I’ve been eagerly anticipating Sundered for quite some time, especially after playing and loving developer Thunder Lotus Games’ previous release Jotun. Sure, outside of the hand drawn art style there aren’t any real similarities between the games, but the early gameplay footage and teasers looked superb and got me incredibly psyched to try it out. For the most part it lives up to the hype with some slick action-packed combat and stunning visuals, though there are a few areas which are slightly lacking. Fortunately, none of them stop Sundered being a top notch game.
In Sundered you take on the role of Eshe, a lone wanderer who finds herself pulled into the depths of a mysterious and forsaken labyrinth of strange underground caverns. With deadly enemies around each corner, she has to fight her way through and try to find her way to freedom, all whilst taking on enormous beasts and testing her resolve in resisting the overwhelming powers that might cause her to lose her humanity.
Sundered doesn’t really pride itself on telling some in depth story to the player, with everything kept to a minimum as it introduces you to the alluring game world. That doesn’t mean there isn’t lore to be discovered though; whilst the general gameplay itself revolves around exploration, doing so actually rewards you with extra details regarding the world and what’s happened to it. You’ll come across strange little rooms that expand upon the lore, in turn filling in the gaps as to what exactly is going on and why the world finds itself in this almost cataclysmic state. It’s a nice touch and made it a treat to discover each hidden segment of the story.
At its core Sundered is a Metroidvania style game, with the player challenged to work through an expansive maze of rooms as they slowly vanquish all of its bosses. What’s different here though is that nearly every room of the game is procedurally generated. It’s actually cleverly worked into the narrative too, which is a nice touch given that a lot of procedurally generated games don’t really give any context as to why the world around them keeps changing. However, I don’t really think that having a world that randomly designs itself plays to Thunder Lotus Games’ strengths; they’re experts in making stunning worlds that are thoroughly designed, whereas the random nature of Sundered lacks the consistency and minor details of a handcrafted level. It ensures you’re always seeing something a little different and that you’ll never quite know what to expect, but it comes at the expense of an intuitive world.
At least it’s interesting enough to explore though, with the game following the typical trend of having certain areas inaccessible until you unlock specific abilities. It means you’re constantly finding new areas to access or reaching secrets that you couldn’t get to before, ensuring the world never starts to feel too dull. Eshe is quick and nimble too, with the game’s tight controls making it fun to acrobatically navigate around each room you find yourself in.
Whilst it’s easy to see Sundered as just another Metroidvania style game, its combat is actually more akin to a 2D Devil May Cry or Bayonetta thanks to its insanely quick pace. You’ll be pulling off a wide variety of combos in quick succession, with each move launching both you and enemies all over the map. You’ve got good range in your attacks too, meaning you can take on small groups of enemies all at once. Stringing all these attacks together against multiple enemies is vital if you’re going to survive in the game, but so is your reliance on defensive manoeuvres. Enemies are just as deadly as Eshe, so you’ve got to make sure you’re quick to evade their attacks all whilst picking your opportunities to strike back. It’s a lot of fun and makes for a ton of action-packed sequences as you venture through each area.
As you progress through the game you’ll learn plenty of new abilities that’ll see your efficiency at combat improve, with Sundered offering a real feeling of progression that comes along with mastering each mechanic. Most importantly though is that it makes taking down enemies all the more satisfying. Taking down huge hordes of monsters and tearing them apart with all new abilities feels great, whilst the added variety to combat makes up for the often lacking level design. Everything about Sundered’s combat just feels great to perform.
Despite Eshe being a bad ass as far as combat is concerned, Sundered is incredibly tough, with tricky scenarios being thrown at you almost all the time. It can actually feel a little unfair at times, with the game’s randomly spawning enemies easily overwhelming you and unleashing hell with their vicious attacks. They often don’t follow the laws of physics either; they’ll travel through walls and floors as they come to kill you, meaning jumping to a ‘safe’ platform out of their reach isn’t always enough. At some points a Silent Hill-esque siren will blare across the world, sending a huge hoard of nasty beasts your way that’ll push you to the absolute limit. Sundered is certainly not for the light hearted, and sometimes it can be a little bit frustrating.
Death is rewarded with progression though, even if each time you die you’re taken back to the starting area. Everything you’ve done carries over though, including all the experience points and upgrades you’ve earned. This means you’re able to level up your character ready for your next attempt at completing a room. There’s a lot of flexibility in the game’s upgrade system too, allowing you to cater Eshe’s skills to suit your play style perfectly. This might be in improving specific stats or adding a couple of new tricks up your sleeve. Whatever you choose, it’ll ensure you have an easier time playing the game and those who stick with it through the initial difficult hurdle will find that it becomes a lot more enjoyable once your skills are sharpened.
Much like Jotun before it, Sundered’s stand out scenes are the moments it pits you against one of the enormous bosses. These epic encounters are a lot more finely designed than your typical showdown with enemies, forcing you to think things through rather than simply mashing attacks and hoping for the best. You’ve got to identify each boss’ weakness quickly, otherwise you’ll find yourself suffering death after death after death. Earning victory over a boss ends with an important choice for Eshe too: do you embrace the power at the expense of your humanity, or resist the urge? It affects how the game plays out, so you’ll want to be wary of the decisions you make…
There’s no doubting that Sundered is a beautiful game, with the stunning hand drawn visuals and slick animations slowly becoming Thunder Lotus Games’ main trait. Whilst some of the randomly generated environments can feel a little bland in design, the actual aesthetic behind them is always top notch. The same goes for the character and enemy design, with some real monstrosities on show that aren’t only wondrous to look at but animated like they’ve come straight out of some dark, disturbing cartoon. It really is magnificent to look at, with the all-out action on show throughout the game making for some fantastic eye candy.
Sundered is not without its flaws thanks to the early overwhelming difficulty and the often dull level design, but as you get used to the combat mechanics, slowly upgrade your character, and see what the game really has to offer you won’t be able to help but get completely hooked in. It becomes more enjoyable the further you proceed, whilst each visually impressive showdown you come up against always feels better than the last.
It’s a bit of a slow burner and it’s not quite perfect, but once you start getting absorbed into Sundered’s stunning, action-packed world, it’s hard to put the controller down.
Developer: Thunder Lotus Games
Publisher: Thunder Lotus Games
Release Date: 28/07/2017
Format(s): PC (Reviewed), Playstation 4