|Platforms||PC (reviewed), PS4|
|Developer||Thunder Lotus Games|
|Publisher||Thunder Lotus Games|
|Release Date||July 28, 2017|
Review code provided
Sundered is an Eldritch-inspired Metroidvania that casts players as Eshe, a wanderer who is pulled into a destroyed underworld by a mysterious force and must find a way to escape while either embracing or resisting corruption by the dark forces she encounters. You’ll battle through a partially procedurally generated world, fighting monsters, unlocking upgrades and trying to keep a grip on your Humanity (or wilfully sacrificing it for more power).
Sundered is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played. That may seem like a strange place to start a review, but it’s honestly the first thing that drew my attention to the game. In motion the game is drop dead gorgeous. My awe at its wonderful hand-drawn art style never went away, even after hours of play, and after some of its other shortcomings conspired to start tipping the balance from outright enjoyment to frustration.
Don’t get me wrong – Sundered is a game that has a lot going for it, especially in its opening moments. There are some things the game absolutely nails, but there are a few aggravations too. These aggravations never really go away and start to build up the further into the game you play. Combat is probably the best example of something that starts out feeling good, yet progressively becomes more frustrating as time passes.
The actual act of fighting in Sundered is incredibly basic – you have a sword and a dodge roll. In the game’s opening moments this is fine. You cleave your way through scores of enemies and learn the flow of Sundered’s frantic fights. What begins to feel frustrating in the mid-to-late game is that this combat style is never really built upon. Sure, Eshe will make different attacks if you aim the analogue stick up or down, and there are abilities you can unlock that can augment your fighting style (such as a double jump that resets when you strike an enemy in mid-air, allowing for some spectacular acts of acrobatics).
But from start to finish Sundered’s combat is very much a two-button affair. Mash X to attack with your weapon, mash B when you’re in trouble and need to roll away. There’s very little else to it and the Metroidvania-esque abilities you unlock, that can be re-purposed for combat, don’t really add enough variety to make you feel like you’re doing anything else.
This is compounded by the way in which Sundered handles its enemy encounters. Instead of coming across enemies as you leap and run across its stunning environments, the game simply summons hordes at random intervals to challenge your progress. There’s a great variety to the Eldritch monstrosities that you’ll come across who will challenge you in a number of varied and unique ways, and part of the fun of Sundered’s combat is figuring out the most efficient way of dealing with them.
But Sundered’s reliance on randomly swarming you with bad guys from every conceivable direction grows tiresome very quickly. The issue is the sheer number of enemies you’re forced to fight, usually at the drop of a hat. The game goes from quiet exploration to battles of apocalyptic proportions within about four seconds, but it’s just not built all that well to actually handle the number of combatants on-screen at once (I’m not talking from a technical standpoint, the game runs perfectly).
All too often Eshe will be subsumed by enemies almost immediately. It creates almost instant audiovisual chaos and, within about 10 seconds of combat starting, you’ll completely lose your grasp on what’s actually happening on screen. This causes fighting to frequently fly beyond being intense to just being confusing. Sundered’s two-button combat could have really worked if the game had shown restraint on the number of enemies it sends your way, but more often than not it simply devolves into mashing buttons and hoping you don’t die randomly because you can’t tell what’s happening.
This has a negative impact on exploration. Uncovering everything in Sundered’s world is all about personal goals – setting out to find your way to a mini-boss or getting to the other side of a shortcut, for example. Death is a frequent companion in Sundered, but it’s always frustrating to be crushed under the weight of the fifty enemies the game drops on you just as you’re about to get to a door you’ve been travelling towards. When this happens you’re sent back to a shrine to upgrade and do it all over again.
It’s a damn shame, because there are glimpses of how well Sundered’s combat could have worked in its smaller engagements. Battling bosses and mini-bosses are absolute highlights of the experience. These fights are tough but rely on you figuring out attack patterns and coming up with optimal strategies rather than being swept away in a confusing tidal wave of incoming bad guys. And my word, main boss fights are absolutely epic in both scale and challenge.
Sundered tries to offset the difficulty of its combat with a detailed and well thought out upgrade system. Upon death you have the ability to imbue Eshe with all manner of incremental upgrades to health, damage, critical percentages and a ton of other stats that allow you to come back stronger. Shards, the currency you spend on upgrades, are gathered from defeating enemies, finding treasures and just smashing crates. The game always ensures you’re gaining a steady stream of them and you really do feel that much more powerful every time you come back from death.
As this is a Metroidvania, you’ll also find a bunch of upgrades that let you unlock new sections of the map. Double jumps, grappling hooks, massive energy cannons, the ability to dash in mid-air – they’re all fairly standard abilities that lightly change the way you navigate Sundered’s world. You’ll also find relics that can actually change your play style. Equipping them will give you abilities such as ignoring enemy shields or healing yourself with every kill, but come with a detriment, such as lower shield regeneration or less shard drops from enemies.
You’re also given the choice to resist or embrace – allowing you to either destroy or corrupt Elder Shards that are acquired from defeating bosses. While Sundered makes a big deal about this system, its effects on the game are quite minimal. Whichever path you take will determine one of three possible endings (and the final boss you’ll fight) and corrupting or destroying these shards will change or enhance your core abilities in some way, but it never feels as essential to the experience as I think Thunder Lotus wants it too.
The same goes for the story. There’s a lot of fascinating lore on display in Sundered’s breathtaking world. But its narrative is minimalist to the point of being a bit too slight, confined mostly to specific narrative “rooms” that see you having the history of the world explained to you as you smash some psychedelic gems. It’s interesting and fine, but it never really goes beyond that.
Which describes Sundered in its entirety. This is a good game that you’ll be able to find enjoyment from, especially if you’re a fan of side-scrolling Metroidvania’s or a good challenge. It just feels like it could have been so much more. Instead, Sundered is held back by some design choices that constantly aggravate players – not to the point that they’ll want to put the controller down and never play again, but just enough to mourn what could have been a truly fantastic game.