by Quinn Levandoski
previewed on PC
A Hand-Drawn Epic
Metroidvania games certainly arenít rare these days, and hand-drawn titles seem to be becoming more popular than ever, but few put the two together in such a visually appealing package as Thunder Lotus Gamesí new Kickstarter success story Sundered. Running its campaign from January to February of this year, Sundered is already out in beta, and things are looking pretty darned good.
Anyone familiar with developer Thunder Lotus Gamesí previous title Jotun shouldnít be surprised to hear that Sundered is an absolute visual work of art. Made from hand-drawn art, environments are wonderfully detailed and atmospheric, and character sprites move like liquid velvet. Everything drips with a nostalgic visual charm that harks back to childhood nights spent watching golden age animated movies. Sunderedís sci-fi/fantasy hybrid setting opens the door to all sorts of strange oddities that, frequently bathed in shades of blues and greens, remind me quite a bit of (Disneyís animated) Atlantis. Enemies are varied, including all sorts of monsters and robots ranging from mecha-like humanoids, to jumping land sharks, to floating spheres, to electric pseudo-crustacean things that are all eye candy to take out or blow up.
Too much going on
That being said, there does seem to be a bit of inconsistency in the detail of some of the models. While 95 percent of everything is, as Iíve already said, a treat, there are a few enemies (the robotic snipers come to mind first) that seem a bit flat and less fluidly animated that the rest. This is a beta, so itís very possible that not all of the animation is done yet, but it is something that Iíd notice from time to time.
As top-of-the-line as the art in Sundered is, though, the visual style occasionally places form over function and seems to work against the actual gameplay from time to time. These issues materialize in a few different ways. First, with all of the colors and detailed movements each character sprite employs, it can be easy to lose the actual player character. When the screen gets flooded with explosions, electric jolts, sword slashes, and critters running, jumping, and flying all over, more than once I had a challenging time fighting since I just couldnít figure out what the heck was going on. There are also occasional foreground objects (normally flora) that, while small, can sometimes obscure action and make it difficult to see if a fight happens to break out in just the right (well, wrong) spot.
Asking for Directions
Given how lovely the presentation is in Sundered, I immediately found myself wishing that there was some sort of story to drive it all forward. The experience, even in its limited Beta form, is full of scenery and language that suggests a larger mythology, world, and history, but in its current form there isnít even a shard of narrative- at least not that Iíve come across. Iím still not sure who my character is, why they are in this hellish place, or what the actual goal of all of the exploration and fighting is. A glance at the gameís Kickstarter page suggests that the game will indeed have a story that answers the above questions and more, but in the version I was able to play, it wasnít present at all. This lack of purpose, or, perhaps more aptly, direction, permeates a few other aspects of Sundered as well, though.
When starting Sundered, the game certainly doesnít hold your hand. If fact, it doesnít actually tell you anything. The mechanics of combat, movements, and general gameplay are simple enough to figure out as theyíre slowly introduced with progression, but I was very frustrated with the lack of direction or stated objective. For the first half hour or so I kind of just ran around killing things. I didnít know why, I didnít know if I was exploring the right part of the sprawling, D&D-like map layout, and I didnít know if there was something I should be looking for. I did find out that every time I died I was brought back to the starting area and given the chance to spend resources Iíd collected from killing things on upgrades to my health, damage, armor, etc., but that was about it.
Thereís a map available with a lot of symbols and a key, but even this isnít clear without explanation. I eventually discovered the direction I needed to go to open some doors, find a boss, and earn a new ability, but I still donít think that the blind trial and error it took to get there was welcome, or makes sense. After a few hours I sort of got the hang of what to look for on the map and how everything works, but Sundered is in desperate need of some early-game guidance to stop players from getting frustrated and quitting before they even get started.
One to keep an eye on
Sundered is an absolutely beautifully made game that I really did have a lot of fun with once I got the hang of things and hit my groove. There are still a few things that bother me that I hope can get fixed in this final home stretch of development, and itís one Iím definitely going to be jumping back into once it hits its proper release. Even in its current form thereís plenty of content to take up hours of your time, and thatíll only increase as the rest is opened up too.