Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP

"If you liked the story in games like Braid, Limbo, or Bastion, I can't imagine you disliking this game."

One of the ongoing debates in the entertainment world is whether games are art. Some say they are, some say they aren't. Well, whether they are or aren't, I'd still say that the perfect word to describe Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is "arthouse." Its atmosphere is dreamlike, its music haunting, and it's clear that the developers' goal is to make you think about your choices even after you finish playing the game.

In Sword & Sworcery: EP, you play as "The Scythian," a warrior who is never given any more of a name. She is on a quest to retrieve a book called The Megatome and thereby vanquish an ancient evil. The game is broken up into distinct sessions, and it recommends that you take a break between each, although some of the sessions aren't very long. It takes place near the Caucasus Mountains in both the physical world and the dream world, and it does allow for a small amount of player choice, although the consequences thereof are very limited. The game is brief, and can be completed in well under ten hours, but the low price point keeps that from being a real problem, and additional gameplay time would probably have felt like filler. I mention the length because I enjoyed the story, but the game is short enough that I can't say much without giving spoilers.

This game lives in a genre that I've rarely seen: it's an adventure game with combat. The combat doesn't come up too often, and you can't truly die, but its presence feels more logical than you might think. Most of the game is like any adventure game: solve puzzles to get to new locations or obtain items required to move on to the next section of the game. The learning curve and puzzles hit a perfect balance between "makes you think" and "unfair." Whenever a new mechanic is introduced, you're given a hint that guides you in the right direction without spoon-feeding you. My favorite was a puzzle that I only figured out how to solve when I realized the significance of a recent mention of the name "Al Jaffee." When I realized what I was supposed to do, I broke into a grin and laughed out loud. If I hadn't known who that was, I could have searched him out online, and the obvious links to Wikipedia still would have steered me in the right direction without necessarily giving away the solution.

That said, The Scythian is a warrior, and her ultimate goal is to defeat an enemy in the best way she knows how: with her sword. That's where the combat comes into play. When it's time for a fight, you rotate your iOS device 90 degrees to indicate that you're ready and draw your sword. You have a sword icon and a shield icon, and to win, you just need to learn your enemy's attack pattern. Get hit too many times, and you're knocked out. You regain consciousness with minimal health and the opportunity to heal or to jump right back in to try the fight again. As the game progresses, the quest takes a physical toll, and rather than becoming an unstoppable killing machine, The Scythian gets weaker and weaker. By the end, taking a single hit is more than she can stand. I was alarmed when I first realized what was happening, but it really fits the game and drives home the themes its story is trying to put across.

If you look at screenshots of this game, you might be surprised to hear me say that S&S EP's graphics are outstanding. Despite their extremely pixilated style, the visuals are highly detailed. They're clearly the product of a lot of effort and deliberate artistic choice. When walking through a forest, rabbits hop away and disappear into the brush. As The Scythian weakens, her struggle to continue the fight is visually obvious. I'm only sad that I didn't play this game on an iPad to get the full benefit of the developers' work.

Given my glowing praise for the other aspects of the game, it's likely not surprising for me to say that the sound in S&S EP is equally great. The music is varied and always appropriate to the situation. I'd love to get a copy of the soundtrack. There are audio cues in the world and the puzzles as well, and headphones are required to fully appreciate what the game offers. The only complaint I could offer is that there are a couple of times when an NPC talks to The Scythian in spoken English, but the volume level is too low. What he says is completely inconsequential – it sounded to me like a few weak attempts to hit on The Scythian – so the volume may be quiet by design, but I'd rather have had it either louder or nonexistent. This is a "fly on my sandwich" complaint, though. A quick wave of the hand, and it's both gone and forgotten.

I already mentioned the way combat is controlled, but I should mention that the rest of the game also controls well. Double-tapping on a spot makes The Scythian walk there, and double-tapping an object makes her examine or interact with it. There are a few other elements that come into play as the game progresses, but they're all part of the perfect learning curve I mentioned above, so I'd rather not discuss them in detail. Suffice it to say that you will probably never find yourself wondering what is physically required of you, even when you're stuck trying to solve a puzzle.

As I said, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is very arthouse. If you liked the story in games like Braid, Limbo, or Bastion, I can't imagine you disliking this game. It's a short experience, but a memorable one, and I absolutely recommend it to anyone with an iOS device.

© 2011 Superbrothers/Capybara Games. All rights reserved.