I really wanted to like this more than I did.
Playing Sundered was a bit of a trying experience for me during this review. The least fun part of reviewing anything is accepting that something you’re really rooting for has some serious limitations. Sundered feels like a dating profile with an incredibly promising picture, and the description below confesses to being a bedwetter – there’s a lot of good to look at, but that only underscores the issues at its core.
The concept of Sundered is somewhat of a departure from developer Thunder Lotus’ last game Jotun, shifting focus away from puzzle solving to an exploration focused game world (commonly referred to as metroidvania) while retaining Jotun’s evocative boss creatures. Taking on this new structure means that the large overworld needs to be populated with enemies to fight, creating a need to go on the offensive with regards to the combat. Given a magic blade-like weapon by an eldritch creature, players will mash through creatures for survival from room to room.
That might be disappointing to some, because for some reason taking satisfaction in cutting through swaths of enemies isn’t considered special. To hell with that notion, though, because it really is that satisfying to cut through a bunch of creepy crawlers and mechanical nightmares as they flood the cavern you currently occupy. Sundered wastes no time giving some variation on the enemies you face either, quickly making the player change up they way they go about taking down the creatures. Progressing further both introduces modified versions of these creatures alongside more threats.
Dying in Sundered opens up a whole other door, as well. The character Eshe is taken back to the game’s beginning, and it’s here that players can upgrade Eshe’s stats and abilities. This is upgraded using shards left over from defeating enemies and breaking various vials and jars along the pathways. Upgrades are spread out along a winding ability tree, modifying all kinds of things like damage resistance and health. You get full control of where your shards go to, but you won’t get locked out of any direct path by picking one increase over another in the moment. It isn’t too hard to figure out how the tree works and expands in terms of shards, but it is a very satisfying progression system in making all combat feel beneficial.
All of the above so far is pretty great, but that only helps highlight the issues. Both the spawn rate and the actual arrangement of dungeon rooms are handled by procedural generation and random control measures. On paper, these are not bad additions, because it does potentially change up the formula for metroidvania games. The execution isn’t as clean, though. Enemies just spawn at their leisure, often in massive waves, sometimes on what feels like a constant loop. Eventually, I reached a point where it was easy to tell when I wasn’t getting myself out of a scenario no matter what my best efforts were, and there weren’t many times where it felt like that was my fault. Dying means going back to start, and then the layouts of the caverns making up the map change. All that really does is change the pathway Eshe needs to take in order to reach important sections of the world to either get a new ability or move the story along.
As a result of this configuration, the caverns don’t feel all that interesting. What this does is shuffle the placement of platforms, hazards, and exits around; and it only takes a momentary glance to get bearings and continue moving. Because you have no motivation to commit all of these sections to memory, there’s no need to take in the designs whatsoever. Compare this to a Metroid or Castlevania title that gives this genre its name. Yes, you backtrack same as in those games, but the payoff is even less so than in those titles. The backtracking is supposed to build familiarity but here it doesn’t matter. In order to mitigate that, all the important areas become marked on the map once Eshe is remotely close to them, so there’s no need to even really remember where those are. Before long, I started to notice the combinations of assets, and not just on occasion. I found an identical combination of platforms and spikes on multiple floors of the same section, separated only by seconds. Small studios are hardly the only ones that reuse design patterns like this, it’s a good way to manage resources when developing. However, when levels are designed all by people instead of a procedure, such blatant repetition can be manually avoided. In Sundered, it’s business as usual.
If anything, I wouldn’t call Sundered a metroidvania game as much as I’d call it a rougelike, the kind of game that is a repeating gauntlet of challenges over and over. That’s not a condemnation, but it is an observation that the game isn’t accomplishing what it thinks it is.
Once I came to that realization, I ended up being able to appreciate a little bit more about the game. Giving players more tangible progression in the form of Eshe’s ability tree feels like a revelation in the language of roguelike gameplay. The repetition of assets feels a bit more forgivable, because I didn’t need to feel stressed about my location. Waves of enemies continued pushing my temper, but in the rules of a roguelike, it’s far more expected.
When viewing Sundered as a roguelike, it becomes a lot easier to enjoy the good parts about it more. The gorgeous hand-drawn art of characters and the backgrounds are some of the best visuals seen in games this year. That visual is helped by a well executed sense of color placement that combines muted and dark greens and blues with vibrant reds to create a vivid but unnerving atmosphere. There’s no voiceover by Eshe, and the music is soft and often avoids swelling. The entity that Eshe bonds with to protect herself does talk, but it is in guttural inhuman sounds. You may be getting helpful information, but it doesn’t sound like it. The enemy creatures also have their own inhuman growls and screeches always heard before the waves come crashing down. It’ll eventually trigger a feeling of “What fresh hell is this,” but it is unnerving at the beginning. Eshe doesn’t have much in the terms of personality, but her design is one that uses basic design rules to make something distinctive and I hope to see cosplay soon of her.
At the peak of exploring various sections, incredibly large eldritch horrors await as the game’s bosses. This is where Sundered is at its best. Facing these bosses feels almost too much, as the camera zooms out to fit the creature and the battle kicks into gear. Like the rest of the game, it’s pretty easy to die, but you’ll still get shards from doing various damages, so you can use your upgrading to track your process and actually deal more damage than before. It works so well. Despite feeling frustrated at getting my rear handed to me, I was genuinely having a blast. These kinds of boss fights are the kind I’d like to see even more of in other games, especially other roguelikes.
Except Sundered isn’t actually a roguelike. Once you do conquer a boss, you won’t fight them again; and you’ll be left to again explore uninteresting caverns and fighting off waves and waves of monsters. I eventually reached a point that I couldn’t pretend Sundered was something it wasn’t. At that point, I realized that I had seen pretty much all that was really going to be on offer, and I wasn’t nearly that far in the game. Of course the game would continue to escalate in difficulty; but with half the difficulty being artificial it lost my interest. The game may be an interesting match up of two gameplay styles not normally put together, but the mix still feels off balance.
Additionally, in spite of several updates since the game released, I experienced significant framerate issues. Since being able to react to randomly occurring events is the spine of the game, having the framerate drop in half or even completely stop is the difference between dodging and preserving what’s left of ever-important shielding or getting completely destroyed by enemies. There appears to be some pretty regular updates happening, but it is worth keeping in mind when playing should you decide to.
Sundered is a game about conflict in multiple forms. Some of those conflicts can be resolved and others are baked into everything you’ll see while playing. The gameplay balance isn’t even, and there doesn’t seem to be a reason behind areas changing. Bosses are very cool, but you’ll go through thousands of enemies before getting there and will likely get cut down. You’ll find your groove, then the framerate will come to a complete stop and you’ll be besieged. I want to like this game, but every time I felt like I was enjoying myself, the game went out of its way to show me the faults. Unless this scratches a very specific itch for you, you probably can skip it.
Developer/Publisher: Thunder Lotus Games
Platform: PS4 (Reviewed), PC, Mac, Linux
Released: July 28th, 2017
Copy Provided by Publisher