Have You Played… Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

I wrote the other day that Grim Fandango proved to be a metaphor for the decline from wider relevancy of the point and click adventure game. Well, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is a metaphor for how those games – and others of the era – have mutated in our memory to become something far more than they were.

A beautifully, cryptic, unpredictable and occasionally smug blend of puzzles, action and sideways storytelling, it seems absurd now that this was a significant iPhone/Pad hit back at release, given the dispiriting state of the App Store nowadays. S&S oozes mystery, implication and dense mythology from every pore, and it does it with the bare minimum of words – sometimes with none at all.

To a lifelong ‘gamer’ it is steeped in heritage, foggy memories of and artistic feint towards worlds and battles of the past. To someone newer to games, it arrives fully-formed, overflowing with self-confidence and switching at speed between a certain forlorn earnestness and an arch why-take-anything-seriously. It is this latter which keeps me more in the realm of admiration than love – as though the game is saying “I’m so much smarter than you that I can mock you for playing me.” It’s not quite vicious enough to deter me, but its faux-stoner languidness occasionally came close.

It is a fragile house of cards, is S&S. A little more irony here or too much exposition there and the feeling of being in just one part of an old and ancient world would have collapsed. Fortunately, as well as avoiding major missteps (the built-in tweet function excepted), it is held together primarily by the sheer force of its aesthetic – the minimalist yet precision-beautiful art, the magical and monstrous soundtrack, the overwhelming sense of menace and danger when its key enemies appear.

The PC port was fine, though lacked the mobile’s version ability to combine form and function. A small, physical window to another place. A place of wonder and worry, not of answers and easy victory. Imagine this being a mobile hit today. If only.

25 Comments

  1. Treners says:

    Ooh, thanks for the reminder, I need to finish (or more realistically, restart and THEN finish) this.

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    subdog says:

    Its outstanding soundtrack is on Spotify. I don’t normally go in for game soundtracks, but the music for S&S is sublime.

  3. SpiceTheCat says:

    It is a flawed but magnificent game, one of the few with a permanent place on my iPad, and one of the very few games where I’ve bought the soundtrack. The archness does occasionally grate, some of the puzzles are simplistic, but there are moments where the whole thing does just take wing and become a genuinely moving and wondrous experience. I haven’t played it on the PC, but I guess it’s a less satisfying experience, if only because of the very tactile nature of some of the puzzles.

    • Dezmiatu says:

      Playing it on the PC, is was very obvious this was made for mobile devices and touch screens. Still, I love the art and music, even if the gameplay left me rushing through just to say I’d finished it.

  4. Caradog says:

    I really wanted to like this but unfortunately I found it so insufferably smug and pleased with itself I couldn’t get far. Looks and sounds beautiful though…

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      sylmarien says:

      I feel exactly the same. I even tried to force myself to continue playing it, but I still don’t like it for those same reasons.

    • Son_of_Georg says:

      I’m in the same boat. “Insufferably smug” is a good way to describe it. I was determined to finish it though, until I got to the part where you needed to wait for the actual phase of the moon to line up with the game so you could finish it. I did not finish it.

      • jomurph86 says:

        I always read it as going for “so smug it’s silly” rather than actually smug.

        • Caradog says:

          I suspect that’s what the creators were going for really, but it was very poorly judged.

          I think even more than the perceived smugness I was irritated by the careless fourth-wall breaking third-person dialogue. All it served to do was kill the atmosphere and remove me from the experience.

          Many times I was prepared to forgive the game both for its lack of challenge or slightly obtuse progression, purely on the basis of its remarkable presentation and atmosphere. But, each time, I’d be snapped out of it by some “witty” but totally discordant remark.

      • Kushiel says:

        You don’t have to actually wait for the RL phases of the moon to align with what’s going on in the game to solve those puzzles.

      • ansionnach says:

        Too smug for me, too. Would have played on if the gameplay was any good, but it wasn’t.

    • Stonejackit says:

      So much this. Seems, I am not alone with this opinion. What a waste of brilliant art-design.

  5. RuySan says:

    The soundtrack and art style were great, but the game itself was a bit of a chore.

  6. cablechip says:

    Tried playing it a few years ago (way after its heyday) but bounced off it pretty hard. Too slow for too little reward, too much exposition for too little content. I also remember being frustrated with the touch interface, neither getting expected result or any feedback at all much of the time.

    But yeah, art & soundtrack, top notch.

  7. Rituro says:

    I remember being in the crowd for the Canadian Videogame Awards when S&S nearly cleaned up every category. Everyone was shocked, albeit pleasantly (well, unless you were at the EA/Ubisoft/Eidos tables), to see a small dev capture hearts and minds.

    The game wasn’t bad, sure. Was it deserving of that much praise in hindsight? Debatable.

    Klei’s dominance in later years, on the other hand, still stands up very well.

  8. sillythings says:

    Sword & Sworcery did something that no other game has done for me. It made me pay attention to the real life phases of the moon. Before, I was just like “oh hey, the moon looks cool today”. But with the game enabling specific interactions based on real life moon phases (yes, I know you could cheat by changing calendar dates), I actually was observing. I appreciated the beauty of it even more, and I was excited to see the change.

    I think that’s an incredible accomplishment.

  9. Shazbut says:

    Tried it twice and gave up both times on the real life moon phases section, but on the second time I did at least think “Why did I quit before? This game is cool!” before then. Guess I lacked commitment

  10. Kushiel says:

    I said it above, but to clarify: You don’t need to wait for the RL phases of the moon to align with the game, nor cheat by changing the calendar dates on your machine, in order to complete the moon-phase puzzles. There’s a solution in the game for those puzzles.

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      Maybe I replay this. I stopped right there too. I believe the guide didn’t mention a work-around and changing the system date can mess up stuff.

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    Thulsa Hex says:

    Lovely game. I first played it on a dying, decrepit iPhone 3GS at 5am, some summer morning in Berlin. I guess that’s an unusually-specific recollection of time-and-place. It was free due to a “5 Years of Apple App Store” thingy. I was looking for something to distract me from being unable to sleep and it turned out to be perfect!

    Until then, I had no idea a phone game could be so atmospheric. Jim Guthrie’s soundtrack stuck with me, too, so that I eventually picked it up on record. Good stuff.

    P.S. I completed the game a while back but have no recollection of real-life moon phases coming into it :\

  12. kidnamedtony says:

    I was involved in the tail end of localizing this game for Japan and got to meet two of the creators (one gentleman from Capy and Mr. Superbrothers himself–yeah, he’s just one dude). Both super cool, laid back guys.

    Translating the snarky comedy of the game into Japanese was a big concern of theirs. So, they worked closely with 8-4 Ltd., the company tasked with translating and localizing it for Japan, to make sure that all the text and what little dialog there was had the same feel for Japanese players that they’d intended in its original English release.

    8-4 got pretty creative and ran in some fun directions with it, even going to far as to cast Suda51 as the woodcutter’s voice actor. Also, they got Jim Guthrie to rerecord all his spoken lines (he’s the dude that plays guitar that you can jam with in the game) in Japanese.

    Ah, good times. :D

  13. leeder krenon says:

    One of the best games ever made <3 <3 <3

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    particlese says:

    I never got around to finishing it, but I did really enjoy what I played. It’s still hanging out in my short “unfinished” list on Steam, which is a good sign.

    I also have a jumbled sense memory of two of its musical tracks, which still mystifies and entertains me to this day.