Earlier this year I played Unto The End – a 2D side-scrolling combat adventure game that was pretty ruthless and gave me a taste of wanting more, though maybe something a little less challenging. I’ve therefore kept a close eye on Song of Iron, a solo-dev game from Joe Winters of Resting Relic, which is a Nordic-inspired side-scrolling action-adventure game that instantly draws you in with its utterly attractive environments and Viking brutality.
Song of Iron’s story is minimalistic. The narrative begins with you standing next to a death pyre, burning your loved one that has just been killed on a raid on your village. You then flashback to witness this raid, whilst learning the basic combat techniques, and once you come across your dying partner they give you a special pendant and tell you to present this to the Gods to save their people. Thus, your adventure begins, to travel to the mountains of the Gods and during this journey travel through dense woodlands, lush rolling hills, dark and gloomy caves and eventually a snowy tundra at the foot of the great mountain. You’ll meet rival clans, orcs and giant trolls and come across a mystical creature all with a thirst for your blood.
There is little narration throughout as your protagonist remains mute, and I found this to be unfortunate as the weight of the death of your loved one is never fully expressed. Therefore, I never had the emotive draw from the journey that could have had an even greater impact on the game, especially, the huge twist that it throws at you near its conclusion. I won’t offer any spoilers; I knew something was adrift, but I didn’t expect it to go so left-field which I thoroughly enjoyed and could lead to an interesting sequel.
Visually, Song of Iron is strikingly pretty and gorgeously lit. The environments feel alive and are well-detailed with giant statues, ancient ruins in disrepair, and longships on the water. It’s as I would expect a Scandinavian setting to look. I really enjoyed seeing enemies appear in the background and foreground to meet you in battle, which helped create a fully realised world even if the game plays on a 2D plane. With a lot of detail in the landscapes, both in the foreground and background, I did have some minor stuttering in the framerate when the protagonist was running at speed, but it didn’t spoil the game or lead to any frustrating encounters.
Complementing the visuals is the soundtrack which adds so much authenticity to the Nordic adventure. It even features the Tagelharpa, a traditional Viking musical instrument, and with additional strings and powerful drums, I was completely immersed in the game’s world. Not only was the soundtrack so amazing but the audio design was excellent too. The clash of swords and cries of battle sound perfectly on-point and the detail I liked best is when your Viking warrior’s stamina is low, after battling or running, as you can hear his hard breathing which then becomes more relaxed once his stamina returns. A real nice little touch that is also matched in the character animation too.
Song of Iron’s main gameplay mechanic is its gritty combat. Combat feels weighty, mimicking a Viking wielding a large sword or heavy axe. It’s not always as responsive as I would have liked, and it can be a little fiddly at first until you get used to the button layout. I’ve been accustomed to most combat having your main attack as a shoulder button rather than the front-facing buttons on the controller. This isn’t the case with Song of Iron. Your shoulder buttons are for your bow, block, and run while you attack by pressing the ‘X’ button. You control movement with the left analogue stick, however, if you press it in as a button you will do a slight dodge backwards. In the heat of battle, it is too easy to accidentally click the stick in and dodge back or roll to the side if you’re also pushing left or right.
Slight issues aside, once you are used to the controls, it all becomes completely natural and makes for some entertaining fights as you throw your weapon at an enemy, before picking up their dropped sword to attack another swordsman behind you, and then having to use your bow to take out an annoying archer in the distance. You also have a really satisfying kick attack which helps to knock the enemy back and is particularly useful when you have a multitude of enemies attacking you from both sides, all at once.
As you progress through Song of Iron you come across secret rooms where you will find an item of armour, such as a helm or boots, which you equip to give an added ability. This includes adding a fire or lightning attack to your sword and arrows; the ability to return your weapon once thrown; and having a greater speed of movement which is instrumental in jumping over large gaps or avoiding traps. I never found the sword-return technique to work very well and couldn’t really tell if the additional sword elemental attacks dealt more damage, as most enemies went down after a few solid hits with my dual-wielding axe. Even in the very final moments of the game, I easily took the enemies down with a single well-placed arrow to the head, making me feel like a legend!
Song of Iron does break the traversal of the land and combat with some puzzle and trap elements. The puzzles are nothing more than simply pushing and pulling rocks to get to a higher area or through gaps. You also need to search adjacent areas to find runes which, when lit, will open a lock on a large door – once all runes are found, the door opens so you can continue your journey. The main frustration I had with the game was with its traps. These come as pendulums swinging large spiked poles that will kill you instantly. Most of these are easily avoided with a well-timed sprint, however, there was one section where avoiding them took too much trial and error to be successful. Thankfully, the game’s checkpoint system is very forgivable, so you never have to repeat much of a section when you inevitably die.
Over the course of my journey, the game hard crashed on me three times. Considering Song of Iron only took me just over 3 hours to complete, this is quite a high rate of crashes for the length of the game. As stated with the excellent checkpoint system, I didn’t lose much progress, but it was still an annoyance having to reload the game. There is also a new game plus mode where you begin the journey with all the abilities you have acquired, making you an absolute brute and therefore helps give the game some replayability value, but even then it’s still overall quite a short adventure.
Personally, I wouldn’t necessarily see the length as a negative, and considering Song of Iron is a solo-dev effort, I was very impressed with the overall package and experience.
Song of Iron brings together a visually beautiful rendition of Nordic environments and music, which is complemented by weighty combat gameplay that makes you feel like a true Viking, and while the game’s puzzles and traps are a little rough around the edges, they thankfully don’t hinder the overall experience. If that’s not enough to draw you in, simply pick it up to experience the story’s twist alone – it had me thinking I was drunk on Viking mead, it’s that crazy!