Failure can do funny things to a person. It can make them stronger, using each defeat as a lesson to improve upon their skills until they become unbeatable. On the other hand, failure can break a person's will to the point where, in that instance, they will do anything to garner an edge. In its most basic form, that is Sundered in a nutshell. It's a beautiful, but deadly Metroidvania adventure with a few rouge-like elements where death is not the end, but a way of life. And with each death comes the irresistible urge to give in and corrupt your powers (and yourself in the process) to succeed. Thus comes the game's tagline, resist or embrace, which plays out in more ways than one.
Taking control of Eshe, you're thrust into the world below with little idea as to why you're there, much less how to escape. The only way is forward and soon you'll find yourself at a hub area of sorts, leading to three different areas. Get used to this place as you're going to see it... a lot.
As said before, Sundered takes on a Metroidvania style of exploration in both terms of style and level design. The twist is the map structure stays the same but the inner workings are randomly generated. Think of it this way, you'll travel through three box grids on the map, but just how you make your way through them is different each time. This is a neat idea on paper but can backfire at times due to a mechanic built into Sundered.
You're guided by a mysterious voice whose intentions are not clearly known at the beginning of the game. The voice does not provide you a lot in terms of direction but that's not necessary. The map does a good job of highlighting areas of interest, including abilities, locked doors, and bosses. Of course, looking at the path and actually going there are two different things.
Jumping on platforms, avoiding prickly bushes, and fighting a few enemies are common along your path. Enemies don't have exact placements as they appear randomly along your adventure. Everything seems to be going fine until you hear an unsettling gong sound (note, in the first area, this will sound like an alarm). Get ready, stuff is about ready to hit the fan.
Swarms of enemies intrude your area, at least a dozen at a time. Quickly, you find yourself overwhelmed and escape seems to be the only option at this point. Your enemies are not confined to one room and they'll follow you mercilessly to bring you to your last breath. But then something odd happens. Upon losing all of your health, you're pulled under by mysterious tentacles and taken back to the sanctuary. Death is not the end, it is only the beginning.
This is something you're going to have to get used to in the world of Sundered. It shows no mercy to anyone at anytime. You never know when the sound of the gong will hit and turn your expedition into a fight for survival. The world is a dangerous place, punishing those who are not prepared. More than punishing, it can be absolutely frustrating and unfair at times.
Remember when earlier when I mentioned the randomness of the areas can be a bit of a problem? When the sound of the gong hits, you know what's in store. Swarms of enemies show no thought of waiting their turn, you need to be on your feet ready to attack and dodge as necessary. If the terrain changes every time through your adventure, how are you to be familiar with your surroundings in order to defeat your enemies? Sometimes escape might be the only option but you cannot properly plan your departure if you don't know where you're supposed to be going. The side map is useful in showing you where the exits are but when you're surrounded by enemies, you have little time to see just where you need to go. Hesitating at a moment's notice could mean the loss of a good chunk of your shield, life bar, or even your life. If you're not careful some enemies could knock you into the air allowing others to come in and juggle their attacks. Boom, your life is gone, back to the sanctuary.
The sanctuary is not a terrible place. Here, you're safe from enemies and you can take the time to fill out your skill tree. The tree can be quite intimidating at first, with many different spots to fill out. As you accumulate skills and subsequent deaths, you'll be filling out the tree in no time and upgrading your attack, shields, and perks that will help you along the way. Spending time in the sanctuary is not a problem, its how you get there that is an issue.
Pure randomness of encounters is one of the factors that can bring Sundered down. Enemies spawn at random, there is no way to prepare for a big fight when it can happen at any moment. During my playthrough, I typically ran into these swarms shortly after obtaining a new ability. It seemed more or less ironic that I made progress by getting an ability to explore new areas only to be greeted by a horde of enemies to send me back to the beginning. The feeling is not like traditional roguelikes where you make progress but eventually, fall in an area too tough with your current abilities. In Sundered, I feel I have to die IN ORDER to make progress. This progress loop can bring your enthusiasm and desire to keep playing to a halt. It's this flip of progression that almost made me turn the game off. But then something unexpected happened.
I started having fun.
This feeling happened as soon as I beat my first boss. Beating an enemy that takes up more than half the screen was a rush. It is not to say that the boss fights are easy either. They're one of the toughest parts of the game with their enormous scale, brutal attacks, small windows to attack, and a barrage of projectiles to dodge. Due to their massive scale, you might lose sight of your character if you're not paying attention. The camera zooms out quite a bit, but fortunately, Eshe stands out well enough in the environment where I did not lose track of her movements.
Both the main and mini-bosses have that traditional boss fight feel. It takes only a minute or two to learn their attack pattern, but as you inflict damage, they start to move faster and add a few more tricks they have been keeping up their sleeve. It is very important that you learn how to time your dodges and attacks during the boss battles as they hit hard and will take quite a bit of your life bar should you get careless. Simply going in and just hacking away can take down the health bar of the boss, but will usually result in the same applying to you.
Apart from being difficult, the boss fights are where I had the most fun within Sundered. Even when I fell to these mammoths, there was a sense of progression here that you don't find in the rest of the game. The thought "oh, I should try this differently", pops into your head, taking what did and did not work in the battle and improving upon it. This is not something you're thinking of when you fall to a horde of enemies appearing at random.
Either by some miracle or just sheer determination, I beat my first main boss on one try. After a few hours of repetition involving exploration, unlocking doors, fighting and dying to swarms of enemies, this was the first real sense of accomplishment playing Sundered. After being so close to just putting the game down for good, this was enough to keep me going until the end. The bosses continue to be tough, random enemies are still annoying, and more abilities are needed to continue, but the itch to continue came with that small victory.
From the beginning of the game to the furious boss battles, Sundered is a beautiful game. The hand-drawn art looks incredible and the animation has been given the same treatment. Even the "death" sequence is impressive, and as many times as I perished, I never got tired of seeing that particular animation. It is that good. The art absolutely fits the style and mood that Thunder Lotus was aiming for here. Each area feels unique from one another and offers a sense of what had happened to this once peaceful world. Sundered is not a deep game when it comes to story, but you get a sense of what happened just by the visuals alone. This was once a world where peace reigned, but greed and corruption turned it into the sad state of affairs that you encounter in your playthrough.
Keeping true to the Metroidvania roots, you'll need to obtain certain abilities in order to progress. Pull up the map and you'll easily see their locations, but like the other items of notice getting there is easier said than done. A double jump and shield are two early abilities but you'll gain others such as a wall run and grapple hook later on. Mostly used for traversal, you won't get much combat use out of these abilities. Sure, the shield is an absolute lifesaver on your journey and the double jump can get you out of a scary situation but there is nothing you obtain that turns the tides in combat. What these abilities lack in combat prowess they make up in their hidden potential.
Defeating sub and main bosses will earn you a piece of an elder shard. They seem pointless at first until you get three shards to make a whole crystal, and that's when your "guide" starts getting creepy. He promises that he can unlock your true potential if you take an elder crystal and offer it to an ability shrine. Doing so will give your ability a new feature, such as the ability to glide after a jump. As you might have guessed, this process seems a little shady and plays into the game's narrative.
Resist or embrace... it is something the game continuously throws at you either by text or by subliminal messages. The choice is completely up to you at any time during the game, but beware, corrupting your abilities is a permanent one. Unless you're manually going into your system's save files and making backups, the choice to corrupt an ability stays with you until the end. Going down this path even affects the ending of the game, of which there are three. Choosing to corrupt your abilities feels important as it should, and not just deciding between a good or evil path. The fact that there are narrative consequences for your actions just adds extra weight and tension on your choice between keeping your humanity or giving into power.
In fact, it helped some of the design choices within Sundered make sense. When the gong sound hits and the enemies start to make their way towards you, compassion is the last thought in their minds. These vicious foes don't give a damn about Eshe, and they certainly wouldn't care about you, the player. Could this be reflected in the unrelenting nature and randomness of the enemies? You don't just see her in pain, you're in pain from the constant respawns. This is just my theory. Not that I completely enjoy this gameplay element, but I can respect it if that is what the devs were shooting for.
Through all of this, Sundered still gets a passing grade. The combat is not too complex or deep, nor does it need to be. With as much jumping and dodging as you'll do, I came to appreciate the simplicity of the combat as it is easy to start and stop attacks. The graphics and animation are beautiful throughout, sometimes distracting you from those hordes of enemies randomly showing up. The procedurally generated locations keep the levels fresh but can be a hindrance when trying to make an escape from swarming enemies. The first few hours of Sundered can be overwhelming, but given some time and patience, you'll find a satisfying and rewarding title for those who embrace the challenge and resist the urge to fold.
+ Beautiful art style, animation is fantastic
+ Controls are fast and responsive
+ Immersive skill tree
+ Can be quite challenging....
- ...but the first few hours can be overwhelming
- The random swarm of enemies is exhausting
- You need to die several times in order to progress
Time Played: 14 hours on PC
Available on PC and PlayStation 4