When one-man developer Wizard Fu (otherwise known as Nathanael Weiss) brought Songbringer to Kickstarter in 2015, it was with the aim of creating a modern twist on classic 16-bit era ARPGs like The Legend of Zelda. After three years of designing the art, music, and code for the game solo, Weiss partnered with publisher Double Eleven in order to release Songbringer. The game's roots are firmly planted in the past, with pixel art, chiptune sounds, and the gated-progression mechanics familiar to a Zelda-like. Despite this, there are reminders throughout that Songbringer is a game from the modern era. Touches like dynamic shadows on pixelated trees and bushes are sure to make veteran gamers smile.
One of the game's most interesting features is the procedurally generated maps that form its world. Starting a new game in Songbringer requires you to enter a six-digit code, from which the game will then seed a unique version of Ekzerra by determining the placement of dungeons, secrets and more. Furthermore, the same code will always generate the same world - meaning they can be shared or replayed as desired. Perhaps the biggest question I had going into the game was how well the procedurally generated maps would gel with a character progression arc that is entirely about gaining new abilities in order to access new areas. The potential pitfalls with such a design are obvious, so does Songbringer manage to sidestep the traps and escape the dungeon unscathed?
There is some absolutely beautiful pixel art in the game and this becomes immediately apparent through its opening cutscene. We're introduced to protagonist Roq Epimetheus, crew member of the titular spaceship Songbringer, in storyboard scenes that feel meticulously crafted. The crew of Songbringer are on a mission to find verdant and beautiful alien worlds. Ideally, these worlds will be free of oversight from the galactic police so they can loot everything that's not nailed down. Out on a scouting mission on a new world, Roq finds himself separated from his friends after an electrical storm knocks out his transportation. The player takes over as Roq wakes up from the crash with only his trusty robot buddy Jib for company and no way to contact the ship (also shirtless, for some reason.) Ostensibly, your first objective is to make contact with Songbringer and the rest of the crew. When you find a large glowing sword in a nearby cave, however, it's difficult not to be distracted. Choosing not to listen to Jib's advice and taking the sword sets in motion the events that form the game's story. The very act of picking up this Nanosword awakens a long dormant threat on the world of Ekzerra which Roq will have to defeat if he wants to survive. The important thing here is that in these early stages, both the player and the character are equally clueless as to what this threat is and how to combat it.
There is a real sense that you are discovering things alongside the protagonist that persists throughout the game. As you progress, you'll discover more about the nameless threat to your existence and the world around you. Some of these things will happen naturally as you progress though the world, some will rely on the player following visual clues in the environment, and some are so well hidden you'll have to use your head (and your inventory) to find them. The open ended nature of exploring the in-game world means these individual bits of exposition can come at an odd pace and some can even happen in any order. This can lead to a bit of a disjointed feeling in how the story is paced. The feeling is mitigated somewhat by the game only allowing access to certain areas once you have access to certain abilities or items. Given that where and when these items will be found is determined at least in part by your world seed, however, it's likely that individual players will have widely varied experiences in this regard. The real charm of this progression system is in the discovery itself. Most of the items and abilities found throughout Songbringer will change how you can interact with the environment, sometimes in surprising ways. Weiss has utilized this intelligently to create environments that seem simple at first but that are often hiding secrets right under your nose.
Songbringer provides some complex gameplay through a deceptively simple interface. Each item or weapon you pick up can be assigned to a button and pressing the button uses the item. In the case of your sword this will swing the weapon, in the case of other items the use may change depending on the context. Rather than having a generic button to interact with objects in the environment, you have to use the right items in the right situations to uncover secrets or just find new paths around the map This starts with fairly simple ideas like using the bombs you just found to blow up walls that are blocking the way. By the later stages of the game, though, my options were more diverse. Meditation might be the key to revealing one path, or taking a bite of a hallucinogenic cactus might let me see things differently. I'm being deliberately vague here for a reason. The game has very little to guide you in the use of these various items and abilities but I found that a large part of the enjoyment I derived from the experience came from making these discoveries myself. I won't claim that trial and error was never involved in these situations but Songbringer at least attempts to give visual clues and other subtle hints as to how it expects you to progress. More often than not, experimentation led to satisfying results.
I found fighting through the world of Ekzerra to be less enjoyable. Combat progresses beyond the one button sword swing you start out with fairly quickly as you delve into dungeons and caves and collect new abilities from within. I soon found myself with ranged attacks in the form of an Oddjob-style deadly top-hat and more options and upgrades can be obtained at a satisfying pace if you search for them. The problem I had didn't come from the variety of these options, more from how it feels to use them. There's very little sense of feedback in combat and I often found success came from spamming the most attacks possible rather than using my abilities effectively. This is especially true in busier encounters. Some later dungeons will throw you into rooms where every inch of visible space is occupied by an enemy. Situations like this became a blind panic of frantic sword swings as I struggled to even determine where my character was among the throng. So too in boss fights, where a combination of lighting effects, endless flashy attacks, and the screen filling bosses themselves, can make keeping track of Roq a pure guessing game. The action is frenetic, with an arcade feel to it. It's exciting when in the moment but never really felt satisfying for me as so many times I was left scratching my head over how I came away with a victory.
The pixel art style of Songbringer conveys the world it represents well. There's a good deal of detail in the locations and character designs. Due to the procedurally generated nature of the individual screens that make up the map, environments can vary wildly from busy to sparse. Even so, there's generally something to draw the eye in each scene, and they're nicely augmented by some interesting dynamic lighting and weather effects that change alongside the in-game time of day. It's a combination of the old and new that's strangely satisfying. It also helps breathe life into the world as the environments are never totally static. Touches like these consistently helped my sense of immersion throughout the game. In turn, keeping my immersion up helped me stay invested in the characters of Roq and the rest of the Songbringer crew despite limited interactions with them and the loose pacing of the story. Unfortunately, I don't feel the same way about the sound design. The chiptune soundtrack and 16-bit era sound effects are appropriately retro but generally uninspiring.
On the face of it, the game has near limitless replayability. I've already mentioned the procedurally generated elements derived from your world seed. The plot, too, doesn't really force you to do things in a particular order to get all the details. For me though, changing up where things are on the map and the order I do them in doesn't hold much appeal if I'm still going to end up in the same place. Having said that, after seeing a summary of the amount of hidden things still to find in my original world (shown upon completing the game) I'm tempted to jump right back in and uncover them all. My completion time for this world was around ten hours and as mentioned I could have easily extended that. Thanks to the world seeding system I could also challenge myself to get through in a fraction of the time. There's also the option to play a high-stakes permadeath version of any campaign, if you're looking for a challenge. Given the imprecision of the combat, this is not something I would spend any significant time with, but that's also down to my personal preference on how I like to play games in general.
The rewarding sense of exploration and the ability to take the game at your own pace are the real draws here. These aspects are so well done that they make any frustrations well worth tolerating in order to see this smart, self-contained tale come to a close. Far from falling to any weaknesses of a procedurally generated design, Songbringer manages to use these elements to its advantage without compromising on the discovery based progression in the game. Both as a tribute to the 16-bit era and in its own right, the game works by delivering the sense of wonder and discovery that was often intrinsic in making our early gaming experiences special. Despite its flaws, I'd recommend the game to anyone who feels that sense may have diminished in the modern age.
If you're picking up Songbringer, you can see the world of Ekzerra the same way I did by using the world seed 'LEMONS'
Our Songbringer review was conducted on PlayStation 4 using a digital code provided by the publisher. The game is also available for PC via Steam and Xbox One.
- Satisfying Progression
- Varied Environments
- Rewarding Exploration
- Imprecise Combat
- Uninspired Music
- Some Cluttered Scenes