looked at a duck composed of pixels, but I heard a duck with a healthy larynx. I looked at a character composed of pixels, spouting text about a dream he had, but simultaneously he spoke, telling me that he didn’t have much to say. It’s strange to seasoned players, but a fascinating juxtaposition between what you expect to hear and what you actually hear.
While these peripheral components of the game are exceptional, my issue with the title actually stems from this hoity-toity concept of minimalism I’ve been spitting. I’m not a fan of hand-holding in games. This is a medium in which you have myriad ways to guide the player; the culmination of text, visuals, audio, and of course, interaction. This game uses these avenues superbly, albeit a bit too sparingly for my liking. There were a few points at which I was entirely unsure of what to do, because of the minimal design of the game. Points where I didn’t know where to go, what to do, or even my progression within a particular objective. Furthermore, the game eventually escapes its linearity for a bit, in that it creates different planes of existence for areas you’ve visited. The problem here is that these different dimensions hold different puzzles while appearing in nearly identical areas, making it easy to lose track of progression. During this tumultuous period in the game there’s a lot of tedious backtracking to activate the aforementioned dimensions, while being littered with the exact same enemy encounters during the treks. To top it all off, there’s a short time allotted for how long these realms exist with each activation, increasing the severity and possibility of said rote gameplay.
The most innovative aspect of tablet games are how control and interaction is reinvented with each title. Sword and Sworcery does this at every turn, and while the puzzles that adorn the mystical forest are brilliant, there are times when they’re mere guessing games of what to tap and in what order. One puzzle had me spotting differences reflected in a pond, while another had me enduring trial and error to make it to the next screen. It’s a mixed bag of manipulating your eyes and ears and just plain guessing.
The combat consists of raising a shield and swinging a sword — simple, and yet highly satisfying. There’s a lot of waiting for your enemy to strike, and slashing back when an opportunity presents itself. Rhythm plays into this concept; you can often time your actions to the beat of the music. However, later in the game combat proves trifling and monotonous. Lengthy battles grow prominent, that apply the same mechanics though with more emphasis on how the enemy’s attacks are measured to the music. This includes the enemy presenting itself, as well as powering up attacks or simply floating while music complements their slightest movements. It’s nice to see animation and music come into confluence at first, but if you die it means watching the bombastic performance all over again, which becomes rather frustrating with boss battles.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP definitely paves its own path when it comes to art direction; encompassing magical realism to paint an electronic storybook, with some pretty funny and very self-aware writing. The music and sound editing by Jim Guthrie really adds to the scene taking notes from classic tracks of the Legend of Zelda, while tossing in the thought of what they would sound like with a funky baseline. It executed well on the concept of a minimalist video game but perhaps took too many cues from the style. The gameplay held a few too many nebulous expectations from me and not enough ways to orient myself. I guess they really nailed the feeling of being lost in the woods, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the experience I was looking for.