‘Sword & Sworcery’ Revisited

[8 August 2013]

By Scott Juster

The other day I did something I normally don’t do. I finished a game for a second time.  It’s not that I want to be a rolling stone when it comes to games. It’s just that the odds (i.e., the realities of life) aren’t stacked in my favor.  The potential number of hours that I can dedicate to games has drastically ebbed, and gone are the days when playing through Final Fantasy VI twice a year was a modest accomplishment.  On the other end of the scarcity spectrum, I could quit my job for a year and still find myself surrounded by great games from 2012’s back catalog.  Finally, it doesn’t help that games often demand a gargantuan time investment. Try to find a blockbuster action movie that lasts as long as an Uncharted campaign, for example.  Dump 100 hours into DotA 2 and you’ll probably be just good enough to be considered “not bad.”

It’s a shame, since playing games multiple times is something I enjoy.  I see things I missed the first time through and get a chance to reconsider my opinions.  This opportunity for reevaluation means that when I do play games again they tend to fall into two categories: the ones I found either especially enjoyable or those that were less than enjoyable.  Anything that provokes a response stronger than “meh” often gets another look, which is why I played through Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery again.

Part adventure game, part timing-based combat, and add a heaping dose of faux retro nostalgia, Sword & Sworcery is a self-proclaimed “link to the past.”  You fight beasts and solves puzzles in pursuit of a sacred triangular symbol, as has been the case in video games for decades.  The problem I had with the game the first time (and the problem I continue to have) is that the homage is often superficial.

For example, the bosses in Sworcery have one-hit kill moves that are sprung on the player with no introduction.  Make one mistake, and you have to sit through the lengthy combat sequences and make your way through the various boss stages from the beginning.  The beauty of A Link to the Past (and most classic Nintendo games) is its focus on teaching a series of compounding skills.  You learn how to use your sword.  You learn how to use your boomerang.  You learn how to use both together. Then you’re challenged to put it all into action against a boss, the toughest of which still need to hit you a few times before you’re dead.  Challenges are pedagogical because they require experimentation, not rote memorization.

More disappointing is the constant war of earnestness and irony that pervades Sworcery‘s writing.  The plot and its theme of self-sacrifice is poignant, but the ironic smirk that creeps into the narration undercuts the sentiment.  Sarcastic asides and post-ironic enthusiasm pervade the narration, culminating with the final line of: “Now we’re cosmic friends forever OK?”  An oblique reference to a group of owls not being what they seem is passable within the context of the specific puzzle.  A character saying “fire walk with me” for no reason other than to drop another Twin Peaks reference for all the quirky-cool insiders is gratuitous.  Sworcery’s plot and excellent atmosphere could easily be taken seriously on their own, but there’s a persistent ironic smirk that seems to laugh at (rather than with) the honesty of its original sources of inspiration.

It’s a shame, since Sworcery has plenty of great qualities that stood out in my second play through.  The fact that the Trigon that you seek must actually be fought and conquered is an intriguing twist on the considerably more benevolent Triforce.  In Zelda, the Triforce is a tool that is not necessarily inherently good or evil.  Ganon wants it for a reason after all. It grants wishes, and those wishes can be used for the sake of both good and evil.  Having to physically fight your prize and seeing it defend itself with deadly power raises the question of whether any mortal, good or evil, should have access to that type of power.  Even if you do win the battles, there is a lasting physical toll that is never repaid.

These battles themselves were more pleasant this time around.  Their slow pace and sudden twists were known quantities, so I was able to admire their synchronization with the game’s music.  As the Trigon pushes a wall of energy toward you, it’s accompanied by a wall of sound.  A swelling of instruments accompanies flashing patterns that herald each phase of the fight.  When done correctly, blows seem quantized with the beat, and the battles match up the backing track in a subtle way that is felt more than it is consciously acknowledged.

All this is part of an magnificent attention to sonic detail.  All the pixelated leaves rustle as you walk through the forests, and even subtle audio cues are multilayered chords.  The abstract pixel-art visuals make it seem like you’re looking through a hazy portal or perhaps trying to reconstruct a fast-fading dream.  You poke and swipe at the screen with crude gestures rather that with the precise tools that other games offer.  The crisp, solid audio is a confirmation that the world that you’re struggling to see does in fact exist.  It allows your ears to fill in the gaps and makes Sworcery’s world solid, albeit mysterious. 

Playing Sworcery again heightened most of my existing feelings on the game, leaving me even more ambivalent than before.  Despite the internal struggle between homage and irony, the game’s mixture of subtle visuals and powerful audio helps convey what is actually a dramatic story about the consequences of pursuing power.  The game feels tangible not because it’s photorealistic but because its sound and music provide consistent thematic and mechanical guidance.  Follow the score and you’ll be taken through the narrative. Follow the beat and you’ll survive the battles.

I’ve played Sworcery to completion twice and my opinions have gotten stronger, yet more divergent the second time around.  I’m not certain if one side outweighs the other.  However, the concept of trios is a large element of the game and there are lots of meaningful “tri” symbols floating around, so perhaps a third play through is in order?

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/174247-sword/