Sundered is going to make you want to put your head through a brick wall and convince you that you’re enjoying yourself while doing so. Often feeling like a war of attrition between your sanity and pride, it’s a sobering but utterly captivating game that I struggled to walk away from, no matter how many times that brick wall came at me.
It doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the most gorgeous games around thanks to its hand-drawn style, which has been carried over from Thunder Lotus’ previous game, Jotun. Without wanting to pay any disrespect to the aesthetics of that game, Sundered represents the next step up, a sumptuous, intricately-detailed world that is as alluring as it nightmarish.
Your avatar into this world is Eshe: a wanderer who becomes trapped in underground caverns with only a seemingly benevolent disembodied guide called the Shining Trapezohedron (try saying that when drunk) for company, who promises Eshe freedom as long as she embrace the abilities he can provide.
Freedom is the keyword when it comes to all things Sundered. Although it’s recommended that you spend time learning its ropes and powering yourself up to take on its hordes without suffering a panic attack, it’s not entirely necessary – you can access all three of its regions relatively early on in your playthrough. Being a Metroidvania, however, you may want to grind away a few hours in its easiest region before venturing elsewhere really becomes a viable option. Sundered even expects you to die, transporting you directly to your skill tree after each death. The progression won’t feel obvious to begin with as it offers only small, barely noticeable gains in terms of stats like health and shield, but it’s when you uncover the many different abilities at the behest of the Shining Trapezohedron that Sundered comes alive.
Things start off slow, gifting you with the Metroidvania staple double jump before eventually doling out abilities like a hilariously over-sized cannon to deal with swathes of enemies and a grappling hook towards the game’s latter stages. These aren’t purely tied to combat: the aforementioned grappling hook and other abilities, such as the mid-air dash, gain you access to new areas packed with loot and, of course, even more visually chilling enemies. Sundered is, at its essence, a game all about escalation, gradually amping up the stakes and action the more the player gets acquainted with its dank and unwelcoming caverns.
In its early hours, Sundered is a slog; an almost painfully slow button masher that asks nothing more than hammering the attack button until the RSI sets in. This might be too big an obstruction for some players, the fact that you have to trudge through a few hours of the game before it gets really interesting. Perseverance is rewarded in more ways than one with Sundered, however, as it asks you to not only dust yourself and try again after the hordes sweep through you for the hundredth time, but also that you give it enough of your time to show off what it can do.
Because when it all comes together in a melting pot of frenzied but tactical combat, gargantuan boss battles, and sumptuous surroundings, Sundered becomes irresistible.
Across the game’s fifteen hours or so of playtime, you will encounter a few mini-bosses per region. But these aren’t the alpha threats, even as breathless as your first fight while you are severely underpowered will lead you to believe. They’re just the entrees for the main course; screen-hogging goliaths that are as challenging as they are easy to marvel at in the uniqueness and intricacy of their designs. Take, for instance, the boss present in the first region: a gigantic man sat upon a throne who apparates even bigger fists to ruin your day. He will ruin your day, by the way, until you either luck out, grind through enough of your skill tree to make a dent, or balance your perks efficiently.
Perks are likely to be one of the overlooked features of Sundered, but they’re arguably the most important collectibles in the whole game. There’s a perk for every situation the game throws at you and the right balance between different mixtures of them can be the difference between you and that infamous brick wall. For regular hordes, I typically rolled with perks that regenerated my shield every time I killed an enemy and another that gave me extra currency. For bosses, perks to boost damage and armour while another (admittedly cheap) perk let me come back to life once during a run.
These RPG-lite elements also translate to your abilities, giving you the option to “corrupt” them with enough Elder Shards. Effectively mutating abilities to make them more powerful or useful, this mechanic is tied to the game’s main message: Resist or Embrace. Choose the latter and the Shining Trapezohedron (I need to keep copy and pasting that) will be happy, twisting your abilities into darker versions. Resist, however, and you’ll be off his Christmas card list as you incinerate the shards. There’s a problem, though: resisting puts you at a massive disadvantage as the alternative rewards are pretty underwhelming and, ultimately, doesn’t make the game as fun – why wouldn’t you want to be a gliding Bat-thing?
This is where my main concern with Sundered comes in. Its main “hook” is flawed as there’s no real connection to Eshe and her plight as a silent protagonist – you seldom even see her face. There’s nothing to guilt you into taking the “good” path as Eshe is a blank canvas, someone for the player to project their own personality onto. With Jotun, Thora felt like a hero worth getting behind, but there’s none of that with Sundered, which is a shame. Its world oozes personality and promises plenty of secrets, so it’s a disappointment that there’s such a disconnect – it’s complacent to allow the narrative and backstory to be fleshed out almost entirely by the player.
It’s also worth mentioning that Sundered chugged along for the majority of my time with it on PS4. A pre-launch patch smoothed things over, though the occasional framerate hiccup and protracted loading times are to be expected, owing to the procedurally-generated nature of some its areas.
Despite some issues, Sundered is almost certainly going to delight Metroidvania veterans. It has a nearly unbelievable amount of upgrades to work through, several endings to unlock, and the option to work through some personal problems with hordes that are just begging to be destroyed. Give it some of your precious time and Sundered will gladly pay you back for your patience.
Review copy provided
Its lightweight story might not do enough on its own to suck players in, but once everything clicks with Sundered's combat and exploration, it all comes together as one of the most challenging and rewarding games of 2017 so far.