Fiction is liberally strewn with stories about unexpected heroes: characters who you’d never expect to save the world, beat the bad guy or find the treasure, but who somehow manage to pull it off regardless. I’d almost call it a trope if the word “trope” hadn’t somehow led me to fill my gullet with bile every time I see it in writing. Songbringer, a Zelda-style exploration game from Wizard Fu Games, takes this idea and runs with it by giving us one of the least heroic heroes I’ve seen in awhile.
See, Roq definitely isn’t the kind of guy you’d expect to be a hero; given his propensity for partying, drinking and merrymaking, he’s really more of the slacker type, and that’s saying nothing about his hilarious choice of attire. We don’t always know what fate might have in store for us, though. When the ship he’s living on, Songbringer, crash lands on a mysterious planet, Roq and his robot pal Jib need to team up to find the rest of the crew and figure out what’s going on…or eat some shrooms and go a little wild. Either way, really.
If you’ve played Zelda, you know what to expect from Songbringer. Well, you sort of know what to expect, since each time you play the map is going to be different, but the general idea is present and accounted for. I’m talking about the original Zelda, by the way, the NES game with scrolling screens and plenty of obscure secrets to dig up. Songbringer really appeals to the retro old-school mentality in a way that goes beyond the graphics, which is unusual for an indie game and a trait that a certain section of gamers might really appreciate. The overall gameplay loop is certainly familiar: explore the overworld, find dungeons, explore them to get new items and use those to further explore the overworld, repeat.
You might think your average party animal wouldn’t be all that handy for this sort of adventure…and you’d be right! Roq’s not the most effective combatant by any means. He finds a fancy nanosword early on, but our hero’s swordsmanship could use more than a little work, as it’s difficult to hit enemies that aren’t directly to the right or left of you thanks to Roq’s awkward swing arcs and the overall iffiness of the hit detection throughout the game. Fortunately, Roq also comes across plenty of other weapons, most notably a top hat boomerang and a set of bombs; the former is often a more effective, if less powerful, weapon than the sword, and you can upgrade it like many other weapons to be slightly more effective. Enemies tend to be tough customers and rooms are usually packed, so you’ve uually got an uphill battle on your hands and you’ll need some degree of mastery in Songbringer’s combat to keep going.
Songbringer’s aesthetics are the most immediately noticeable aspect of this title, of course, and they’re going to be a love-it-or-hate-it affair. The combination of very, very retro-styling combined with a tendency to toss filters and crazy effects all over everything tends to lead to beautiful vistas and nausea in equal measure. Combined with the trippy sound design, this probably isn’t a game you want to play in an altered state.
It’s one you might want to play in general, though, if you’re hankering for a sort of retro exploration that we haven’t seen much since the NES days. As mentioned, indie games tend to focus on how retro games looked rather than how they played; the latter is, of course, much harder to ape. Songbringer nails this, adding its own light sprinkling of contemporary gaming on top, and becomes a unique experience as a result.