Combining Zelda-like dungeons with fast paced combat, Songbringer is the story of a human named Roq and his skybot buddy, Jib. Roq accidentally awakens an ancient evil entity and must adventure across the planet of Ekzera to defeat it.
Each new game of Songbringer begins with procedural map creation. You can allow the game to assign a unique map, or you can enter the 6-letter seed of a previous game. According to the developer, there are millions of worlds available. With each seed, the dungeons are in new places on the map, and the dungeons themselves change layout.
Once your character, Roq, begins his adventure, he has complete and total freedom to explore. Most areas of the map can be explored early on in the game, before discovering items like bombs to clear obstacles. If you stumble upon the fourth dungeon before finding the first, you’re free to investigate and attempt to clear the dungeon. In my playthrough, I went from the third dungeon to the fifth, then tracked down the first and second. This non-linear gameplay adds to the randomness of each playthrough and helps with replayability. It also makes speedruns trickier when trying a new map seed.
Gameplay is simple: explore dungeons, defeat bosses, and gain items and upgrades. Roq can have up to 6 items equipped at any time, from a boomerang hat to a teleportation device. His main weapon is the Nanosword, which he swings with a blinding fury during combat. There are mysteries to be discovered through meditation and people to meet along the way. For players wanting a challenge, there’s an optional permadeath mode and an achievement that unlocks when you complete the game without using the Nanosword at all.
Even with the procedurally generated worlds, dungeons can become repetitive. I often found myself walking into a dungeon room, feeling quite sure I had just cleared the same room moments before. By the sixth and seventh dungeon, I was feeling disappointed. The repetitiveness of the puzzles may be helpful to speedrunners, but to people who are playing the game for leisurely Zelda-like adventuring, they fail to deliver.
Instead of puzzles, the boss is the highlight of each dungeon. Most bosses do not require much combat strategy but they are all challenging and artistically-appealing. The pixel graphics in the dungeons and throughout the game are quirky and fit the Zelda-like theme. However, they are sometimes muddied and unclear. When you kill an entire room of monsters or when a dungeon boss disintegrates after battle, it’s difficult to distinguish the loot from the mess.
Another game mechanic slows down the looting process. When you defeat an enemy, items don’t automatically drop from them. You have to wait for your companion, Jib, to disengage from combat and scan each one. He doesn’t seem to automatically detect each enemy, so sometimes that means leading him back across the screen to scan. This reinforces Roq’s relationship with Jib but can be annoying at times.
Each defeated dungeon boss rewards a Demon Tooth that gives your character more courage. This is another parallel to Legend of Zelda games. However, Roq doesn’t have health points like traditional adventure heroes. His game ends when he runs out of courage. Every dungeon also awards an item or upgrade, such as boots that increase speed or gloves that increase the rate at which you swing your sword.
Once you’ve beaten your first game of Songbringer, you can add you name to the leaderboard. The leaderboards keep competitive players coming back to the game and add to the replayability. There’s an achievement for beating the game under 2.5 hours, and many players have beaten the game faster than that. For someone wanting to explore every corner of the map and collect every item, it can take 8 or more hours to beat the game each time.
The absolute highlight of the game is sound design, and I recommend playing with headphones. The retro-style music is incredible and fits the game perfectly. The lightsaber sounds of Roq’s sword swinging around a dungeon feels fuzzy and nostalgic. There are so many small details in the sound design that make the game feel complete.
As with most indie games, Songbringer has an interesting conception story. It was a Kickstarter-funded project by solo developer Nathanael Weiss. He did the programming, art, music, and design himself. His behind-the-scenes videos of the game development process provide a rare resource to fledgling designers or curious fans. He covers everything from graphic design and animation to building a press kit on the YouTube channel here. One of my favorite parts of playing an indie game is learning about the people who make them. For this reason, these development videos were an exciting find.
Overall, Songbringer is successful at its end goal: it’s nostalgic, fun, and allows for unlimited playthroughs. It delivers the old school Zelda vibe while updating it for the modern, digitally-connected gamer. Between the development videos and leaderboards, a strong, supportive community has begun to grow around the game.
A PC review copy of Songbringer was provided by Wizard Fu Games for the purpose of this review