Jumping into my demo at PAX East 2017, let’s say that the pixel-art/Zelda top down aesthetic has been, not played out, but done before. Everything needs to give you that hook, and as a pixel man with a sword, it was time to bring that. Songbringer has a lot of little facets that just inject personality into it constantly, and it’s one that we don’t see often in games, almost Double Fine-esque, but different. Things like Jib, your trash-talking floating companion, who asks if you really know what you’re doing on a continuous basis. Or the fact that your secondary weapon is a top hat that acts kind of like a boomerang. Or that the Dark Souls healing items are actual payotte-inspired cactus juices that not only heal you, but send you into a drug trip that can actually turn the tide of combat and help find hidden rooms.
I love the Zelda approach, and the cool thing about Songbringer, which does play like a traditional top down Zelda, save for the sword is much slower, and there is a lightening-fast dodge mapped to your trigger, is that it takes the procedural ideas of something more like Rogue Legacy. Let’s say it’s Rogue-Lite-Lite, or however many “lites” you find necessary. It’ll give you a seed code that translates to the world you see, and part of that includes the music. Depending on what seed you get, the director, Nathanael, who made most if not all of the game himself, told me that the key of the melody will change to it, making each playthrough or run sound different in addition to looking it.
The game takes you through an overworld of swamps, obstacles, and shrubs that need to be continuously chopped down with your sword. I’ll say this: the biggest thing working against Songbringer was the environment I played it in. Getting thrown into the demo with absolutely zero context made things… challenging. Much like playing Zelda 1 without understanding the innovations the later entries in the series added, seeing Songbringer and not understand what it’s strengths and limitations were was very confusing.
I managed to get used to the controls at some point, and after wandering for a while, I found two underground sections of the world map. The first was small, and had me fighting a massive ice-lizard boss. The sprite-work was marvelous, and it was the only time in the fight where I died. I didn’t really understand I had a dodge or bombs/mines I could drop at that point, but after weaving my way around the monsters in the second attempt, I tackled it. Apparently this was meant to be the second of the two bosses the player fought in the demo, or at least that’s what it seemed like going off Nathanael hearing I killed this beast first.
The other underground section was far more like an actual dungeon. There were keys, monster rooms, and locked doors before I’d eventually reach the boss fight, a far simply ‘giant dude’ who I beat to death in record time. That ended the demo, but there are still a ton of questions with Songbringer.
I received some abilities over the course of my demo, like a longer dodge that could let me phase through objects, and I wonder what will happen to those abilities if I die and redo my seed. Nathanael told me the game could be your simple eight hour Zelda-esque experience, or a new seed every time you die, depending on however you want to play it. Even though things were oblique and rough around the edges, Songbringer has a charm and style that reminded me of the subtler additions to something like Rogue Legacy.