By Adam Cartwright 01st Oct 2020 | 2,577 views
When I was a teenager, the Goosebumps books were all the rage (for those unfamiliar, it’s a horror series aimed at a younger audience) and I bought into it full force, including reading an interesting novel which was a ‘choose your own adventure’ story. In this, you made decisions at the end of each page that would then take you to a specific page further in the book. This would essentially allow you to craft your own story - provided you didn’t meet a grizzly death along the way. It wasn’t a concept I was familiar with at the time, even though it dates back much further back than with Goosebumps, but I found it to be a compelling novelty, even if the outcomes were often not what I’d hoped.
Swordbreaker is basically the videogame equivalent of this; you’re presented with a series of story scenes and nearly every one ends with you having to make a choice between a variety of options, with the decisions you make helping to shape the plot and result in a different story each time.
Let me get this out of the way to begin with – there’s no real gameplay here, it's basically a visual novel with a heavily branching story, rather than a few token choices here and there. They all eventually meld into one of three endings (assuming you make it that far; there are plenty of bad endings along the way), which are decided based on the actions you take along the journey.
These actions boil down to being cowardly, being heroic, or being a killer. At first this isn't obvious, but after you spend about half an hour with Swordbreaker you begin to get a feel for its systems and how it wants you to play. The choices and their consequences are always very different – early, on for example, you’ll meet a skeleton and you can choose to either kick it to bits, run away from it, or wait and see what it does next, with each option having considerably different consequences. Each decision you make will bring you to a completely different destination than the one before it. This means that the overall picture (as in, everything that's on offer) is a very complex web that's difficult to keep track of. You are given a story map, but I found this difficult to navigate and ultimately I didn’t use it much due to its complexity.
You're assisted by a lives system that means making the wrong choice won’t necessarily lead to an immediate game over. You get three attempts per run, and finding a bad end will just return you to the previous choice so that you can select a different option.
One neat feature I enjoyed is that you can help certain beings and will later be able to call upon their help in a moment of need. For example, you might rescue a man trapped in a cave full of gigantic slugs and he’ll later assist you when you’re flanked by a shark (and no, this didn’t make a whole lot of sense in the game either), which gives things a nice sense of continuity within the ongoing tale.
The plot here follows the titular Swordbreaker, a young warrior who witnesses a man being beaten to death in a pub. When he comes to his aid, the dying man gives Swordbreaker a map to a castle filled with treasure and the warrior sets out on his adventure. Obviously, what happens beyond this depends on the choices you make, but you can expect to find the castle filled with all kinds of entities, ranging from generic blacksmiths, to knights, rats, supernatural ghosts, kraken, and even a succubus. The majority of these can either be helped or fought, although some will remain hostile no matter what you choose to do.
Interestingly, there's a reasonably compelling backstory. On certain story paths you’ll find out about the previous owner of the castle (Neo the Fourth) and his battle with invading necromancers, as well as tid-bits about a war between the Intersteller Confederation and the Free Planets Coalition (this even involves an alien crash-landing in the castle). Swordbreaker veers from comical to serious throughout its adventure, but generally the theme is definitely light-hearted and enjoyable, boasting the same kind of silly humour that worked well in The Bard’s Tale.
In terms of the presentation, I enjoyed the artwork; it’s stylish and evokes the feeling of being trapped in a spooky castle, but without the developers being afraid to add colour in order to spice scenes up (there’s a particularly good use of blues, greens, and purples). Sadly, the music becomes infuriatingly repetitive after the first half an hour or so, and the sentence structure can be a bit wonky (it’s generally okay, but lines like “you was hero” show that this was probably initially written in a different language).
There’s a few other instances of poorly designed features or glitches, including some of the story links just flat-out not making sense. For example, one path had me fighting a giant rat, then raiding a cellar for a bottle of wine, which is related to a plot thread involving the chef… who I hadn’t met on that particular playthrough, meaning the “I’ve found the bottle of wine he was after” sentence was out of place. I also experienced a save data corruption bug on Vita. This wasn’t devastating - I didn’t lose all my progress, just that particular run's progress - but it was certainly annoying.
At the end of the day, Swordbreaker achieves what it sets out to do – be an entertaining choose-your-own-story adventure game set in a comical supernatural world. Personally, while I had a decent amount of fun in the couple of hours I spent with it, there was nothing particularly amazing or stand-out that would make for a glowing recommendation, however if you’re looking for this kind of game then it might be worth a shot.