Reviews

It’s dangerous to go alone — Songbringer review

Picture this: you gain control of your protagonist in an unknown world. Everything around you is teeming with life, and the map screen is a blank canvas just waiting to be filled in. There’s a cave directly in front of you, and inside you find a sword. Leaving the cave, you proceed to explore your surroundings screen by screen; uncovering secrets, vanquishing enemies, and conquering dungeons. Sound somewhat familiar? Yes, fans of The Legend of Zelda, particularly the NES original, will find themselves right at home with Wizard Fu’s game, Songbringer. To call Songbringer “inspired” by The Legend of Zelda would be somewhat misleading, as for the most part, stripping away Songbringer’s lavish sci-fi exterior and replacing it with a Zelda aesthetic wouldn’t feel out of place in the slightest. However, doing so would discount all the fresh, exciting ideas that are added to this classic formula by Songbringer, the biggest of which is its procedural nature.

While every player that experiences Songbringer will encounter the same story beats, the way that you reach them will be different with each playthrough. When you begin a new file in Songbringer, you’re prompted to enter a six letter seed. Each combination of letters is tied to a particular world, which lends itself to its own unique experience. The overworld, secrets, and dungeon layout will all be randomized. As such, Songbringer is incredibly replayable. But, in my opinion, that comes at the cost of certain aspects of the game. Exploring a randomized overworld is just fine; in fact this aspect of the randomization suits Songbringer very well. Knowing my particular world layout was exclusive to me heightened the sense of discovery whenever I found some tucked away secret. I really felt as though I was setting out on a journey all my own, and whatever challenges I faced had to be overcome without assistance.

However, I would’ve liked the map to help compensate for the totally random nature of the world. The map displays each tile in exactly the same way, with only rudimentary information as to what is on that individual screen. This problem is compounded by the fact that you cannot mark locations to return to on the map. In a title such as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, each screen was deliberately crafted to connect to the screen adjacent, meaning that there were particular landmarks to follow to each destination. It is rather hard to get lost in a world with such deliberate design. In Songbringer, picking out landmarks to follow is a lot harder because each screen exists essentially independently of the one next door. That is the cost of procedurally generating a world. It simply isn’t as organic or recognizable as a result. In my opinion, having a unique world is just as valuable as one that feels organic, but it is important to consider the inherent issues with procedural design and attempt to compensate for them. In a few instances during my run, I found myself wandering aimlessly, trying to return to particular screens but being unsure of where they were, with no good way to track them back down.

That said, exploring the overworld was still a very enjoyable experience. There were secrets tucked away all over the map, and were never too obtuse due to Songbringer’s meditation feature. Meditation is a technique that Roq, our main character, is taught by a shadowy figure partway through the game. By meditating, a host of things can happen, and are all contextual. Sometimes, new aspects of the lore will be revealed depending on Roq’s surroundings. But, if there isn’t anything that is specifically designated to activate with meditation, Roq will reveal any hidden secrets on the screen. This removed the guess-and-check nature of many of the original Zelda’s “puzzles”. On the whole, Songbringer feels very modern because of this aspect of its design. While games such as The Legend of Zelda on NES are marred by instances of archaic design, such as randomly burning bushes in order to stumble upon secrets, Songbringer makes sure you can reach every conclusion logically. There were a few instances where I found myself at a loss as to how to progress, but when I finally did come up with the solution, it was so sensible that it was clear that the fault lay with me, not the game. However, overworld traversal is only one aspect of Songbringer.

Your time in Songbringer will be split between the overworld and the game’s various dungeons, which, again, are randomly generated. Much like in Zelda, these areas reward new key items which allow for further progression. However, whereas Zelda’s items are useful mainly in the dungeons themselves, Songbringer’s items are most helpful when exploring the overworld. There are many different applications of this, ranging from a dungeon’s bombs being used to open up new paths through the mountains, or new boots which speed up traversal. In that way, Songbringer has a touch of Metroid in its DNA. Unfortunately, procedural generation feels like a hindrance to dungeon design. When I think of Zelda dungeons, I think of intricate puzzles as well as blood-pumping combat. While Songbringer has the latter in spades, the puzzle-solving element is rather underdeveloped, and nearly non-existent. The extent of the puzzles are finding secret entrances in walls, or locating keys to unlock doors. These are never particularly complex, and can be made even easier depending on how your world generates. I had a few instances in my run where keys were simply out in the open, which took out a lot of the satisfaction associated with exploring dungeons. Songbringer would be a stronger game if this aspect wasn’t randomly generated. If the developer hand-crafted each dungeon, they would be more meaningful as well as more memorable. I might have a hard time recalling much of my dungeon time within Songbringer, but I will have a hard time forgetting the various bosses.

Songbringer has very simple but elegant combat. As you progress through the title, more options open up, and before long the one-button sword-slashing action quickly becomes much more engaging. With varying items and abilities ranging from a top hat boomerang to a 360 charge strike, to an Overwatch-esque blink dodge, Roq has a wide range of choices for taking on Songbringer’s myriad foes. While grunts in other games can simply become a chore to defeat, I was constantly engaged with Songbringer’s combat. The attacks felt weighty and satisfying, and clearing a screen of all its vicious monsters proved to be rewarding each and every time. While regular combat was entertaining, the most impressive fights were against the dungeon bosses. These are towering opponents, my favorite of which was a huge ice-breathing dragon that towered over Roq. Each encounter, save for one, were all memorable, intense, and visually interesting. While reaching these enemies in their dungeons could be a bit of a drag, finally getting to take them on face-to-face was always worth the trouble.

While the dungeons are a mixed bag, Songbringer’s overall aesthetic is a decisive win. The title boldly mixes science fiction with nature in a very unique way. The stylized pixel-art helps to further sell this merger of styles by working in tandem with the music to evoke classic sci-fi fare such as Star Wars, Alien, and Blade Runner, and combine that with natural and mythical elements. The juxtaposition of technology alongside centaurs and lush forests is a match made in heaven, and unlike many things I’ve seen before. This style extends to the deep lore which is developed through limited character interactions and environmental storytelling. While I was always eager to learn more about the world, the occasional use of casual, slang language felt somewhat jarring in contrast to the rest of the dark and serious mythos created by Songbringer. However, that slight quirk doesn’t detract from the rest of Songbringer’s excellent atmosphere.

On the whole, I had a very good time with Songbringer, but it certainly has its issues. While some of the game’s flaws are minor, others, such as the procedural dungeons, proved to detract from the game as a whole. But, as a fan of this genre and the source material Songbringer draws on, I can easily recommend this game. My run clocked in at just over six hours, and while that sounds short, I accomplished a lot during that time. Songbringer has a wonderful sense of progression. There were occasional moments where I was at a loss as to how to progress, but I was constantly working on new solutions and discovering secrets. I never felt like my momentum was brought to a grinding halt. This snappy pace will really be appreciated on future playthroughs. While I don’t have the immediate inclination to do so, a few months down the line, I can see myself returning, punching in a new seed, and reveling in the world Wizard Fu created.

75

Good

Songbringer

Review Guidelines

Songbringer’s procedurally generated world is a double-edged sword. While exploring a unique overworld is, on the whole, rather enjoyable, the map feature could’ve done more to aid traversal. On the flip side, dungeons feel rather uninspired due to the fact that they aren’t deliberately crafted. However, the aesthetic and combat system are both incredibly strong aspects of the game that prop up Songbringer’s weaker elements. While it does have flaws, the sum of Songbringer’s parts is an easily recommendable title for fans of the genre.

Abram is an aspiring games journalist with a soft-spot for titles published by a particular company that starts with N, and ends with -intendo. When he's not playing, or writing about, video games, Abram is most likely ranting to no one in particular about various films he's seen, or breaking out the old colored pencils to do a bit of drawing.
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