I finally finished the magnificent Sword & Sworcery. This game is a sumptuously designed experience. Sword & Sworcery shattered my expectations by providing such a beautiful and completely enveloping story that I almost want to call it a story before I call it a game. And don’t get me started about the sound design. Or rather, do, because the music is simply a delight and the sound design creates a beautifully ethereal and dreamlike space that lends an air of enchantment to the entire piece. I’m listening to the music right now, just because I can.
This game is wrapped up in a bizarre shell of self-awareness, with the other characters completely cognizant of the duality of the game and maybe even aware of how everything will end. And yet it still has an emotional pull that I haven’t found in any other games I’ve played recently. Stories I’ve read, movies I’ve watched, yes. Games? No. Despite a one year hiatus part way through completing the game, I’m still exceedingly excited about it. I want to play it again all in one sitting just to get the full and immediate impact.
This is a game worth discovering. It is an adventure that is glorious and sad and perfectly appropriate, all in one. Let me tell you more…
Sword & Sworcery is a very simple adventure game: its interface is as low-key as I’ve seen in years, likely due to its origins as an iOS game. But while your interactions with the game are stripped down to the simplest level, the game itself remains an intriguingly in-depth experience. Its presentation of its story feels much like what one might expect from a more interactive book or film (something that the designers apparently intended [beware: spoilers]). The puzzles weren’t too hard for me, only requiring a properly inquisitive mindset and a little dedication (things nearly every adventure game player should cultivate). I did benefit from embracing the dream-like and surreal, and was helped into this by the game’s music without my realizing it.
While there is combat in the game, and the music for the more important fights is truly awesome, fighting is not the focus of the game. This really is an adventure, built around finding things, solving puzzles, and discovering the story rather than beating things up and taking their stuff. That said, you will have to fight sometimes. I was pretty confused by the combat at first, but here’s a quick tip to keep you from stumbling as I did: click on the image of your sword or the image of your shield. Click and hold on your shield, and you’ll eventually heal one health segment. I think I lost my first fight because I kept trying keys on the keyboard instead of simply using my mouse. Also, timing your actions becomes more important as the game progresses; if rapid reactions are required, you’ll usually be primed for them by a quick flash surrounding the necessary button. The most timing-intensive moments will be the occasional games of “power-tennis,” as you return your opponent’s ball of energy with a well-timed sword blow. Fortunately, losing a fight is only a moderate stumbling block. You’ll find yourself crumpled on the ground with one health segment, and most important fights will give you enough time to heal yourself early on that you won’t really be handicapped if you try them again immediately.
How have I not yet mentioned the game’s visual design? Deliberately blocky high-res pixel art couples seamlessly with smoother glows and blooms to give a feel to the world that simultaneously tells you everything you need to know, gives you a distinct visual flavor, and leaves just enough up to the imagination. I spent several minutes early on just walking back and forth, shaking bushes and enjoying the play of light on the wooded meadows through which I was passing. Walking through shallow water sounded lovely and looked just as good, and the grim and ancient ruins which filled the rest of the world all had the appropriate gravitas. Fleeing past abandoned graves on a blasted mountaintop fills you with foreboding, a sense of doom. Oh, and the thing you find on Mingi Taw? I’ll let you find out about that one.
Just sit and listen when you find this place.
I’m going to mention the music and sound design again, because it really is just that good. There’s something almost magical about how it builds a sense of place. It unnerved me, it transported me, it so enthralled me that I sometimes just sat in one place in the game and waited to see where the music would go and what it would do. I want to play the game again, both to get a clearer picture of the story (my one year hiatus doesn’t help) and because there are parts of the game that I want to experience again. It’s like a favorite moment from a concert, except that I know that I can go back and find those moments once more and relive them in my own time.
For those of you who don’t want to risk knowing too much about the game before you play it, here’s my takeaway message. Try the game. It is beautiful, it is powerful, it is fun and moving and an excellent experience. You’ll be glad that you did.
Now then, this is strange: I’m not used to having a spoilers section in my game reviews. But because of how important the story is to this game, and the fact that I’d love for you to discover the game on your own, I’m going to warn you before I divulge too many *SPOILERS*
The story is a tragedy as well as being a heroic adventure. You’ll travel between the waking world and dreams, even going on a vision quest of sorts in order to learn what you must do. As is only right, your actions at the beginning of the story lay the basis for the necessity of your eventual self-destruction. And like I said before, it’s glorious and sad and perfectly appropriate, all in one.
Look, I’m not sure how else to say this: this game is powerful. As I mentioned at the start, it is wrapped up in a bizarre shell of self-aware dialogue, with the other characters somehow cognizant of the duality of the game and the story and maybe even aware of how everything will end. And yet it still has an emotional pull that I haven’t found in any other games I’ve played recently. I mentioned in my article on Schindler’s List that I don’t usually cry because of stories (and basically never with games), but thinking back to The Scythian I can feel myself tearing up. I don’t even fully understand why.
Maybe I can give you a hint of what it’s like.
Watch out, the *SPOILERS* get much much bigger:
You control the actions of The Scythian, a mysterious warrior woman from the steppes, and you watch as the person with whom you come to identify slowly grinds herself down to death. It’s heroic, it’s beautiful, and it’s tragic. You tell yourself that you’ll be ok, that you’ll do the right thing by finally eliminating the evil on Mingi Taw and you’ll make it out somehow, but by the time that you get there you know that that isn’t how this is going to work. You’re intermittently coughing and possibly vomiting blood, and the only way you have left to make it all worth it is to finish your task. Any other route just means that you, your friend, will have died for nothing.
You race to the top of the mountain, pursued by the horror which has dogged your steps and lurked in your memory ever since you first set foot on the mountain. And as you cast the empowered tome which you have carried all this way into The Whirling Infinite, you and the horror are both consumed and wracked by powers beyond your comprehension. And then you know that you just watched The Scythian die. You hold out hope, catching a glimpse of her going over the waterfall that you never paid enough attention to, praying that you will stir once more as her body is gently recovered from the river by Logfella. Instead you see her, yourself, placed on a funeral pyre. And then you mourn, along with the rest of the people of the game, as the flames consume your heroic and doomed friend. Erica Matthews, of Path of Pins, puts it more elegantly (and even more personally) over here, with her very heartfelt letter to the makers of the game.