Review: Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery EP

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The unexpected game success of the week is a five-dollar app called Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. When it was released last Thursday for the iPad, only hardcore gaming heads had heard of it (or its Toronto-based studio, Capybara Games). Now, basically on the strength of word of mouth, it’s already hit third place on the paid iPad apps chart. It’s a brilliant piece of design, reaching both backward and forward in the history of adventure games–hyperminimal in some ways and richly realized in others, and an engrossing, immersive experience.

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The game’s graphics and movement (and a lot of its premise) are inspired by old 8-bit games, particularly The Legend of Zelda. (The chunky graphics, in fact, allow for a nifty revelation about the protagonist, an adventurer known only as The Scythian, partway through the game.) You go on quests, recover objects, solve puzzles, fight monsters–the usual. But S:S&S doesn’t take any of the conventions it riffs on for granted, and its color design and overall vibe are so elegant and thoughtfully constructed that a lot of the game’s fun is just wandering around looking at things. It’s also got a distinctive, daffy narrative voice (“We had retrieved The Megatome & Logfella was 100% ready to move it move it to the safety of his lodgings”). When the narration refers to “the great wizard Al Jaffee,” it means the one you’re thinking of.

S:S&S is designed for the particular capacities of the iPad: multitouch, networking, its physical presence as a metal-and-glass slab. Every line of dialogue or piece of verbal information in the game is under 130 characters long, and includes the option to tweet it (if you’ve been seeing the #sworcery tag popping up over the past few days, that’s why). You play most of the game with the iPad in horizontal orientation, but you turn it for fights and for a few other effects, and the fact that the iPad knows the date becomes important midway through the game. (The third movement of gameplay–yes, this is a game that suggests good points to take a break and come back later–is designed to require a few weeks to pass before you can complete it.)

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It’s a headphone game for sure–the music (by Jim Guthrie) is gorgeous and makes extensive use of the stereo field, and a few of the early puzzles pretty much depend on sound cues. (Guthrie will be releasing a soundtrack album to the game next month.) A spinning vinyl record is one of its central visual metaphors: when you pass from the waking world into the world of dreams, or vice versa, you see a cosmic record flipping over.

It’s also worth noting that S:S&S is, in some ways, a very psychedelic game. Not only can you find magical mushrooms that allow you to perceive the significance of physical objects around you differently, it’s probably the only computer game ever to use the phrase “set and setting.” Could this be the iPad’s Dark Side of the Moon?