It seems almost unfair to compare this title to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, but ultimately it’s going to end up happening because the formula that Songbringer uses screams Zelda. From the overworld movement and screen swipes to the, “Oh, I’m going to need bombs to access this section,” moments, each increment of progression is reminiscent of the Nintendo classic. There’s no princess to save and our hero is a shirtless ‘dude’ who leans heavily on off-kilter colloquialisms, but underneath the frankly gorgeous pixel art is an homage to the Nintendo Elfin power couple.
Roq, the shirtless dude, is blasted out of the sky by a bolt of lightning. His hoverbike crashes to the ground and he’s awoken by droid companion Jib. Songbringer is already scoring points for being set in a futuristic sci-fi world, flipping tradition on its head. However, it doesn’t stray far from the tropes we’re all used to, as Roq heads off to explore a nearby cave and discovers a sword which hums with energy. You’d think Songbringer is the name of this seemingly powerful sword, but it’s actually the name of the capital ship which Roq calls his home. Though for now, he’s stranded on the planet Ekzera, so it’s time to explore.
The majority of what you’ll see here is procedurally generated by a six-letter word which you enter before the game starts. This seed creates the overworld, the dungeons, the secrets within them and enemy placement. Interestingly, if a friend is playing on a different system, they can use the same seed name and experience the exact adventure as you. This is worth noting for speedrunners, too, who will surely pick up the game in search of the perfect seed. The developer is urging you at all times to not only explore, but to experiment. While the map in the item menu will show you where shops are and even number the dungeons, it’s perfectly acceptable and possible to play the game completely out of order. The developer, Wizard Fu, even notes that you don’t need to pick up the sword if the fancy takes you.
Perhaps you’ll decide to explore the entire world map before tackling a dungeon at all. Maybe you stick to convention and head into the dungeon labelled ‘1’ and try for a more traditional experience. You could even seek out a later dungeon and storm the boss with only the starting health of three containers. Whatever you try, you’re likely to find a unique experience that is littered with call-backs to old school RPGs. Heart containers – though referred to here as Courage – are spread across the world. Item shops hold equipment that allow you to discover more of the map or seek out lifeforms to interact with by spending the diamonds which fall from foes. Abilities are abundant, and once you get back to Songbringer, can be combined in interesting ways to open possibilities back on Ekzera.
An example of this would be the ice teleport. Discovering an orb that allows you to phase forward is helpful enough, but combine it with the ice block element and now you freeze the ground beneath you as you dash forward. Playing with combinations are permanent, however, and nod to the idea that there are multiple ways to open paths and finish the game. There is so much to dig into; even the idea of turning the game into a roguelike at your own whim, by selecting ‘permadeath’ when the game opens, meaning all that knowledge gained becomes more important than ever.
Diving into the item menu gives a little thrill as you see the sprawling map to one side and a plethora of items, leading to so many possibilities. The ‘off-the-wall’ style of humour carries throughout and is mostly seen in dialogue between Roq and Jib, but also in those items collected. Picking up a Top Hat early on that acts as an Oddjob-style boomerang is a delightful and whimsical touch, this is before you begin experimenting with consumables. The local flora is edible and it will affect everything around Roq, bringing on visions of secrets and answers to riddles within the lore.
And there is a very entertaining little story here, filled with intrigue and humour which brilliantly contrasts the hardcore feel of the combat. Again, we’re calling back to Zelda as you swing the sword to dash enemies to pieces or hold the attack button to build a powerful attack. The difficulty is pitched nicely, allowing you to feel that every mistake belongs to you, rather than an unfair balance in the AI. At times, the stereotypes of old become a little worn out – there’s only so many times we can fight slime monsters that multiply when sliced with a sword and the style of old school RPG occasionally makes surprises in the plot or a dungeon feel too obvious.
The game on the whole is a wonderful experience that certainly evokes a sense of nostalgia, however, it does lack in audio. The world of Ekzera is such a sumptuous place brimming with colour and effects, the music and sound effects feel underpowered in comparison. Songbringer needed something more involving and impressive, especially as Roq is known for making music when not exploring, something to round out the entire project and tick off each box that would create a superb game.
With a sci-fi twist on an old formula, Songbringer is almost a breath of fresh air. Occasional stereotypes aren’t as welcome as all of the new ideas the game brings forward, including a tongue-in-cheek style of humour to accompany a truly unique experience and a gorgeous visual style. With so many options and routes through the story, this is a game begging to be replayed for months to come.