tinyBuild, headquartered in Bellevue, Wash. and Amsterdam, is a development studio and publishing house dedicated to bringing out video games that are just plain weird. You can’t really accuse tinyBuild of chasing trends, being derivative, or winking at the camera. Many of its games are cheap, unique titles— Clustertruck, Rapture Rejects, Hello Neighbor, No Time to Explain — that often feel like dispatches from an alternate universe where they somehow make sense.
Swag and Sorcery, from the same studios that created tinyBuild’s Punch Club and Graveyard Keeper, is a self-parodying attempt to streamline the modern computer role-playing game down to its base elements. There’s a village, there are a few areas outside of it that are full of monsters and loot, you’ve got a (goofy) quest from a (senile) king, and you have a crew of up to eight brave, idiosyncratic adventurers.
At the start of the game, those adventurers are armed with wooden swords and showed up to work in their underwear. You have to build facilities in the village to support their quest, staff those facilities with whatever adventurers are still in town at the moment, and use them to turn whatever odds and ends you bring back from the field into new weapons and armor.
In general, a computer RPG, or CRPG, is about watching your numbers go up. You go on quests to find new gear, which makes your characters stronger, so you can go on tougher quests to find better gear. At its core, it’s a mathematical treadmill. Most games try to camouflage that with epic stories and strong characterization, but a vast amount of the appeal of an average CRPG is making bigger and bigger monsters explode into numbers and die.
Swag and Sorcery streamlines and automates everything it can, until the game is essentially nothing but watching those numbers go up. You form parties of up to three adventurers, send them into the wilderness, and if they succeed (or you get them to safely retreat), you use the resulting gold, wood, ore, herbs, and monster bits to craft them stronger armor and better weapons. This can range from good old-fashioned plate armor and big swords, to stunner shades, a basketball jersey, and an electric guitar, because this is not a game that is at all invested in maintaining a consistent theme. In fact, there seems to be some kind of unspoken rule where the dumber you look, the better off you are.
Each successful expedition into a given area fills up a percentage-based progression bar. At 100 percent, you can challenge the area’s boss monster… which will initially cave your adventurers’ faces in. At that point, it’s back to the drawing board, sending your adventurers on more missions to harvest more stuff and collect more gold, to get them strong enough to challenge that boss and win. Doing so unlocks another zone, and the cycle repeats itself.
You can eventually hire enough adventurers so you can have some in the field collecting resources while another couple of them work in the village shops. Once you’ve got a core team that’s strong enough to handle adventures in a zone without you having to keep a close eye on them (as you lose all your collected resources and a bit of stage progression if a party’s defeated in the field), you can let them run in the background while you stay in the village, setting your other characters to accomplish different tasks.
If that makes Swag and Sorcery sound repetitive to you … well, it is. The game’s own description of itself, on its Steam page, begins with the phrase “Grind for resources.” It’s pitched at an audience for whom that repetition is actually weirdly compelling. It’s like an ant farm, if sometimes the ants left the area and came back with a bunch of money and body parts.
It does really commit to its grind, though. Swag and Sorcery is littered with unannounced, steep difficulty spikes, particularly when you unlock a new zone to explore. A party of adventurers that can handily trash the boss of one zone is usually easy prey for standard monsters in the next, which forces you to send the team back to previously-cleared content in search of whatever gold and upgrades you have left to find.
The game also doesn’t actually have experience points, which is a little weird. Every upgrade you purchase for a character, such as stat increases or higher levels, is simply done with increasingly ridiculous amounts of gold. That wouldn’t be an issue, except that gold is weirdly hard to come by, as monsters drop little to none of it. You’ll probably spend the first three zones of the game constantly broke, hustling through side quests to get just enough money to throw one more level at your primary characters.
You can turn reagents directly into gold, by making unneeded equipment and selling it to the vendor in the center of town, but that approach gets trickier as you progress through the game. In the first zone, you can just slap wood and ore together to make a bunch of spears or swords and sell them for pocket change, but the further you get into the game, the more complicated the recipes get. You end up having to scour through a single zone for the one rare reagent that you need to make specific items, while everything else you get stacks up by the dozen because you can’t use any of it yet.
Fortunately, that problem does work itself out in the endgame, as you receive schematics for armor and weapons with the Stealing passive trait, which lets you gather gold automatically from every outgoing attack. At that point, you can simply grind to create as much Stealing gear as you can, then let your adventurers farm in the background as usual. Before that point, though, you do end up having to run through old content for a few hours to collect items you don’t need, for gear you’ve long since outgrown, so you can move it on the open market to scrape together enough change for one more level.
Again, if that sounds like an obscure form of torture to you, you’re not wrong. Swag and Sorcery is designed like a free-to-play mobile game that somehow forgot to include microtransactions. It’s a pure time sink, made to keep your hands busy and your mind vaguely in gear, and in that, it’s successful. I managed to lose several hours to it, the same way I can kill an evening without trying by farming in an MMORPG or gathering reagents in a crafting sandbox. There’s a weird sort of satisfaction in just watching numbers expand, and that’s what Swag and Sorcery excels at.
It could definitely use a few more coats of paint, though. There’s a big part of the game based around playing fantasy dress-up, as you’ll occasionally be challenged to a sort of high-stakes fashion competition. You’re encouraged to keep a lot of spare equipment around for the sake of making your characters look as cool and/or stupid as possible, as per the requirements of the specific competition, but you have no tools in place to help you manage that collection. You can’t sort it by type or search for a specific name; you just have to dig through it like an overstuffed toy box until you find what you want. CRPGs have had really basic inventory management tools as a standard feature for nearly 30 years, so it’s weird that it’s not here.
The upgrades are also generally randomized, with most weapons and armor having a broad range of available stats, as well as one or more totally random traits assigned on creation. It’s difficult to say whether or not a new item is actually an improvement over what you’ve already got, because it might end up with better base numbers, but a broad whack of useless stats. There’s also a weird issue where a pair of level 6 pants are pretty unequivocally the best item in the game, as on every combat turn, they make the wearer regenerate 80-to-99 percent of the damage from the last hit they took. If a character wearing these pants doesn’t get killed in one hit, they aren’t going to die at all. I ended up with all my front-line fighters wearing big clanky plate-armor helmets and chestplates … and a cheap little green leather loincloth that was doing all the heavy lifting for them.
The most crucial problem with Swag and Sorcery, however, is its localization. Two out of the three companies that worked on it, frequent tinyBuild collaborators Lazy Bear and Uroboros, are based out of Russia. The English version comes off like they might’ve done the translation in-house; it’s full of muddled syntax, jokes that don’t land (one of the characters’ lovable personality quirks is that she appears to have an eating disorder?), and the occasional genuine text bug. It’s not the worst translation I’ve ever seen, but the game could’ve used a native English speaker or two to go through its script and punch it up for an American audience, especially given how much of the game is ostensibly carried by its weird sense of humor.
Despite all of that, Swag and Sorcery does have a strange hypnotic quality that kept me playing it for a lot longer than I thought I would. It’s due to some odd combination of its well-done pixel art, the simple gameplay loop, its bizarre aesthetic, and the satisfaction of finally managing to overcome each of the barriers it put in front of me. It really does feel like playing an older CRPG, maybe one from the late ’80s, on fast-forward.
It is, admittedly, more of a flashy distraction than a video game. This is ideal to fire up on one monitor while you stream television on the other, or to put on your laptop to keep yourself entertained on a long flight. Swag and Sorcery has the same relaxing addictive qualities that you get from tending crops in Stardew Valley or doing circuits around a zone for herbs and ore in World of Warcraft, all streamlined into a singular product. With a smarter localization and a few quality-of-life improvements, Swag and Sorcery could have a broader appeal than it does; as it is, it’s good at filling its particular niche.