Over a decade since release, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is still a game worth pondering for how it avoids being a game at all. One of the first breakout iPad titles, it exploits the platform’s multimedia cachet to wander playfully and abrasively across boundaries between artforms, genres and technologies. On some level it is Zelda, the tale of a wanderer’s accidental rousing of a skull-headed specter that must be purged by collecting the pieces of a cosmic triangle. But it is also Twitter, with inner monologues filling a scrolling feed, and writing that walks a line between decadently self-important and goofing off about lore. It’s a pixelart realm of winding paths and chiselled shadows, but also a self-mythologizing prog rock album – there’s an alternate dimension you access by flipping the phonograph disc on the title screen. It’s a rhythm game, too, with puzzles that evoke Garage Band and boss fights that recall the UFO DJ dialogues of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s many different, ill-matched things, but it always feels complete, thanks not least to Jim Guthrie’s chirpy yet fathomless electronic score.
Superbrothers’ long-awaited second game, by contrast, is always shaking itself apart. A tale of new beginnings that mixes Star Fox with Tacoma, Jett: The Far Shore has marvellous ideas and a few moments of brilliance, but the moving parts interfere with each other constantly. It’s a work of useful vision in the age of Elon Musk, positing a non-Western, non-capitalist space program in which religion and science hold equal sway. Its world-building is unmatched – there’s a voiced language of the developer’s own invention, subtitled in whimsical, mannered English (to give you a taster, impacts are “wallops”, dangers are “shuddersome”, and falling unconscious is “going adrift” ). But as stories about settling other planets go, it’s curiously devoid of things to say beyond broaching the risk of Doing an Imperialism, and its key takeaways are blunted by the sheer aggravation of playing.
It starts very promisingly – not in a cockpit or inside a starship dock, but in a tent in the grasslands. You are Mei, anchorite of a religion governed by a prophecy of new life on a far-off planet – the source of a mysterious “Hymnwave”. Bidding your family goodbye, you set off for the launchpad and are granted a brief glimpse of a sparse but caring world, darkened by ancient wars and the enormous cost of a holy mission to the stars – beige seas full of rusty tankers, solemn hordes of believers singing you farewell. Then you go into artificial hibernation, the clock advances by centuries and you find yourself descending through clouds towards your prophesied new home. Couched in wide perspectives that call to mind both Wes Anderson and Interstellar, it’s a poignant intro that hints at a vast society only to consign it all to memory: as you’re told by a village elder: “we belong to the past, you belong to our future “. Spell-binding stuff – but then you touch down and everything starts to go awry.
Jett’s major problem is that it can’t decide what it wants to be. Where Sword & Sworcery made surprising connections without, somehow, losing coherence, this is a work of grating divisions. In particular, it founders on the tension between an arcade flight sim and a wordy interactive stageplay, though each side of the game has its merits when judged individually.
On the one hand, you’ll rove around in your eponymous Jett, a hoverplane that looks like a dolphin cross-bred with a dragonfly – exploring continents, adding species to your logs, and helping to establish a foothold for your slumbering comrades in your mothership above. On the other, you’ll visit small sealed-off areas on foot to converse with fellow scouts, playing out a mostly non-choice-driven story about survival, community and the nature of the Hymnwave. As anybody who’s ever answered a distress call in a sci-fi game will anticipate, there’s more to this alien signal than is laid out in scripture, and I enjoyed hearing my fellow explorers grapple with the implications of certain dark discoveries for their faith.
Jettflight, meanwhile, has a soothing rhythm to it: you swoop over the contours gathering vapor to maintain high speed without overheating your scramjets, and boost-jump, or “pop”, to scale mountainsides and interact with sound-sensitive objects. There are threats ahead but no combat beyond using certain ship abilities and terrain variables to scare off angry wildlife. This is a firmly anti-conquest space fiction, with characters often extolling the importance of treading lightly on the earth, though the plot builds towards an understanding that these values are somewhat self-deceiving.
The absence of combat feels more like a missing piece, at times, than a properly explored element of the premise. You don’t shoot predators, but you will daze them with clouds of soporific gas, guide them into explodables or just bowl them off course with a well-timed pop – all of which feels combative enough, even if it doesn’t involve lasers . But this plays into a wider environmentalist theme whereby unthinking noise can be as damaging as any outright act of hostility. The new planet is a vast musical apparatus, its ecosystem a collection of reverberations, its creatures highly responsive to jarring acoustics. Simply by exploring in your booming rocketships, you are setting off new and unwanted vibrations that eventually trigger a cataclysm.
Experiencing these implications in the field can be mesmerizing. The trouble is that Jett is always talking over its own nuances. Every new vista, objective or turn of events is cause for protracted commentary from other pilots and the boffins back at your landing site (Mei, to her credit, remains silent throughout). The script’s long-windedness is resonant during the first-person in-door stretches of the game, in which your fellow scouts banter over soup and hold forth about divinity and the cosmos. It’s less welcome when applied to things like what a boost gauge does, or how to construct a repair kit. It shouldn’t take a whole chinwag between side characters to tell me what color of waypoint I’m looking for. Often, I had completed objectives by the time the cast got around to telling me what to do.
You can’t skip through these chats while flying, and occasionally, the game slows time and wrests camera control away in order to force your complete attention. It’s maddening, and one sad consequence is that you grow to dislike characters who ought to be decent company – tenacious, earnest but self-deprecating souls who are light-years away from the usual space marine stereotypes. In particular I came to despise Isao, your co-pilot and thus, chief source of instruction and direction, who is supposedly your best friend.
Jett does occasionally merge its warring halves in a charismatic way. There’s a lingering thrill to the transitions from air to ground, as landscapes of pure color evolve up-close into swaying fields of flora. That said, the art direction is often as annoying as it is scintillating. The muted palette and zoomed-out perspective can make for arresting screenshots – gray seas pierced by flickering conic formations, tree canopies like scattered embers in the sunrise. Often, though, the game is simply drab and indistinct.
Your ship is a little white cross in the center, like a lander pulled from some CRT-era arcade sim and ported into high-definition without any resizing. It makes for a delicate contrast, reminiscent of Below’s tiny swordsman trudging through screenfuls of darkness, but the elevated viewpoint isn’t entirely practical. You’ll often lose track of which way your ship is pointing during sharp turns, or how high you are versus loose rock and trees that can’t be barreled through. Colliding with objects won’t kill you, but it does bump you into landing mode and leads to a drum-roll of Jett on surface that sets your teeth on edge just as you’re getting into the swing of things. Icons for other ships and colored tells for important flora are easy to lose track of, even on a 4K screen.
I acclimatised to Jett’s divided style over time, but I also grew less and less enchanted by its setting. The strangeness and separateness of the landscape is eroded by the awareness that it is, functionally, a collection of creatively rehashed jump pads, speed hoops and obstacles to be moved or shattered. The objectives are unexciting, ranging from basic A-to-B fare to escort quests and the odd exercise in dragging or luring something. Later, you’re asked to complete puzzles like these while dealing with a shroud of radiation that overheats your scramjets, making evasive maneuvers tricky. The radiation forces you to seek shade in canyons or behind hills and as such, creates more potential for face-clawing collisions. It feels more like something to endure than a well-judged raising of the stakes.
And then, with surprising lack of ceremony, the game ends. Specifically, it ends without showing you the reborn human society you’ve been laboring towards, without explaining the fates of certain characters, or delving into the precise origins of the dangers you’ve wakened by setting foot on this planet. In place of closure, you’re asked a question: does your species deserve to survive here, or should you allow yourself to be “outpaced by oblivion”? Or should you “stumble on” without certainty at all?
Assuming there isn’t another ending I haven’t uncovered – I can think of a few possibilities, hinging on how attentive you are to certain mushrooms – there’s the strong suspicion that the developers ran out of time before shipping. But whether deliberate or no, that anti-climax suits the story’s anti-imperialism in that it cuts against the grain of most space exploration sims, in which worlds exist to be scoured of secrets, and the future always belongs to the player. It’s unresolved in a good way, which isn’t something I can say for the game’s awkward blend of playstyles. Jett is undoubtedly a work of sworcery that begs to be revisited outside of review conditions, but it doesn’t feel like a game I’ll be pondering 10 years from now.