I’m going to start this review with an anecdote. My brother and I talk about videogames a lot. They’re probably the most popular topic of conversation that we share, and have been for years. We hold differing opinions on a lot of games, but there’s one particular series upon which we agree – and that’s the greatness of Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda series. Several years ago, a game called Darksiders was released – and it resulted in a conversation between my brother and I in which we agreed that it would probably be the closest we’d ever come to playing a Zelda game on a non-Nintendo console.
Several years further down the line, that conversation needs to be revisited and a crucial amendment made. Darksiders might be the greatest 3D Zelda game impersonator – but the 2D Zelda games have a new contender for comparison. That contender is Songbringer.
Songbringer throws the player into a procedurally generated world. It’s represented in a very cool 8-bit graphical style, with chip tune music and beautifully animated blocky sprites. The top down view immediately invokes the memory of 80’s adventure games, and the world itself reinforces that by being a maze in itself. The player controls Roq and his sidekick Jib, on a mission to explore the world and complete dungeons. Once the adventure is complete, you can enter a different seed value and get a completely different world layout with different dungeons – adventures can be shared by passing on the seed to other players – they’ll then be able to play the exact same world as you although there’s no multiplayer to speak of. Two modes are available – a surprisingly difficult Normal mode and a nightmarishly hard Permadeath mode.
Wizard Fu’s game makes little effort to disguise the extent to which it’s been influenced by Nintendo’s series – the references are everywhere – from the map to the combat to the dungeons and the bosses. You begin your adventure on a screen that features a cave in the upper left corner – entering it will allow you to find the Nanosword. It’s not quite an “It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this,” moment, but it feels incredibly familiar. The sword becomes your main weapon through the course of the game, and you can pick up upgrades that give your weapon a ranged attack. Later on you will obtain a top hat that you can throw and will return to you (which sounds a little like a boomerang to me!) and also bombs and various other items. The map display and the dungeon layouts also all bring to mind a certain well-known game franchise.
Whether or not this is a bad thing is debatable. The single biggest problem with Songbringer isn’t actually with the game itself, so much as that it wilfully stands in the shadow of what is undoubtedly one of the greatest games ever made. It becomes incredibly difficult to play Songbringer without constantly comparing it to Zelda – and that’s ultimately not a comparison that many games will stand up to very well.
That’s not to say that Songbringer is bad – it really isn’t. The story is interesting, with an atmosphere that falls on just the right side of weird. It’s more complex than I’d expected it to be, with a solid variety of environmental puzzles – the maze design of the dungeons has a timeless quality to it that makes the simple act of navigating a key part of the problem solving you’ll need to do to make it through. The dungeons themselves don’t necessarily have to be completed in the order they’re numbered on the map – although doing this seemed to result in the bosses being hard to the point of being an absolute nightmare. The game offers very little guidance on where to go and what to do next, and often doesn’t even tell you what an item can be used for. This lack of handholding is unusual in modern games – and while we found it quite liberating to just be dropped into a world and left to figure it out for ourselves in some ways, there were definitely areas where a little bit of assistance would have been appreciated. It also seemed as though the music gained more layers as each dungeon was completed, becoming more and more complete with more sounds and expanding melodies as the game progressed – but in honesty this might have been an auditory hallucination on my part. I’d need to play through again to be certain!
On the negative side, collision detection can be dodgy (we wondered if this was all part of the 8 bit homage but couldn’t decide!). Occasionally, the text displays in a colour that is difficult to read against the background. However in context these are minor gripes given the scale of the game – which was developed by a single (extremely talented!) man. It’s a game that has obviously been put together with a lot of passion and hard work.
Songbringer is probably the closest you’ll ever come to playing Nintendo’s 1986 classic on your Xbox One, and the procedural generation means you could play it forever if you were that way inclined. If you’re a fan of retro adventures, it’s worth checking out – you might just need to bear with it and persevere to get the best out of it.
Songbringer is available now via Xbox Live store, for £16.74.