Sundered, at first, sounds familiar. A Metroidvania roguelike, 2D indie Steam title? Memories of Rogue Legacy, Crypt of the Necrodancer and Binding of Isaac ran through my mind as the game downloaded. How could this be any different, I wondered?
Sundered stood out the second it booted. Abandoning the played out retro 8-bit look indie developers have been so fond of the last five years or so, Sundered embraces a ‘hand drawn’ style in the vein of Skullgirls and Dust: An Elysian Tail – the palette is vivid, bright and beautiful, perfectly conveying the atmosphere on display. No part of these visuals is repetitive or mundane, from the stellar backdrops to the refreshing enemy designs. Without a doubt, the larger and sharper a screen this game is played on, the better.
Thunder Lotus Games’ previous effort, Jotun pitched the player as a Viking warrior disgraced in death. It relished in making the player feel small and, frankly, mortal. Death was an ever-present threat, but as a more narrative driven game, these deaths often felt intrusive, somehow stalling the player’s progress. No such qualms here, with death – as any roguelike player knows – being a key part of the experience. As the studio puts it, they took what worked from their previous title and fused it “with infinite replayability and the nonlinear action-packed gameplay of the Metroidvania genre” – a stark contrast to the limited playtime of their last release.
Gameplay is perhaps the most unsurprising element, which isn’t an inherently bad thing. We’re all familiar with how these games tend to play – exploration to the left and right, up and down, repeated trips with new skills/abilities letting us push ever deeper, but there are no failings that stand out particularly. One of the biggest issues I’d run into from a gameplay perspective feels more a caveat of procedurally generated games in general, wherein I’d stumble into a room and effectively be ripped limb from limb, with the dynamic difficulty ramping itself to the max unexpectedly. On that note, the core layout of the world is locked in place here, letting players learn their way around, but elements smaller details, as well as enemy placement, are procedurally generated; lowering one’s guard is not recommended. Sundered plays excellently and smoothly, I had no problems running the game on my hardware (a 2012 iMac). It’s also worth noting that the developers recommend a controller, and I’d agree with this, playing with a Steam controller myself.
The sound design is a treat here – in a genre which can sometimes struggle to fix a mood or sense of place, Sundered’s discordant notes and growing moans help keep an ever-present sense of danger – think the Joker’s single pitch-shifting note from The Dark Knight’s OST, or even the slow build of the Jaws theme. The music here serves to keep an ill-at-ease atmosphere more than to accommodate any one moment or action.
There are an atmosphere and consistent world here, but those looking for a story or universe to sink into had best look elsewhere. Much has been made of the Lovecraftian inspiration which Thunder Lotus Games wear on their sleeves, but there’s no deep or particularly developed narrative& to be found beyond the unease lent by the visuals and character design. This isn’t a ‘failing’, but of note. With the full release due sometime in July, I’ve no doubt Sundered will be another winning move for the studio; and I’m sure many will lose hundreds of hours in the hauntingly beautiful and massively addictive game they’ve created for us.
Sundered will be available on Windows, OSX, Linux and PS4 in July.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Alex played a preview build, which did not include a narrative. The full game will have a story on release.