I’m something of a sucker for pixel art games. It’s probably the nostalgia factor that does it for me, harking back to a time when it was my brother and I eagerly hammering away at the latest game we’d got usually after an intense begging and pleading session with our parents. At the same time I think the medium has evolved past what it was back then as it used to be the only way in which you could do graphics for games. Today it’s more a tool of choice as decent level graphics is well within the reach of even the smallest independent studios. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is yet another independent release that has chosen the pixel art route for their point and click action adventure, one that I had heard much about but only got around to playing last weekend.
You are only known as The Scythian, a stranger to the lands who’s been sent to accomplish a woeful errand. What that errand is and your motivation for doing so is left up to the imagination and the first session of Sword and Sworcery instead focuses on teaching you the basics of the game and setting up the few NPCs you’ll meet along the way. They’re rather unimaginatively named Girl (a Girl), Logfella (a guy who cuts logs) and Dogfella (a dog). Your first mission sees you summit the Mingi Taw (a local mountain) and retrieve a book known as the Megatome, a powerful spell book. From there you continue on your woeful errand following the will of the almighty cursor god.
The artwork of Sword and Sworcery is a curious blend of good old fashioned pixel art highlighted with more modern artistic effects. The modern aspects fit in well though being used mostly as emphasis in order to portray something in a certain way. Additionally any UI elements including things like the overlays and title screens are done in a non-pixel art way giving the seemingly retro game a modern feel when played. I’m no pixel art purist so the blending of the new and old styles of computer art work well and don’t seem to be at odds with each other like I thought they would be at first glance.
Much like Botanicula before it Sword and Sworcery has put a lot of effort into the music and foley that backs the core game play. The starting scenes serve as a kind of audio test to make sure that your sound system is working correctly as whilst none of the puzzles really require sound you’re missing out if you don’t have it on. For me though it was the music more than the foley this time around that did it for me as the music felt original whilst the foley felt like it might have come from a stock sounds library. Still it’s not like they’re terrible, just that the music was the standout of the two audio aspects of the game.
The core of Sword and Sworcery is a good old fashioned point and click adventure with a heavy aspect on exploration. Sword and Sworcery actively encourages you to click around the screen to figure things out and after a while also has you swiping around the place to see if things will react. As a seasoned gamer I find it somewhat interesting that players have to be told to explore, it feels like second nature especially to someone who grew up on such titles, but I can see how this game would be frustrating to someone who had never encountered the genre before. This was perhaps more likely for Sword and Sworcery as its initial release was on the iPad, home to the casual gamer who’s usually not terribly familiar with traditional game conventions.
The puzzles are, for the most part, pretty straight forward and can usually be uncovered through clicking and swiping around wildly should the answer not hit you immediately. Unlike its point and click ancestors Sword and Sworcery isn’t a game that relies on you finding all the required items and then rifling through them in order to find which one unlocks the next section, which I was very grateful for. There are definitely more innovative ways to make puzzles rather than throwing out all the pieces randomly and having you attempt to find which piece goes where at what time and Sword and Sworcery does so in a way that’s both fun and challenging, for most of the time at least.
Whilst I was able to get through most of the puzzles without too many dramas there were a couple occasions where I got stuck. Now this wasn’t the usual thing of not completing a certain puzzle (this was the dark moon trigon part if you’re interested) but after breezing through all the puzzles I was then left wondering where to go next. After clicking around everywhere I couldn’t for the life of me figure out where to go and it wasn’t until I randomly clicked on a little ledge by accident did I find how to progress further. I’m fine with hiding puzzles in plain sight but if a player has been stuck on something for more than 10 minutes it usually means the puzzle logic isn’t entirely clear as the developer thinks it is. I’m also willing to admit that I’m just thick and couldn’t see the clues but as far as I could tell it wouldn’t be obvious to most (and judging by the Steam stats on the game I’m one of the very few, 7% of people in fact, to have actually finished the entire game).
Combat is a very simplistic affair, something that’s a trait of adventure games everywhere. If you don’t go stray too far from the predetermined course that the game has plotted for you it’s unlikely that you’ll see combat more than 5 or so times throughout your play through. However when I misinterpreted what one of the NPCs said I was treated to quite a few of the combat encounters as I struggled to get back on course. This wouldn’t have been so bad had the combat encounters not been near identical, serving as just a time waster rather than an actual challenge.
The same can be said for the boss fights as whilst they’re all slightly different they are for the most part the same. You’ll do the same Zelda: Ocarina of Time style tennis match with each trigon until they decide you need to do it again but faster this time. After that its the same series of quick time events (bar 1 which is unique to that boss fight, the only real difference in any of the fights) making sure that you press your shield at the right time whilst swiping away anything that gets close. The whole thing would’ve been made a lot more pleasurable if the game had mentioned that you could press and hold the shield to regen health, something that wasn’t revealed to me until I was out of health replenishing mushrooms and had to start the boss fight on 1 star of health.
I could forgive all these quibbles should the story have been interesting but I just couldn’t get into it. One of the biggest aspects of the game is that it has built in Twitter integration, allowing you to tweet any section of dialog. This means that all lines are less than 140 characters and I felt the dialog suffered because of this. It also didn’t help that it swung wildly between tongue-in-cheek style humor and actual meaty dialog, ostensibly because the humorous parts were meant for Twitter whilst the other sections weren’t. I felt the Tweeting thing was clever at first but later on it became painfully aware that it wasn’t a novel way of integrating social media it was just another way to market the game, one that was paid for by a terrible story.
All together Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery felt like it had equal parts good to bad. The final 15 minutes or so were quite enjoyable, probably the most enjoyable of the game, but it was preceded by several hours of samey combat, puzzles that were not satisfying and a story that felt like it was built as a marketing engine rather than an actual story. I really wanted to like Sword and Sworcery, I really did but the glaring faults (not least of which was the “wait 2 weeks to get the next trigon bullshit”) distracted from it so heavily that I can’t really recommend you go ahead and buy it, unless you’re a die hard point and click fan with a support the indies streak.
Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery is available right now on iOS and PC for $5.49 and $7.99 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with around 3.2 hours of total play time and 64% of the achievements unlocked. I also managed to get the #honest achievement with cheating as well, just don’t set your clock back until you finish the game.
The Humble Indie Bundle has been my source for many independent games that I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. The pay-what-you-want model works spectacularly in the instance and I’ve always paid a lot more than the average so I get all the extra goodies. It was then without a second thought that I ponied up for the most recent release which was primarily for the release of Amanita Design’s Boatanicula, a curious little platform game that just beams with cutness from every angle.
Botanicula puts you in control of a quintet of characters, all of which appear to be either a seed or young form of some kind of plant. The opening scenes paint a picture of a tranquil, happy life of all these disparate species coexisting together on a giant tree. However a spider like entity threatens every living thing that dwells within it, sucking the very life out of every thing that it touches. The quintet’s hope lies within a single seed that they’re endeavouring to plant before all life on the tree is inevitably wiped out and the adventures that entail along their journey.
There’s something to be said for games that make the most of their chosen medium and Botanicula is one that does this to perfection. Every panel is abosolutely gorgeous, brimming with vibrant colours and soft glow effects that are very visually appealing. Unlike point and click adventures of times gone past Botanicula doesn’t make interactive sections obvious by colouring them differently which, whilst slightly irksome at the start, gave all the scenes an even visual feel without any jarring distractions. This is only surpassed by how the scenes evolve as the player interacts with them, bringing ever more life into them the more you dared click.
Coupled with this gorgeous visual art is an equally impressive arrangement for the music and foley. Instead of using typical sound effects Botanicula uses the human voice for nearly everything and I’m pleased to say it does so to great effect. There’s something joyous about clicking around on the various plants and insects only to have them respond with a cheerful sound or have the character’s speech be a long sentence of nonsense that’s aptly portrayed by a thought bubble above their head. I think this was by far my favourite aspect of Botanicula as I’ve never had so much fun listening to people make funny noises.
At its heart Botanicula is a point and click adventure with all the puzzle solving gooddness that comes along with it. Like all good games in its genre the puzzles start off pretty easy, usually being simple hunt and peck type deals with an over-arching goal of collecting x of something in order to progress to the next level. Afterwards they start to ramp up in the difficultly level slowly eventually getting to rather complicated puzzles that even left me guessing for a good amount of time. For the most part they’re pretty enjoyable and quite satisfying when completed but there are a few issues that plague them.
Now I’m not sure if this was because my desktop resolution was larger than Botanicula was able to display (as evidenced by the black borders around the screenshots) or something else but interaction with it was sometimes a little gummy. Whilst it was quite responsive to regular clicks on interactive objects anything that required some kind of movement with the cursor was plagued with unpredictable motion. One such puzzle was to get push a nut out a hole in order to knock a key down and attempting to do so was not an exact science with the nut reacting unpredictably. I can see how it might be better on a tablet when you don’t have a cursor to contend with but with a mouse and its ever-present presence on the screen I found myself having to come up with other solutions when precision movement was required.
Apart from that however the puzzles were pretty much all good with the only stumbling block being myself. For the most part it was lack of attention that usually caught me out, sending me on a wild goose chase for 10~20 minutes while I tried to find the last thing to progress to the next level. I did use a walkthrough guide a couple times when I started to get frustrated but for the most part the game was easy enough to get through whilst still providing a good challenge.
After playing through Botanicula I came away with two very distinct feelings about the game’s target audience and where they should be headed in the future. Whilst adults will find much to enjoy in the world of Botanicula I can’t help but feel that this game would be so great for kids as everything seems to fit the bill for this being an amazing game for them. The vibrant colours, extraordinarily cute characters and playful soundscape seem perfect for something to delight kids with.
Botanicula also feels like it would be very much at home on a tablet like an iPad or Android equivalent. Indeed my one gripe, the iffy mouse pointer control sections, seems like it would be a non-issue on a tablet platform. This also plays somewhat into it being a great game for kids as well as I know many parents use their iPads to keep the kids quiet on long journeys. To their credit Amanita Designs has said that an iPad version is already in the works and I’ll be very eager to see how it fairs in comparison to its PC cousin.
The story of Botanicula, whilst simplistic, is ultimately sastifying. Even though there’s no actual dialog you still get a feel for all the character’s personalities and quirks. The conclusion is predictable but it’s still worth seeing through to the end just for the fun of it.
Botanicula shows the reason why I continue to spend money on the Humble Indie Bundles without putting much thought into the games that I’m buying. My hit rate with unresearched titles has been quite high and I’m glad I can count Amanita Design’s latest release amongst them. If you’re a fan of point and clicks or just well executed games then Botanicula won’t disappoint and I couldn’t hesittate to recommened it.
Botanicula is available on PC, OSX and Linux right now for $9.99. Game was played entirely on the PC with 3.3 hours played, 75% of the achievements unlocked and a final score of 108/125.