An indie title taking its inspiration from Zelda may not be the most unheard-of idea in the world, but there’s something about Songbringer and the way it revels in its ties to the 1985 Nintendo Entertainment System original that’s exciting. By adding a sci-fi tone that is part psychedelic drug trip, part medieval fantasy adventure with procedurally generated dungeons and overworld - Songbringer presents a distinct take on a well-established formula.
Make no mistake about it, in terms of structure this is classic The Legend of Zelda. After your spaceship crashes on the surface of Songbringer’s strange but sort of familiar planet, the first cave you enter presents you with a sword. A space sword. Kind of. One of the first secondary skills you learn is a boomerang-ability that comes in the form of a top hat to throw around. That you can also wear. Dungeons are numbered sequentially, each providing new challenges, puzzles, and bosses to overcome with additional health rewards provided upon completion in the form of Dragon Teeth.
But, early on there’s also a sequence where after eating some strange cacti you enter a hallucinatory state that helps you progress a bit further into the game. Also, you can meditate to both recover health and, well, be at peace and open certain psychokinetically locked doors. It’s this strangeness, and bouts of weirdness, that adds a lot of charm to playing Songbringer.
The very first Zelda also informs the visuals, which are drawn by larger than usual pixels. Filtered through modern hardware this results in a spectacular display of character and detail. Despite the simplistic presentation, Songbringer has an abundance of visual detail in the form of impressive animation and lighting. If you find yourself next to a riverbank and happen to slay a large worm-like creature, this is the sort of event that will trigger a large-scale pixel display of movement across the screen. Where pixels masquerading as insects dance and jump-around reacting to your movements.
No doubt Songbringer is wonderful to look, but the oversized pixel can adversely affect timing and movement when surgical-like precision is called for.
As per the introduction, Songbringer is an indie title where a process called ‘seeding’ procedurally generates the overworld and dungeon layout whenever you start a new adventure. A nice modern feature that sounds great on paper, but if you were to go into Songbringer without that knowledge on hand you probably wouldn’t even notice. Which, is both a compliment that doesn’t sound like one and a mark against its overall replay-ability. Thanks to exploration and progression that is very Zelda-like, where getting stuck or confused is a rarity, Songbringer is exceptionally well designed.
This might be due to scope of the game, and the relatively small dungeons to tackle, but everything feels like it was designed without the need for fancy algorithms. Even though it has those too. Having started a second adventure just to get a picture of how different it all gets, it’s certainly impressive to see that there is indeed variety. But again, it’s all structured to flow like the very first Zelda which means you always start with that first sword cave, and end up fighting a large minotaur as the boss of the first dungeon.
There’s also more to Songbringer than its Zelda-like packaging. The sci-fi setting also adds a distinct flavour to the items and abilities at your disposal, with the added fun of combinations and multiple ways to approach certain set pieces and boss battles. And thanks to a robot sidekick, there’s also co-op. Fair warning though, before long Songbringer does get quite tough.
Calling a game hard usually errs on the side of fact rather than opinion, and there’s no mistaking the spike in Songbringer’s difficulty after the first few dungeons. So, it’s worth mentioning if only just to list that as one of its undocumented features. And to highlight this aspect of the experience for those that tend to struggle with top down combat that requires a fair bit of skill. In the end Songbringer is an exciting, if familiar, take on the old Zelda formula that for the most part plays as good as it looks.