Review: Sword & Sworcery

Sword & Sworcery is a light game, with retro-inspired pixellated graphics and cool colour palettes. It’s not your typical puzzle phone game; it’s a story with a linear plot, that avoids losing depth in its limited scope by adopting abstract narrative forms.

Though it’s reasonably short, it’s hard to finish the game quickly due to one of the key boundaries of the narrative; the real-world lunar cycle. As you explore the dreams of one character, Logfella, puzzles and clues to the storyline are revealed depending on what phase of the moon is cycling through, forcing players to wait days or even weeks before continuing. It really adds weight to the game’s own patient sense of time.

The story deals with the differences between the in-game dream and waking worlds in many subtle ways; though the dream appears normal at first and reflects the reality with which the dreamers are familiar—stairs climbing down a rocky mountain, clearings in thick forests filled with life—a few details are off, showing the break in reality. During the full moon, the forest is surprisingly bright, though retains a cool colour scheme. It’s peaceful, populated by rabbits and deer and ducks that drift harmlessly through the sections of the level. Entering a section of the level that continues above a lake, floating text appears and encourages the player to “reflect”, before fading away. It provides the hint for the puzzle in that section, a suitably dreamy, surreal task that requires the player to play spot-the-difference between the environment and its mirror in the pond. It’s one of the few hints that this environment is any less real than the character’s waking world.

Throughout the game the player may read the other character’s thoughts by way of an item gained at the start. Logfella and The Girl–another of the games’ sole inhabitants–both appear to be concerned by the main character’s dark quest at first but their thoughts remain whimsically shallow, musings on the smaller details of their day-to-day lives. (This is reflective of the game as a whole—containing underlying threads of darkness, but still a light journey that can be enjoyed at an easy pace.) Logfella mentions in his thoughts a song that has been stuck going around in his head, which provides a clue to the player that perhaps they begin their journey in this dream in the clearing filled with music—though the player is free to wander through each section of the level and complete the small puzzles in any order, at their own leisure. The somewhat open nature of the tasks does hint at some kind of freedom here that is unavailable to the player in the waking world, which presents tasks in much more linear progressions.

Once those tasks have been completed, a new island appears on the middle of a lake in the dream-world, a puzzle that plays with the physical environment once more. The player now switches the ‘real’ moon with its reflection in the lake, before using them to pry apart a new entrance to a cave on the island. It’s potentially the most mechanically powerful move for the game to make; after it forces the player to submit to the real-world patterns of the moon’s schedule in order to continue playing, in the end it becomes nothing but a tool for the player to manipulate to get access to their goal.

It’s this kind of method which makes Sword & Sworcery a prime example (and Journey on PS3, as another) of how games as a narrative medium contain the potential to triumph over more linear literature forms. What was defined as impossible before now becomes not only conceivable, but the very thing which the main character must overcome in order to fulfil their story. The greatest triumphs of the Hero’s Journey is not only told, not only shown, but discovered first-hand. The mechanics are positively poetic in their execution, paying homage to Emily Dickinson’s claim, “I dwell in Possibility”, while simultaneously marrying themselves inseparably to the prose of the story.

Lastly, it would be amiss to write about Sword & Sworcery without at least mentioning the soundtrack by Jim Guthrie. The brooding, spacious electronic synths fit perfectly with each scene and puzzle, completing the experience. It is a sensory-rich piece of literature well worth the time it takes to play.

One thought on “Review: Sword & Sworcery

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