Wot I Think: Songbringer

I find Songbringer [official site] absolutely fascinating. It’s like the fragmented remains of a game, carefully discovered and pieced together as you play. A stunningly beautiful conflation of pixel graphics and intricately complex lighting effects, creating a fractured and intense look, presenting a combination of action RPG and rogue-ish exploration of a wonderfully detailed yet procedurally generated world. What you’re doing, why you’re doing it, how best to do it – that’s what I’m putting together the more I play. Here’s wot I think:

The short of it is, you play a dude with a sword, and then an ever-growing collection of interesting weapons (not least the boomerang-like golden top hat you wear), accompanied by a floating orb being, trying to clear out screen after screen of interconnected locations filled with a huge variety of enemy types. But it’s not nearly as arcadey as that makes it sound – it’s a much more considered game, in many ways, asking you to meticulously clear an area to leave it safe, while searching for the few quests the barren world offers, and underground dungeons of far higher difficulty to clear out.

At the start you’re asked if you want to play a regular mode, or a permadeath mode, the latter being – I would venture – something for the hardest of cores. Because the regular mode does something more interesting with death – it resets all the cleared locations to be filled with enemies again.

That’s hardly unique, but the way it plays out here offers something – I think – much more interesting than just starting again. You keep your progress, your gathered weapons, your count of diamonds used as currency in the peculiar totemic underground shops. But there’s a significant blow to having all the paths from one task to another refilled, and it’s something that becomes more impacting the further into the game you get. It offers a similar sense of importance to not failing in a particular moment as a rogue-like, but allows the game to better deploy its RPG story.

Combat is a mixture of melee and ranged, and a frantic time in many screens, dependent upon the enemy type. What most gets me here is the complete indifference many of the enemies have to you, and yet their ability to do real damage. There are some, like the hordes of leaping yellow bugs, that jump about at random and yet have the capacity to take chunks out of you when you’re clipped. There are others, like the ghastly glowing porcupine things that actively try to attack you. And there’s are others still, like the teeny little elephants, that just trundle about seemingly unaware of you, yet when trying to dispatch them, you’ll find that their unpredictable movements can make for a surprising challenge. Meanwhile many screens feature water, and water means the bobbing dragon beasties that throw green orbs directly toward you.

Underground dungeons feature a much tougher range of enemies, including ghoulish humanoids with much more specific and dangerous attacks, or the absolutely hateful lizard bastards that get me nearly every time. And while dying in a dungeon only resets you to the entrance with its handy save, it still means you know everything you’d cleared up top will be repopulated. It makes taking on dungeons a real gamble, and there are many that have proven too tough for me with my current levels of health and attack abilities – I note them down to return to later.

The map gradually fills in as you explore, marked with elusive symbols to remind you what is where. Green squares mean there’s something important to find over there, and oftentimes it can be a little labyrinthine in its layout, making exploration and survival key. And I’m constantly having to remind myself that the map, as fantastic and specific as it seems to be, is a random generation based on a seed I created by typing in random letters. CJRPPW, should you wish to play the exact same game as me.

I think it’s hard to underplay just how successfully the seeded world feels coherent and complete – something on which a lot of procedurally generated games can easily fall short.

I began saying how wonderful the graphics are, but I want to repeat it. It’s very easy to sigh at the sight of pixel graphics at this point, because they’re in every other game. But here the design shines so damned brightly, not least thanks to lighting effects that deserve piles of awards. But it’s also thanks to the incredible detail therein, the vivacity and life put into the incredible animations, the weather effects, and the enemy variety. Combine that with the uncomfortably brilliant music, and it exudes a deliberate and unsettling atmosphere that perfectly suits the tone.

Oh, and leave the game on the title screen and it runs little demo versions, like games used to and still should. Huzzah.

It’s just constantly splendid fun, ever-changing and interesting, with increasingly challenging dungeons to keep you wanting to improve. I love how it drips in its scant story in peculiar little cutscenes or flashbacks, how little moments of conversation are always exquisitely well written, sometimes oddly poetic.

I’ve not finished it, because curses those lizard men are tough, so I can’t yet speak for length and conclusion, but the fact that I could just start a second game with a different seed and play it all through differently is enormously appealing. It’s not the deepest game, but it’s smart, ridiculously pretty, and has me completely hooked.

Songbringer is out on September 1st for Windows, Mac and Linux, via Steam and GOG.

37 Comments

  1. Neutrino says:

    Pixel graphics really need a video for readers to be able to appreciate.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Swordfishtrombone says:

    Good lord, how on Earth did I miss this? It looks absolutely glorious. Thanks for the tip John.

  3. Michael Fogg says:

    So like a fantasy Nuclear Throne?

  4. fish99 says:

    Bit of a 2D Dark Souls maybe, but with a procedural generated world. Looks very pretty anyway.

    • ZippyLemon says:

      A BIT LIKE DARK SOULS IS IT? SURELY NOT. LIKE DARK SOULS, BUT DISTINCT IN SEVERAL ASPECTS YOU SAY? GOSH. THIS REALLY, REALLY HELPS ME COMPREHEND THE VIDEO GAME’S NATURE. IT’S LIKE DARK SOULS. LIKE DARK SOULS, BUT NOT DARK SOULS IS WHAT IT IS. GOODNESS *slams face on desk* ME *slams face on desk* SO *slams face onto desk* HELPFUL *slams face onto desk and passes out*

      • cpt_freakout says:

        Hey man stop it or you’ll hurt yourself. Just like in Dark Souls

        • Ghostwise says:

          The last time I saw an old woman fall down the stairs, I exclaimed in glowing enthusiast “OMG DODGE ROLLZ JUST LIEK IN D4RK SOULS!” and cheered.

      • Minglefingler says:

        “LIKE DARK SOULS, BUT NOT DARK SOULS IS WHAT IT IS. ” What, you mean it’s like Bloodborne?

      • fish99 says:

        If you’d read the article you’d understand what I was referring to, but no you just wanted to be a giant dick.

        What happened to this site?

        • puzzlepiece87 says:

          Everyone started comparing everything to Dark Souls.

          • fish99 says:

            I get that, and I even expected someone to complain, but not with 10 LINES OF ANGRY CAPS.

            For the record though, having to make your way through areas without dying and having the enemies respawn when you die is the one feature that everyone associates with Dark Souls, even though many games did it previously. Songbringer is also a fantasy RPG, with melee/ranged combat and bosses.

            All I was doing was throwing the idea out there to see if people who had played it agreed.

        • Ragnar says:

          Your comparison of this game was just the straw that broke that person’s back. When every game is compared to Dark Souls, people start snapping and the snark pours out.

          And to answer your question, no, it’s not like 2D Dark Souls – that’s Salt & Sanctuary.

          Yes, everything respawns on death, but it’s different in almost every other way. The top-down perspective, the procedural generation, the stylized pixel graphics, the boomerang hat, the sword as your main weapon, the overworld with separate dungeons, the dragons that come out of the water to spit balls at you, the hearts as depicting health, the lack of stamina, the indifference of enemies, the combat, the limited RPG elements, the lack of XP, the lack of dropping stuff on death, the world being subdivided into screens…

          If anything, it’s like a procedurally generated Zelda where enemies only respawn when you die rather than every time you change screens.

  5. Laurentius says:

    How are controls?

    Keyboard playbale or gamepad only?

  6. Premium User Badge

    AutonomyLost says:

    Gonna pick this up tonight after work. Looks awesome! Thanks for the review, John.

  7. Atog says:

    I’m not far in the game but I find the combat quite lacking in precision, maybe I’m just bad at it.

  8. notponies says:

    Had this on my wishlist for a while, for it being Zelda + 70s Sci-Fi Art if nothing else.

    Though I fear over how many will dismiss this because it’s “procedural” and “pixel art” (and not “real” pixel art, because that’s also a complaint now for some reason).

    And I speak as someone who’s also kind of burnt out on roguelikes, though more due to permadeath than due to procedural levels.

  9. Landiss says:

    I just want to say I love RPS. Here’s what I found:

    link to prnt.sc

    Source here:
    link to opencritic.com

  10. April March says:

    Whenever I see
    1) a game I’ve never heard of
    2) with the RPS Recommended seal
    3) by John Walker

    I know I’m in for a delight.

  11. ludde says:

    This article kills my computer. Was wondering why some programs were acting up, took me a while to find out it was this tab.

    Painful just typing this reply, takes several seconds for the letters to appears.

  12. -Ross says:

    I just tried it out for a couple hours and was pretty disappointed. You start off with just WASD movement and one sword attack. It gets a bit better later when you get more weapons, but no extra movement abilities so far that would allow you to dodge as fast as some of the enemies can move and attack. It’s nothing like as fun as Hyper Light Drifter’s combat.

    The sword combat does seems imprecise. It’s very hard to tell how far away your sword will hit, or how big the sweep is. It’s even hard to tell which direction you’re swinging in. Your character sprite barely looks different if you’re facing up, down, left, or right, and the two alternating sword attack animations both pretty much sweep through 360 degrees, so they don’t help much either.

    The camera is pretty bad. The map seems to be continuous, but the camera fixes itself (more or less, it drifts around a bit) to the center of each room, sliding over to the next when you walk out of the screen. There’s not really a buffer zone between rooms, so you can be fighting enemies at the top of the room with your character’s head totally off the screen, or uncomfortably close to the bottom or one side. I don’t think you can be hurt by enemies outside the room, but multiple times I walked off the screen to switch rooms and ran into an enemy I couldn’t see while the camera was moving (and there is a short distance that you auto-walk between rooms). Most of the time the camera is zoomed in so it doesn’t show the edges of the room! Enemies love to hide out off-camera by the exits.

    I wasn’t impressed by the music. For me it was too conspicuous to be ambient, but didn’t have any melody either, so just some sort of weird, electronic, elevator music. Some of the sound effects are quite nice, though they don’t stand out unless you turn the music way down.

    The game feel in general is pretty limp. There is a decent thump when you whack things most of the time, but not on the killing blow of all times, then you just get some lame BEEEEeeeeeooop, and there’s not much visual feedback either way. It’s not at all dramatic when you get hit either—your character flashes white a bit and there’s a thump almost exactly like the one you hear when you hit an enemy. It’s very easy to miss in combat, where there’s lots of other thumps and things flashing white. You health bar is by no means the most obvious thing on your HUD. This game is nowhere near in Nuclear Throne’s league.

    Pet peeve, but the UI is very gamepad-oriented. There’s no mouse and standard keyboard UI controls are not there. It bugs you every time you start it up what input device you’re using, and the first time it makes you bind all the controls before you even get to the menu. The menus don’t wrap. Not any hair-pulling UI issues, it just seems unfinished.

    • Tacroy says:

      You might have missed it or maybe it’s a procedural thing, but like the third thing I picked up (after the sword and the hat) was a blink step that can be used as a dodge.

      I do agree that hitboxes in this game are incredibly janky. It’s occasionally hard to tell why you got hit, or why you hit an enemy.

      The pixel graphics are also not conducive to some enemy types. In the frozen dungeon, for instance, there was a room that spawned a bunch of tiny floating motes that would freeze and damage on contact, and they were sometimes impossible to see. This led to the spectacularly unfun feeling of getting zapped for no appreciable reason.

      • -Ross says:

        Ah, cool. Maybe I will try it a bit more to see if I can find the blink step. Ugh, those zappy-motes sound annoying. Yeah, on one hand it looks cool that there’s lots of visual stuff going on, but on the other hand it’s not designed so the important stuff stands out.

  13. EwokThisWay says:

    “procedurally generated”.

    Well no thank you. This will be without me.

    This procedural generation BS will be the end of video-games i fear. This is absolute laziness from devellopers, we should not encourage this crap or games are going to lose their soul. You can’t “procedurally generate” a good story or an interesting world.

  14. Premium User Badge

    AutonomyLost says:

    I am LOVING this game so far. Thanks again, John!

  15. Premium User Badge

    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    Anyone else here who has played both this and Hyper Light Drifter? Seems pretty similar.

  16. wisnoskij says:

    So very Zelda-y.
    Has anyone figured out how the consumable items work exactly?
    They are replaced when you die? And other times as well????
    They also mostly all seem to come with containers, so I will have 8 bombs and 2 bomb pouches. I think the pouches are used for refilling my bombs mid dungeon. And maybe do not respawn at all? But the 8 bombs will respawn at least at death.

Comment on this story

XHTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>