How many dungeons have you entered in your gaming lifetime? I think I’ve probably ventured into the tens of thousands. You see, we all drop into these deep holes in the ground, even though we know what to expect – a load of horror, gore and torment. In the real world however I’ve only ever been in two dungeons and there wasn’t anything scary about them whatsoever. There were no chests of gold, no strange creatures, and certainly no huge bosses. Just a damp smell and a couple of candles. Can Songbringer, the new indie game by Wizard Fu give me a better experience than my damp dungeon?
Originally funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, Songbringer is an all action Zelda type dungeon crawler – but with a big difference. The worlds you enter are procedurally generated to give you a different layout and experience every time you play. I feel it’s been inspired by the Conan the Barbarian comics, mixed with Buck Rogers 70’s sci-fi and hit with a lot of Terry Pratchett humour.
You play as the best named hero in the history of gaming – Roq Epimetheos – a sort of man of the people, muscle rippling space ranger whose spaceship, Songbringer, sends him off on his space motorcycle to a planet called Ezkera. You begin after a motorbike crash, an accident so violent it has ripped his shirt clean off, ensuring that you play the whole game half naked like an extra from a Peter Andre music video. With a little help from your robot buddy, you venture out into the world and find a huge sword in a cave. Taking this sword unleashes a demon world that you must defeat, and, well, that just about wraps it up for the story. But without being flippant, the game never takes itself seriously in the narrative department. There are lots of funny quips and some great one-liners as you venture through the world ahead.
Gameplay wise, Songbringer is quite a simple affair and one that you will no doubt be very used to. You move about the area, avoiding traps and enemies, swinging your sword and throwing your top hat across the room like a boomerang, destroying the demons in your way. You can also pick up special items, like smart bombs that take out everything around you, or a biosphere that shows you where the bosses are hanging out in a dungeon’s level.
There are two levels of difficulty in this game – normal, for us normal folk, and then the permadeath variety for the mad individuals who are so hard that when they look at you, you instantly weep. There is a fair amount of puzzling to be had too, but those parts are quite simple affairs and never too taxing on the mind. You can meditate and eat cactuses that provoke mind bending hallucination trips into another reality too. These are a load of fun and play brilliantly within the story, opening up loads of secret hidden pathways.
Playing Songbringer is fun and simple, but it can get a bit overcrowded with enemies at times, and that makes it hard to target what you need to be hitting at any time. The save points are hugely annoying too, and I’ve had to replay dungeons more times then I care to think about. In fact, there were times where I found myself lost for a quite a bit of the game, before the solution all magically clicked into place. For exploration fans who hate a bit of hand holding though, then this game is definitely for you. The combat does take a bit of time to get used to, but when it clicks the game becomes much more enjoyable to play. The boss battles are hard as nails, but are doable, especially if you have patience and don’t mind redoing dungeons a few times to get the hang of things.
As a visual spectacle, Songbringer promotes the immortal 8-bit gaming look. It’s all pixelated heaven, with Gameboy style graphics and blocky character design. To be fair though, it does this very well, with some nice sequences – especially the trippy sections – where this art style works wonderfully. But I do have a problem with this choice of graphics, because it feels too familiar and too old school for me. The retro style influences in game design have started to become outdated and I long to never to see a blocky pixel again. However this one man team clearly loves the style and uses the choice of design beautifully and expertly. It’s just not for me. The sound is similarly very retro as well in its presentation, but works well enough and sees Songbringer come with some great effects.
Overall I have trouble with games of this nature, as I feel the dungeon crawling genre has moved on with the latest generation of RPG games. This is definitely a throwback to a time when games were simpler and didn’t take themselves so seriously. Songbringer is neatly designed, written with wit and humour and has some fun gameplay, but it struggled to keep my interest through its entirety and I found it hard to replay dungeons after many a death.
For retro gamers out there though, those with a love of this art style, then this is definitely worth your time and money.