Created by a driven collective of Canadian developers, artists and musicians, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is a game of many aims, but perhaps the surest of these is to restore true adventuring to the entrenched adventure gaming genre. To describe it as a game of puzzles is broadly appropriate, but they're far more like unravelling mysteries than the strict logic and lateral thinking challenges that so define the old genre S:S&S seeks to renew.
It's exploration, more than anything else, which solves these mysteries – the game gently steering you to progress via a relaxed blend of visual and musical cues, diary entries and scripted events. That this all works, rather than ever descending into a linear stomp, a succession of artful but brazenly predetermined words, pictures and sounds, is because S:S&S is an adventure through and through.
Its three or four hours are liberally peppered with what feel like true accomplishments; such a rare thing in an age of ten-a-penny Achievements. Reach a major milestone – triumph in one of the handful of simple but remarkably tense fights, reach the next stage in an opaque but determined prophecy, escape from a dream land with a vital artefact – and your reward is a crescendo of music, animation and changes both subtle and profound to the game world. You've done something, and the game wants you to damn well feel that you have.
S:S&S is neither easy nor difficult. Challenge is there, but really it's about pressing on, discovering more, deciphering a swelling range of interactions. The pixel-art environments are few in number but are rich in lo-fi splendour and designed to be regularly revisited, usually with gentle twists and new contexts to reflect your hero's progress. There are perhaps moments when the backtracking threatens to become tiresome, but the promise of another glorious sound and vision reward is enough to keep this at bay.
While not inherently the iPad title it could have been – S:S&S keeps its controls and interface simple almost to the point of crudity – it is certainly a game of touchscreens. A sprite-summoning song is tapped out on tree trunks, rainbows are rubbed along their arc to magical result, pieces of the landscape are pinched together with two fingers to create a boss fight arena. Forever simple but forever in an accessible place between obvious and cryptic, this physical engagement with the world is a major player in making what would in simple description be an uneven, jumpy affair instead become deeply engrossing and affecting.
Against S:S&S, what most keeps it from standing among the ranks of those games it most adores, Another World and Zelda, is its archness. The term 'art game' is often a back-handed compliment, and while S:S&S makes strident efforts to not strand itself in a hipster ghetto, its dialogue seems locked in a war between lyrical profundity and self-effacing mumblecore. It's the former that works the best by far – haiku-tight epic verse that’s in keeping with the solemnity and awe of the hero's voyage. The game almost seems fearful of taking itself too seriously, and will intersperse these reverential nuggets with whatevers, dudes and what's-that-abouts.
Certainly, treating a fantasy tale with deadly earnestness is often its undoing, but here the knowing slacker-speak risks undermining the player's accomplishments and drags the game that much closer to the dread zone of simply showing off. For a time, each and every poetic line begs to be shared via the ever-there in-game Twitter system, but between the fear of spamming one's followers and the bubble-bursting of the ironic self-effacement, this desire fades rapidly.
The gloriously beautiful landscapes; the vital Jim Guthrie soundtrack; the pounding desire to see, explore and accomplish more of this ambient quest: these save the game from itself. It may be uneven in tone, but S:S&S is a triumphant experience nonetheless. It’s a brand new page in the dusty book of adventure games, and an inarguable statement as to how much art and music can give to gaming.