Die, Die, Die Against Exquisitely Animated Lovecraftian Hordes In Sundered

9
  • OS X
  • Playstation 4
  • Windows
  • Action
  • Action-Adventure
  • Maze
2017-07-28

Sometimes Eshe dies under a writhing, toothy pile of gnashing crawlers. Sometimes torn apart by laser fire from squads of crackshot, armored hunters with cylon eyes. Sometimes from acid, or lasers or poisonous gas. Sometimes roasted in gouts of fire expelled from the cyclopean eyes of giant, floating brains. Sometimes entrapped and torn apart by the violent prayers of cultist priests. Sundered combines swarms of monsters, bullet hell assaults, titanic boss fights and Lovecraftian horror, all united in endless death.

In Sundered you are Eshe, a scavenging mechanic wandering a ruined desert world until becoming trapped in the underground chambers where two ancients civilizations clashed and became monsters. She was lured here by the Shining Trapezohedron, an ancient evil that speaks in a guttural language and works to befriend Eshe, drawing you in with dark, anti-human powers. Eshe begins in the Shining Trapezohedron’s Sanctuary, the hub for Sundered’s three immense regions.

sundered
Sundered is full of beautiful, hand-drawn locations. Photo: Thunder Lotus Games

From there you journey out, uncovering the full map by slow attrition of combat, platforming and unlocking new areas with new abilities — pure Metroidvania. Interlocked with this system of exploration is a robust stats tree for purchasing upgrades with the shards that pour from dead enemies. Journey out, explore until death, then be returned to the Sanctuary to purchase improved armor, health, damage and shield abilities. Repeat forever.

In this, Sundered doesn’t sound too surprising. The basic mechanics were pioneered decades ago. But Sundered is a triumph of design, balance, combat and sheer scale, elevating classic gameplay tropes to thrilling heights and earning a place alongside the classics of the genre.

With combat as its primary focus, Sundered contains both frenetic hack-and-slash gameplay and singular combat events against bosses of mind-boggling scale. Enemies often attack in hordes combining ground, air, projectile and tank attackers. Each has its own attack pattern and weakness, the combined forces aligning their assault to devastating effect. Maybe it pays to stick close to the flying, hulking Panzer and get in some hits, but can your shields withstand the Aberration missile barrage long enough? Prolonged combat involves a tricky balance between different enemy types, the energy bar that fuels your dodges, your shield gauge and last-minutes saves with your handful of health elixirs. Sundered is not an easy game.

It all accretes to a powerful feeling, combining frantic combat and constant tactical considerations. Sensations are pushed to their maximum. After Sundered, it’s hard to imagine a game throwing more enemies at you. It’s 2D platforming’s answer to Serious Sam.

sundered-boss
He only looks dead. Photo: Thunder Lotus Games

And, in its perfect balance, Sundered lives its inverse simultaneously. Boss fights stretch the limitations of 2D side-scrolling battles. They’re too big, to the point of frustration, as you throw yourself uselessly upon them... again. But in contrast with the typical frenetic encounter, the boss battles are unprecedented exercises. Button mashing becomes targeted strikes. Half the battle is jumping, platform-to-platform, to establish some even footing with the boss. Soon you’re adjusting perks, creating specific builds for different combat situations, and otherwise optimizing toward the singular goal of taking down that giant, looming in the map’s far corner. Sundered boss battles are monumental and victories feel like genuine accomplishments against god-like foes.

That balance, of thwarting expectation, killing players over and over, but always offering novel new objectives, becomes a satisfying foundation for endless combat. Sundered’s tight gameplay loop — go down fighting, enhance yourself in death, repeat until things get better — pairs with an aesthetic of nearly unprecedented beauty and specificity. Hand-drawn, Sundered looks like a sequel to The Secret of NIMH, just with Stuart Gordon whispering in Don Bluth’s ear the whole time. With its swarms of tentacular monsters and soaring cthonic architecture, Sundered goes far beyond what usually passes for Lovecraftian.

The downsides are few. Like most Metroidvania games, you’ll be spending a lot of time going back over your tracks. Trekking to the same far-away combat encounter after every time you die can get a little tedious, but Sundered amply compensates by always having something else to do. Often, I found myself heading toward a different miniboss or horde room after dying, rotating through my top three or four objectives until one of them finally cracked. While exploration is rewarding, with worthwhile perks and treasure to hunt, plus some absolutely stunning sights, Sundered ’s intense combat-focus necessitates a lot of grinding.

It’s a good thing then that fighting is so much fun. In its visual design, unforgettable combat and polished skills system, Sundered exceeds most games of its type. It’s like the best Sega Genesis game never made. But Sundered isn’t a throwback or retro Metroidvania — it’s a living, thrilling experience and a must-play.

Sundered is available July 28 on Steam and PS4.

 

REVIEW SUMMARY
Sundered
9
Die, Die, Die Against Exquisitely Animated Lovecraftian Hordes In Sundered
Sundered is a must-play action game (now available on Steam and for the PS4), combining astounding animation and rewarding combat. But you’re going to die. A lot.
  • Gorgeous and grotesque hand-drawn graphics
  • One of the best Lovecraft-inspired games ever
  • Unforgettable boss encounters
  • Satisfying combat and RPG components
  • Level grinding means retreading the same paths again and again
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