by Sean Martin
reviewed on PC
Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Blender
A lone hooded figure stumbles from a sandstorm, shielding her face with both arms. As she trudges on, bent double, torn cloak flapping in the wind, we catch glimpses of her surroundings; sand dunes? Or ruins perhaps? A shadow towers ahead, projecting itself onto the cloud. She heads for it. Strange lights call to her. Maybe there’s shelter; a place to weather the storm? In an intro reminiscent of Journey, we are introduced to Eshe, lone survivor and victim in Sundered, a 2D horror-survival platformer, and sophomore offering from Thunder Lotus Games, makers of the award-winning Jotun. The first thing to say about Sundered is that it’s both beautiful and nostalgic; it’s hand-drawn art harking back to a time when Metroidvanias were simply referred to as Metroid. It’s also a game which works very hard to establish a mood, using a muted, unnerving soundtrack, but also by keeping dialogue and exposition to a minimum. As in Transistor, the most significant voice is your weapon; the Trapezohedron, whose voice sounds a little like if you put Hal from Space Odyssey into a blender. He also glows red and says lots of creepy things in a similar way (I’d be a bit addled too if you put me in a blender) and it’s through him that we learn snippets about the world.
Sundered follows the path of most Metroidvania; you delve into ruins, battle bosses, marvel at set pieces and acquire new abilities. You also collect ‘shards’ that you use to upgrade your stats like health and armour. One of the more forgiving mechanics in the game also means that when you die, you get to keep all of your shards. The most unique mechanic is that while the main structure of each level is permanent, a significant portion of what lies in between is procedurally generated, which works to give the impression that the ruins around you are a living, growing entity. However my main problem with this is that while each separate area has a very distinctive style, individual areas can start to become samey, re-using similar assets, and because of these repeated assets, navigation starts to become an issue. In my experience, maps in platformers are often a series of featureless boxes and so the best way to navigate them is by using the features around you. But because there were so few unrepeated features, I found myself running around the same areas unable to tell one part from another, and this began to weigh on the quality of the art somewhat.
A Confusing Relationship with the Foreground
I enjoy the simplicity of 2D platformers; what you see is what you get, and in those games movement mechanics have to be good in order to allow you to manually dodge whatever enemy you face, adding an element of skill. When you begin Sundered you don’t really have any such abilities; you have the typical wall jump and regular jump, but you can’t dodge in the air. The only dodge is across platform, dodging through enemies and granting you a brief period of invulnerability, but to me, that feels like a lazy mechanic. It feels like a dodge taken from a 3D game and translated into a 2D game, and as you have no form of air dodge from the beginning, the game’s initial stage can become quite frustrating. It also highlights my main issue with the combat in Sundered; the enemies and their attacks in the foreground, hurt you in the background. Somehow the enemies exist on a separate physical plane, and you might think “Wow that sounds so cool!” and it does look really cool, when hordes of enemies fly in from all sides and seem to literally be coming out of the walls.
But mechanically, it can make the combat quite noisy and often hard to manage. I had occasions when I would be jumping up platforms and an enemy would fly past in the foreground (and I knew it was the foreground as the enemy hit none of the platforms) yet it still hurt me. This confusing upheaval of the classic platformer relationship between foreground and background, means you often don’t know where the next hit is coming from, or what you’re actually supposed to be dodging. Don’t get me wrong; It’s great when 2D platformers use the foreground artistically and many do to great benefit; Hollow Knight (which just came out recently) does just that and so does Sundered, but should that artistic decision be reflected in the mechanics of the game? I’m not so sure. Saying that, this issue only becomes apparent when fighting the hordes of enemies that periodically ambush you, and so it doesn’t detract from the many wonderful (and absurdly huge) boss fights that the game has to offer.
‘Your Progression Should be Non-linear’
I’d just died again, after being swarmed by the electric spearfish and those ones that resemble Guilty Spark from Halo (except that they set on fire and scream at you). Then this message popped up on my loading screen. It caught me off guard for a second, firstly because it’s possibly the most ironic loading screen caption I’ve ever read, but secondly, because it kind of summed up my overall issue with the game. To me, Sundered felt confused between linear and nonlinear. I was supposed to be able to go everywhere, but I kept finding areas I couldn’t get too without specific abilities. But I also kept getting lost in the procedurally generated areas and all the while was getting swarmed by enemies who didn’t seem to follow the same universal rules as my character. Those enemies then killed me and the areas regenerated, thus continuing the cycle. Maybe I’m just getting older and less willing to play games that really make me work for it, especially when I don’t know what I’m working for. But on the whole I did enjoy Sundered; it’s an incredible looking platformer, and certainly one the most intriguing in terms of its artistic influences. It also has excellent boss fights, each stranger and more varied than the last. Unfortunately, the sections of grinding in between are what you will spend the majority of your time doing.
Beautiful and intriguing artwork
Somewhat flawed combat