Songbringer is the baby of one-man game developer Nathanael Weiss, a.k.a Wizard Fu Games. Songbringer was built from the ground up over three years, with the entire development process live-stream on Twitch. Those streams (which comprise over 600 archived videos on Weiss’ YouTube channel) grant players an unprecedented level of insight into what it’s like to develop a game. They also indirectly demonstrate what’s most interesting and most frustrating about Songbringer: it’s a game that knows exactly who it appeals to and why, and it seems singularly interested in delivering a specific experience for those specific people. There’s a lot to love about Songbringer as long as you’re one of those people.
As the game opens, a mysterious voice fills in the story and frames the events to follow as a flashback. You play as Roq Epimetheos, top hat-wearing goon and crew member of the starship Songbringer. He and the rest of the Songbringer crew are a group of outlaw “revelers.” Upon disembarking to scout the seemingly deserted planet Ekzerra, Roq is forced to crashland planetside by a lightning storm. Roq lands near an ancient cave, where he discovers a humming sword. Despite the warnings of his plucky robo-sidekick Jib (who’s playable in the optional co-op mode), Roq takes the sword–and awakens an army of slumbering demons in the process.
Though Songbringer’s story is refreshingly quirky, unpretentious, and even occasionally funny, it’s also pretty clearly an afterthought. When it comes to the characters and story, you’ll get as much information from the Kickstarter page and intro sequence as you will in the game proper. Most of the larger plot is conveyed to you in a series of expository cutscenes in the game’s final sequence. The ending, which aims at cosmic and mysterious (one of the many things Songbringer borrows from Hyper Light Drifter) is so abrupt and leaves so many plot threads unresolved that it’s more frustrating than intriguing. Still, offbeat characters like a flamboyant captain and crewmate perfectly comfortable “guarding” a campfire make the game’s narrative inoffensive, if forgettable.
If the narrative is an afterthought, the real star of Songbringer is its procedurally generated, grid-based world, which has been designed for maximum replayability. Every time you start a new playthrough of Songbringer, you create a new seed world based on a six-digit code you provide. Though Songbringer’s story will be the same in each playthrough, the world, dungeons, and overworld will change as many times as you create new world seeds. You can also start a new game with the same seed you’ve used before in order to experience the same layout again.
Exploring this procedurally generated environment and its eight procedurally generated dungeons comprises the gameplay of Songbringer. As you progress from dungeon to dungeon (in any order you choose), you fight demons, find new abilities and equipment, and unravel the larger mystery surrounding the planet’s original inhabitants. Comparisons to The Legend of Zelda are welcomed and embraced, to the point that the opening screen in Songbringer is modelled after the original Zelda’s iconic opening screen. You’ll bomb cracks in walls to reveal entrances, shoot energy beams from your sword when you have full health, and find secret hidden screens by walking behind waterfalls or off into darkness. Every time you complete a dungeon, you receive a new ability and a “demon’s tooth,” which serves the exact function as Zelda’s heart containers–except that instead of dying, you “give in to the fear” (it is the mindkiller, after all) when you run out of teeth.
As exciting as a procedurally generated, infinitely replayable Legend of Zelda sounds, Songbringer’s constant reverence actually shines a light on several shortcomings. I don’t know if I fully appreciated how meticulously crafted the early Zeldas were until I played their procedural equivalent. Missing from Songbringer are the clever, challenging puzzles that were a hallmark of Zelda. In their place, Songbringer’s simple “puzzles” mostly revolve around understanding how a certain item or element of the environment functions. You’re very rarely called upon to use your abilities creatively or rethink the game’s mechanics to solve these puzzles.
The game itself very rarely explains those functions to you. Instead, it assumes a level of familiarity with common elements from the jump; players familiar with the hallmarks of “old school” games will recognize the signs and know how to solve the puzzle. Likewise with boss fights and dungeon traversal; Songbringer’s challenge is less about figuring out how to do something and more about recognizing a classic mechanic and performing it in order to advance. The player is rewarded for being “in the know.”
I can’t decide if it’s ironic or not, but Songbringer’s totally visible development winds up profoundly at odds with its “insider’s only” gameplay, creating an experience that’s simultaneously extremely accessible and frustratingly inaccessible. Despite the fact that Weiss’ documented development process will probably be an invaluable resource for anyone trying to learn how to make their own games, the product of that development clearly wasn’t designed to introduce anyone to gaming.
In many ways, Songbringer serves as a great illustration of what Kickstarter can and has done for the indie gaming community. 759 people backed Songbringer’s Kickstarter and raised the $15,603 that went into making the “Zelda-like action-adventure-RPG” a reality. It is absolutely a game for them, for better and worse. Songbringer’s gameplay and design lift elements from predecessors like Sword of Mana, The Legend of Zelda, and Crystalis so frequently and heavily that Songbringer can sometimes feel like the gaming equivalent of a coded cipher.
The tension between different elements of Songbringer don’t stop there. The procedural nature of the game’s design conflicts with its genre on not just mechanical but also thematic levels. One of the stated goals of the adventure game is to create a world that’s fun to explore. Its overworld should incite and invite, the way Hylia does. You should want to explore its every nook and cranny and unveil each of its secrets. The drab, repetitive desert environment of Ekzerra is not fun to explore, largely because its procedural nature is quite apparent. Enemy and dungeon design suffer similarly.
It can feel as though Songbringer is serving two masters, and can’t quite reconcile the fundamental differences between them. It wants to be a faithful successor to classic 16-bit adventure games. It also wants to be the ultimate “Awesome Games Done Quick” challenge, a retro game that changes every time you play it. My response to it was equally conflicted: I was impressed by how close it came, but also disappointed by its failure.
To be fair, Weiss’ passion project was never obligated to be anything other than exactly what his supporters wanted. That’s exactly what it is. I imagine the players who supported Songbringer from the start, looking for a Zelda-like that would change as many times as they played it, will be overjoyed with the product of their support. Songbringer is unabashedly a game with a highly intentional audience: those who pray at the altar of 16-bit adventures and want nothing more than, ‘More of that, please.’.
If you’re one of those, I would ambiguously recommend Songbringer. It’s an almost startlingly authentic reproduction of the past, right down to the just-rigid-enough controls and the arguably unfair hit boxes. If you’re not one of those people–if you are looking for a game that advances, challenges, or subverts the oldest of the old-school sensibilities–Songbringer probably won’t be your jam. And even for its audience, the conflict between Songbringer’s ambitious goals and execution, its adventurous spirit but by-the-numbers generation, fail to strike a harmonious chord.