Songbringer, with its top-down overworld-wandering, dungeon-spelunking, and item-collecting, takes a lot of cues from classic Legend of Zelda games. I can only tell you so much about it, though, because your adventure will probably be pretty different from mine.
When I first started playing the new PC action-adventure, which tells the story of a top-hat-wearing space adventurer who accidentally awakens an ancient evil, it asked me to type letters into a text box. They would not, however, spell out my character’s name. Rather, this string of letters was used to algorithmically generate my entire game world.
“A whole world,” I thought to myself. “What word could possibly be momentous enough to speak life into a planet?” I very seriously considered that question for a moment before shrugging my shoulders and typing in “DOGS.”
The world I got looked like pretty standard Zelda fare:
Moving between screens, I quickly found a sword and an introductory quest-giver who wanted me to grab him some booze from the local fantasy 7-11 stand-in, complete with an ominous disembodied voice for a store clerk. Also near my starting point: cracked rocks that’d obviously require bombs to progress past. Further north, meanwhile, I found my first dungeon, which contained copious combat, some light puzzling, and a new item: bombs. So basically, the game did all the standard Zelda foreshadowing, subtly implying that collecting certain items will open up my exploration options and steering me in the direction of a corresponding dungeon, sans anything more than context clues.
The whole place almost felt too well-assembled. I began to wonder if maybe this was a pre-baked tutorial section, and after I completed it, I’d reach the locations my word choice procedurally generated. Curious, I jumped out and started a new game, this time using my name, “NATHAN,” as the generation seed. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, nope, my hunch was wrong: Songbringer completely reshuffled the deck, starting area included. I still found the sword right next to my starting point, but everything else was arranged differently. For example, I didn’t come across the notorious booze-wanting wandered until I’d ventured deep into forests that emitted a sickly purple glow:
I also happened upon a cave containing a cryptic story segment that I’m pretty sure wasn’t in my first world’s starter area at all:
It’s really impressive, albeit enabled by environments that can be desolately barren. Put another way, I’ve yet to find any Zelda-style towns full of oddball characters in this one. That fits the game’s tone, though, which is mostly quiet and somber except when the main character jarringly begins talking like a snarky Joss Whedon protagonist.
The game can’t match Zelda in regards to precision, either. Once I delved into my first dungeon, I realized that—even after I’d expanded my arsenal with bombs and a throwable top hat that functioned like a boomerang—combat felt slightly uncomfortable. Movement wasn’t as smooth as I’d have liked, and it was easy to run face-first into enemies while slashing at them with my sword. This was especially apparent during the first boss fight, against an opponent who was large and prone to frequent movement. I just kept running right into him, despite my best efforts. In the end, my boomerang hat and bombs proved much more effective.
Songbringer is more combat-focused than your average Zelda, and what little puzzling I came across in my first dungeon was simple, perhaps too simple. I haven’t felt particularly taxed, but I’m also still fairly early in the game. I’m not sure how much dungeon design is randomized, but here’s hoping it gets more interesting as time goes on.
On the whole, though, Songbringer has impressed me so far. It takes calculated progression and a written narrative and tosses them in a blender of procedural generation. It could’ve easily gone horribly wrong, shredding an otherwise functional Zelda-like into bloody chunks, but instead the game nearly fooled me into believing a few areas were handcrafted. I’m excited to play more.
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