The indie space is host to an ever-widening array of games. You’ve got old-school platformers, crazy puzzle games, and an increasing number of games designed to explore what games can actually do, and how to do what hasn’t been done before. These are your Flowers and Journeys, your Braids and the Paths. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is a game of the experimental school. It’s more of a game than “not-games” like Dear Esther, but you’re only going to enjoy this one if you bring with you a high-level interest in the philosophy of game design.
Originally released for iOS, Superbrothers recently got a PC port on Steam, which offers higher fidelity sound and visuals. And those sounds and visuals are gorgeous. While the game uses a pixel art style, it differentiates itself from the mountain of pseudo-8-bit games by its almost painterly scenes. Characters, rather than taking on the squat stature common in pixel art, are tall and lanky, with a single pixel defining their face. The result is evocative of old school games, but more similar to an impressionist landscape than an NES game. And it looks fantastic on an HDTV. The music, composed by Jim Guthrie, is just electronic enough to evoke chiptunes, but remains rich and emotional. It, similarly, sounds incredible coming through a home theater system – I couldn’t imagine hearing this through tinny iPhone speakers.
What didn’t survive the transition so well are the controls. Superbrothers is probably most similar to a point and click adventure game, with your clicks directing the character around the environments. While clicking to move works fine, the environments are too large to fit on a single screen, and the actual paths are too small to comfortably click over and over to reach your destination. You can click, hold, and drag to move, but the hold takes just a moment longer than I’d like, and if you start dragging before “move” mode is activated, then you’ll just drag the screen around. It can also be hard to tell how to interact with certain objects. There were numerous times where I couldn’t tell if I was supposed to left click, right click, double click, click and hold, or click and drag.
The controls also cause combat to suffer. Encounters are timing based, and the way the music weaves into the action, fights feel like rhythm minigames, with most of them quite similar to Zelda-style “bat the energy ball back and forth” fighting. That’s cool, and the slowly building music behind the major fights add a great tension. What’s not cool is the way input is handled on the PC version. There are only two inputs – attack and defend – represented by either a sword or shield icon. I assume that with the iOS version, your fingers would hover over the buttons, ready for either move. However, having a mouse input over top of that, plus having to maneuver the pointer around the buttons with no way to “feel” where you are, leads to just enough of a delay in your ability to react to make what should be an easy combat system absolutely infuriating. This could have easily been remedied by mapping attack and defend to the two mouse buttons.
Superbrothers has a very deliberate pace, which is a nice change from most other games, giving you space to breathe, explore, and enjoy the music and landscapes. It’s very slow-paced but also very short, at about two or three hours of playtime, though if you play it the way the developers nudge you to, it’ll take a month to complete. The dialog’s usually clever and funny, and though it occasionally slips into some hipster overcleverness, there’s some nice emotional weight to the game’s climax and ending. The game’s use of mechanics in service of story is well-thought out, as your character grows weaker over the course of the game, as the “woeful errand” takes its toll.
While Superbrothers is not for everyone – if you’re not into slow-paced or “art” games, stay away – it’s unique, it looks and sounds beautiful, and features some smart design which takes advantage of the specific strengths of video games as a medium. It’s a shame that the control issues hold back what would be the definitive version of a very cool game.