Sometimes a game can have a wonderful concept with fun elements that appeal to you directly, while at the same time having parts that tarnish the whole experience for you. For me, Song of Iron, unfortunately, fits that description. Developed by Resting Relic, this Viking adventure side-scroller has a lot of promise what with the wealth of inspiration that Norse mythology can provide. Unfortunately, where Song of Iron does have virtues such as its mythological elements, the failures of the gameplay hinder the effectiveness of its high points – which is a true shame.
Song of Iron goes for a minimal approach to storytelling. After a brief prologue of your unnamed character’s village being attacked by an enemy Viking clan, your character embarks on a journey of revenge featuring several creatures and gods from Norse mythology. There is dialogue sprinkled here and there within the game which serves its purpose well and, while very understated, helps build the atmosphere that developer Joe Winter wants to capture. The silent protagonist angle could perhaps be an issue for some, as some characters lack memorability (Norse gods excluded of course) but, regardless, I feel the story works well for what it is. I like the game’s opening few hours – especially the feeling of progress as you first meet Thor, although you always feel on the run throughout due to the lack of friendly NPCs after the prologue. The slow build-up of the character’s armour through progression of the ability upgrades was also a great bit of visual storytelling to show the development of the player’s character.
Gameplay & Performance
Before going into the gameplay, I feel it’s important to note that I am reviewing this via review copy on Xbox One. This preface is important, as PC or Xbox Series versions may not have as many issues as I had, and some quick patches in the game’s lifecycle could address a lot of my gripes that I’m about to address. With that said, the game’s performance on Xbox One leaves something to be desired. It is most certainly playable, but there are several issues that break the immersion to varying degrees, such as framerate dips and stuttering when several enemies are on screen, texture pop-in being more prevalent than it should, and occasionally crashing and sending me back to the dashboard. Again, more advanced hardware will likely not suffer these issues as prominently, but they are important to note for anyone still on previous-gen consoles. One specific case was once leaving the Goblin King’s Castle and being bombarded by enemies, the game slowed to a crawl and would not allow me to damage the enemies or for them to damage me – which ruined an otherwise immersive experience.
In terms of gameplay itself, it has some very good elements befitting a 2D action side-scroller and some that are a little more disappointing. The combat, like the story, is simple but effective. You start with a few simple moves such as slashing with whatever weapon you have on hand, a shield to block attacks, a dodge roll, a kick to stop an enemy blocking with a shield, a bow, and the ability to throw whatever weapon you have at an enemy. As you progress you unlock new abilities such as elemental effects for your bow or melee weapon, and armour that increases your movement speed at the cost of some of your character’s magic bar. These unlocks are very much appreciated and make the game considerably more interesting, especially the armour that increases the character’s speed which helped make traversal feel less heavy than it initially did. The combat feels heavy and brutal, and if there was a bit more variety in the sound design it would feel very satisfying – especially when using your sword/axe as a projectile, which was my personal favourite part of the combat (along with slowly mastering the dodge roll, which felt very satisfying to pull off).
The platforming on the other hand could use some improvement. The jump feels too heavy for the platforming to be satisfying and, while the movement-increasing armour does help, the physics still do not feel suited for platforming. This can be seen especially in sections where you must jump from walls to platforms. The wall climb ability works well most of the time but, when you have to jump from a wall to a platform or another wall, the angle at which the character jumps off the wall feels inconsistent and would then waste stamina, which you have to wait to refill before trying again. This is a real shame because, with some small tweaks to the physics, traversal could feel a little faster. Along with this, it would be preferable if the mechanics of jumping from walls to other platforms were explained more clearly because the platforming could have worked wonders with the combat.
Music & Audio
Song of Iron‘s music is a treat for anyone with a fondness for Scandinavian-style music. Unfortunately, some moments of the game felt like they could have used music when it was lacking – an example being an early encounter with a bear where no music was present at all. However, whenever the music does appear it is wonderful, my personal favourite being the sting that plays whenever you unlock a new ability, which helped make me feel like I was making great progress on the adventure. With the game being a solo project by Joe Winter, I’m thoroughly impressed by how well the music was handled.
The audio design is solid but does have some apparent issues. Firstly, occasionally the audio would cut out during a fight with several enemies – which greatly hurt the immersion of being stuck in an intense skirmish. I also believe that a bit more variety in the sound effects when hitting an enemy would have helped immensely, especially for heavier hits as it would make the combat feel much more satisfying.
Apart from some pop-in that I personally experienced, Song of Iron has some moments of pure beauty in its visual style. One of my favourite recurring visual elements was when the screen became monochrome, with the player character and some elements of the environment becoming shrouded in shadow, which I felt was an inspired choice and made every instance of coming into torchlight feel special. The colour pallet when not in shadow is also very vibrant and the lighting is gorgeous when you see the sky at sunrise or sunset.
One visual element that unfortunately could use more work is the UI. The minimalist style when playing works for immersion, but the main menu and pause menus are very basic and the explanation of new abilities appear so briefly that some new players may get confused. For example, health, stamina and magic are all relegated to three small lines in the bottom left corner, which is easy to miss and confuse which is which. On top of this, while the art style is very appealing, it can occasionally cause confusion with what elements of the environment can be interacted with – such as which walls you’re allowed to climb.
While many aspects of this game are good and continue to get better the more you play, some of the issues I have mentioned made Song of Iron feel like it needed a bit more polish. My biggest issue is to do with how the game runs, which unfortunately ruined my experience at certain points. However, I do realise that this will most likely not be the case with everyone. Despite these negatives, there is a lot to like about this game with how well it builds an atmosphere with story, music and visuals for a majority of the experience. With a few updates, I’m sure I could recommend this game but, for the time being, I would recommend seeing how it works on more modern hardware, then making your own decision on whether to try it out.
Sole developer Joe Winter should undoubtedly be proud of what he has accomplished here though – I recognise how wonderful a large part of this game is, and it’s a shame that the issues in my playthrough hindered my experience.
We were provided with a game code for Song of Iron for review purposes, but this does not affect the authenticity of the praise or criticism the game received.
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Reviewed on: Xbox One
Developer: Resting Relic
Publisher: Resting Relic