Game Review: Songbringer

Zelda without shirts…

Songbringer is a top-down, Zelda inspired, procedurally generated roguelike – Slathered with a healthy dose of late 70s/early 80s hyper-macho cheeseball, ala the “Heavy Metal” comic book series. It sports a beautifully detailed pixel art graphical style and epic retro synth soundtrack. Songbringer challenges you to tear off your shirt, put on your cyber top hat and dive into its randomly created worlds, over and over.

Songbringer was developed by Wizard Fu, the pseudonym of the solo indie developer Nathanael Weiss and was funded on Kickstarter back in 2015. Weiss was responsible for everything from the coding through to the animations. Knowing that; once you see this game in motion, the true scope of Weiss’s achievement becomes clear.

This is a beautiful looking game.

The retro pixel art graphics have a stunning amount of depth and detail that you would not expect from the medium. The screenshots truly do the game no justice as everything is animated beautifully, with a smoothness matched by few other retro style games. Scenes overflow with motion. Raindrops fall and splash in the water, trees blow in the wind, bugs fly around the edges of ponds or in bushes – It’s a very convincing and real feeling world. Not to mention it is all bathed in stunning real-time, modern lighting effects that lend real atmosphere to the proceedings. The music is similarly great, with oppressive droning synths and inventive chip-tunes.

Swords, Sorcery & Killer Top Hats…

The brilliant looks would be all for nought if the game itself played poorly, but luckily for us, this is not the case. Designed much like the classic Zelda games on the NES; Songbringer takes place over groups of single “screens” (each containing monsters, puzzles, traps and other oddities) which you enter or exit from one of 4 positions. You play as the outrageously named Roq Epimetheos, who is a crew member of the titular spaceship Songbringer. The ship arrives at the post-apocalyptic planet of Ezkera and while looking for a place to party, Roq crash lands his hoverbike so hard, it knocks his shirt clean off.

Before all this, you begin by entering a 6 letter “seed” which the procedural generation engine will create a world from. Interestingly the seed is deterministic, so entering the same seed will always generate the same world, this allows you to share cool worlds with your friends or re-enter previous ones to speed run them if that is your thing. You also select if you want to play normal or “perma-death” mode, as is required by the roguelike gods. Perma-death mode is strictly for those who’s cores are hard, because this game is not easy and you will be rewarded with a swift and ungracious death for any careless plays you make.

I got straight to work on CHEESE land….

You set out from your crash site with your flying robot buddy Jib (who is obsessed with moustaches for some reason and can be controlled by a second player for some local co-op fun) and before too long, acquire your primary weapon in the game, the Nano-Sword.

Combat is a simple hack and slash affair, with the ability to chain attacks into a combo. What makes the game interesting is that the sword swing animations are beautifully detailed and smooth, with top-notch hit-detection. This results in gameplay akin to Dark Souls; a slower, more deliberate style that will punish you mercilessly for misplaced and mistimed swings, but leave you with no-one to blame but yourself.

You also gain the ability to throw your top hat like a boomerang, toss bombs, use a lighter to start fires and numerous other tricks and tools. These give you plenty of options to use in combat, and you’ll need them, as this game can be crushingly difficult. Thankfully much of the combat can be avoided altogether if you have the skill so I can see this game becoming very popular with the speed running crowd.

You also eat hallucinogenic cacti for health, because of course you do.

Depending on your seed, each world will contain several dungeons, secrets and pieces of lore along with several soul-crushingly hard boss fights that just about left me in tears.

The story is a loveable dichotomy of the serious, moody and atmospheric contradicted with its totally rad vibe and story dialogue that has its tongue planted firmly in cheek. It is worth pointing out the game is very funny. Characters banter and break the 4th wall on the regular, say things like “WTF” and “LOL” or poke fun at the situations the game presents to them:

Where did my shirt go?” Roq asks after the the opening sequence.

So relaxed right now” is all he has to offer after using the power of space meditation to open doors with his mind. In fact, you later explain this newfound ability to your robot buddy, who swiftly deducts that the crash has left you clearly suffering from brain damage.

On the atmospheric and serious side of things, there is an air of mystery and dread I have not felt since playing the similarly pixel art inspired “Fez” on the 360. So much of the world seems beyond knowing and countless times I was left agape in wonderment as to just what it could have been that these structures were used for. Many of the dungeons I played focused on exploration and puzzle solving over combat, which really gave the oppressive mood time to sink in.

I must confess I have yet to “defeat” the game yet. The final boss was simply too much for me to overcome on my first run. I’m not sure if CHEESE is too hard, or I simply sucked – Regardless I did what so many have done in the roguelike genre before me: I started over with a new seed. Progress in JUUSTO, the Finnish word for cheese (yes I lack creativity), has been much easier with loot seeming to be more plentiful. This is probably just due to me understanding the game’s mechanics and not helplessly blundering into the baddies as I did my first time, but its hard to tell…

Songbringer is exactly what it claims to be: It’s a stylish, deep and fun action game that you can replay over and over, never having quite the same experience twice. A cheeky love letter to classic Zelda style gameplay that will have you coming back for more.

 

This game was reviewed on Xbox One.
A copy was provided by the publisher.
I have yet to GIT GUD enough to beat the final boss.
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