Into The Spine Of: Songbringer

A procedurally generated take on Zelda-like games.

The Switch’s cup runneth over lately with good, pixel-art indies, including action-adventure RPGs. Enter Songbringer, which presents itself as a top-down, action RPG, akin to Hyper Light Drifter and the original Legend of Zelda. Like Zelda before it, there are eight dungeons to explore, each with new items and gear to help you on your quest to climb a mysterious tower and recover your memories. The main difference between Songbringer and its inspirations, though, is that it’s procedurally generated.

At the start of the game, you can input a seed (or have one created for you) which acts as a key to build the land you’ll be playing in. This means technically you and a friend could use the same code and play essentially the same game. Otherwise, your save files will look wildly different. Items, aesthetics, dungeon bosses, and a stellar soundtrack are the same in each seed, as far as I can tell. What changes is the map layout and order in which you experience them. This is a fresh, modern way to ensure that every experience, even subsequent playthroughs, feels new and exciting.

Procedural generation doesn’t come without its downsides, though. While Zelda and its progeny are hand-crafted with well-hidden, intentional, useful secrets around every corner, Songbringer does not. It has some secrets, but not all of them feel intended, polished, or even helpful. Thanks to the randomness of the world, dead ends, empty regions, and pointless fights are abundant. One dead-end forest summoned a swath of difficult slimes that, upon defeat, gave me a few diamonds. These are used only in small, hidden shops to buy one-use items or passive upgrades, neither of which are very useful.

Though the overworld secrets may fail to offer exciting rewards, the dungeons don’t. These dark, sprawling mazes usually offer items to help you proceed through the next one. One such knick-knack is a Blink Orb, which lets you quickly hop forward a few feet without taking damage. Songbringer also utilizes a cool “item combination” system. For example, you can meld a block of fire with a throwable top hat to create a fun projectile that sets the room ablaze. However, the options for fusing seem pretty limited, with only one upgrade being available for most items.

In addition to new gear, dungeons are littered with dangerous enemies, locked doors, and secret passageways. Each is fun to explore and solve, though most tend to reuse the same puzzles, mechanics, and monsters. The main differentiator between dungeons are the aesthetics used within. Small blockades also exist, usually only passable with the item from the dungeon before it. This ensures that, even with the procedurally generated map, you’re doing everything in the right order. Every dungeon also culminates in a unique boss fight, capping off each section of your journey with a spectacular battle.

But the problem is that most of Songbringer is a similarly spectacular battle. Almost every dungeon screen is packed with gross amounts of enemies, as are many overworld areas. Not only are these time-consuming, but they never give any rewards, aside from a few diamonds. They serve merely as content filler. Mobs of foes make it impossible to quickly traverse the terrain quickly, even with the Blink Orb. Chances are, you’ll run into quite a few goat demons or ghosts on your way to that entrance across the room. And in doing so, you’ll be pushed across the screen, ever further from your destination.

It doesn’t help that Songbringer doesn’t effectively communicate what will hurt you. Small enemies often blend in with the similarly-colored background, or hide in the dark edges of the room. To be fair, outside of combat, the highly-detailed, intricate pixel-art is impressive. It artfully sculpts the alien planet, while visual effects layered on top give off a surreal vibe. This combines wonderfully with the ever-evolving soundtrack, which seems to dynamically adjust depending on what you’re doing and where you are.

And thanks to this, Songbringer is an otherworldly pleasure. Harkening back to the many adventure titles of the past, it tries to iterate in unique ways, with its procedural generation and item implementation. The world here is fun to explore and maneuver, even if it does feel unrewarding. Sadly, it has a puzzling fixation on combat, often foregoing puzzle design just to add in more fights. Even so, Songbringer mixes new ideas with old traditions to create a short, sweet experience with a wonderful atmosphere.

A copy of Songbringer for Switch was provided by Tinsley PR on behalf of Wizard Fu Games for review purposes. Make sure to visit the official site for more information.

By Dylan Bishop

Freelance journalist from a small town, covering games and nerd culture

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