This text-based multiple-choice adventure gets off to a bumpy start, committing the gaming crime of narration that noticeably differs from text on-screen. Hardly the most heinous of offences, granted, but it was enough to make us worry that the rest of the experience suffered from inconsistencies. Thankfully, once the intro is out of the way Swordbreaker is less Jackanory and more Read with Mother.
At a time when even humble indie games are multifaceted affairs, blending all kinds of genres to create something fresh or offbeat, Swordbreaker is refreshingly simple to describe. It’s a choose your own adventure using text-based descriptions and static 2D artwork, with each scene having at least two choices to make; choices that either progress the story or result in a gruesome fate. Three lives are at your disposal, giving leeway for mistakes along the way.
A multi-floored castle provides the setting, home to numerous mystical and magical beings and beasts, some more dangerous than others. Your journey through the castle begins at the gates and ends at the top of a tower, with paths taking you through dozens of different rooms and locations, from the grimy sewer system to a council of esteemed necromancers.
Providing you learn from your mistakes (there are no random elements whatsoever, incidentally) most retries take you further into the castle than before, seeing new areas while discovering different outcomes.
Upon obtaining a ‘good ending’ after just twenty minutes of play, we were a little concerned about value for money here. Fortunately, hidden depths soon became apparent – the focus is on trying to explore the castle fully using different routes and decisions each time. Tools are provided to track your progress towards 100% completion, including a map on the title screen showing unused routes.
The achievement list also helps here – there are 58 achievements in total, all linked to certain decisions such as saving castle folk or defeating colossal creatures. Working through these, which assists in helping to see everything on offer, is curiously compelling. That’s to say, locked achievements give guidance towards seeing all possible outcomes.
While the story always commences the same way – with the dashing knight standing at the castle gates, poised to stroll on in or sneak through a window – there are several chances to help the castle’s kooky inhabitants, some of which can be summoned at times of need. This helps to add additional depth while making Swordbreaker feel more than just a graphic novel. If you manage to stay alive for long enough, later characters judge your actions too.
It’s a shame that the choices provided in each scene aren’t particularly imaginative. Most encounters boil down to talking, fleeing, or fighting. Staring a fight makes the music become more upbeat, while a list two or three moves are the possible actions. In some scenes it’s painfully apparent something bad will happen if you make a certain choice; the option simply wouldn’t exist otherwise.
Likewise, it’s a pity the quality of writing is also rather amateurish – the hero’s tongue is nowhere near as sharp as his sword. Swordbreaker comes from a Russian studio and there are often signs that English isn’t their native language. Also: actual signs – text within the artwork, such as on signposts or written above doors, remains in Russian. Lots of sentences also end with multiple exclamation marks, resulting in a slack tone.
In fact, Swordbreaker is a lot more nonsensical than we initially imagined – it doesn’t take itself seriously at all, with not one but two comical encounters that raised a grin.
If anything, its silly streak makes for a more memorable experience. Death scenes are additionally graphic and over the top, including the lead having their face ripped off by giant bugs, his eardrums shattered by a piercing shriek, and his head cleanly sliced (vertically!) in two. A nuclear explosion is another unfortunate ending.
But even with multiple endings to discover Swordbreaker is short-lived, with a typical run – successful or otherwise – lasting around ten minutes. During our first hour of play we kept unlocking the same ‘good’ ending, becoming stuck in a rut somewhat, but once finding paths through the castle’s underbelly we managed to see all the major endings with relative ease.
That’s Swordbreaker in a nutshell – it’s an easy-going experience, but only because it’s an extremely simple game. There isn’t much more to it than picking the right choices and learning from mistakes; it doesn’t test your mettle in any other way. That’s not to say it isn’t tense, however. It has its moments, especially when you’re down to your last life and have a mere 20% chance of picking the correct response.
If you’re up for something not too demanding, it’s likely you’ll discover some curiously compelling virtues here. Beware though, traveller, as these virtues are vastly simple pleasures.
Swordbreaker is published by Sometimes You and available on PC, PS4, Xbox One (reviewed) and PS Vita.