Sword and Sworcery is a hipster video game. This is the first sentiment my brother relayed back to me after trying the game, and I’m obliged to agree. It’s evident to anyone who has had a cursory glance at the game’s aesthetic that Capybara Games’ adventure title paddles headlong against the mainstream. While this unrepentant artfulness is in many ways a breath of fresh air, it results in a highly uneven experience. Sword and Sworcery suffers from a propensity to eschew common sense in favour of fetishizing its own creative vision.
The player takes the role of the Scythian, a warrior tasked with collecting the three pieces of the golden trigon and sealing away the apparition at Mingi Taw. While the vernacular may throw you at first, the skeleton of the story is a familiar one. Like your typical adventure game, the player controls the Scythian by pointing and clicking on objects and pieces of scenery. Unlike your typical adventure game, the game does away with the player’s inventory, instead focusing on puzzles that are self-contained within a single screen. It’s a serviceable approach that pairs well with the minimalist interface of the game, but one that ultimately results in a large number of iterative puzzles. Far too many solutions involve clicking scenery elements in a specific order, and this feat is rarely challenging.
These cerebral elements are balanced by a number of action sequences. Early on in the heyday of adventure games, Lucasarts coined a golden rule: the hero should never die. Imperiling the life of a protagonist such as Guybrush Threepwood, who relied on his wits rather than his sword arm, was denounced as unwieldy. Sword and Sworcery not only allows character death but incorporates a full combat system. The player fights monsters by blocking, slashing, and deflecting with his sword and shield in a brisk series of quick time events. Foul up too many times in a row and you have to start over – only this time with an empty health bar. While the penalty for death is lenient, its presence is a jarring relic. A number of the boss fights are excruciatingly drawn out for dramatic effect as well, making the bland quick time carousel feel especially frustrating.
The game as a whole drags. Movement is slow, dialogue is often delivered in unapologetic blocks of text, and many interstitial animations are unskippable and glacially paced. Of all these missteps, the sluggish movement is a particular thorn in the side of the player. Like most other adventure games, backtracking plays a large role in Sword and Sworcery. The inability to walk at a satisfying pace transforms exploratory challenges into an agonizing chore. It’s apparent that the slow pace of Sword and Sworcery is an intentional design decision of the part of the developers in order to set tone, but it makes the game feel clumsy at times.
While the game may feel clumsy, it looks and sounds gorgeous. The stylized pixel art is simultaneously retro and frontier, reshaping simple tan and brown boxes into highly stylized characters and landscapes. The game adheres to the pixelated aesthetic of its 1990s adventure game forebears but adds refreshingly modern visual flourishes. I’m not sure who Sam Guthrie is (or why his name warrants a mention under the game’s logo in a manner befitting Tom Clancy or Sid Meier), but his contribution to the soundtrack of the game is equally appreciated. His haunting melodies breath life into the dream-like world of Sword and Sworcery and make many of the duller stretches of the game more bearable. To be honest, I was often more content looking at and listening to the game than I was playing it.
This is the crux of Sword and Sorcery. The title possesses a definite artistic vision but stumbles in translating this vision into the video game medium. Its brilliance gleams through clearest in the graphics and sound of the game, both of which are stellar elements that stand strongly on their own. The core gameplay, however, is burdened by a propensity to forfeit good game design decisions for artful ones.