Drinkbox Studios’ Severed is a touch-based, action RPG with an interesting premise, incredible visuals, and fun gameplay that simply overstays its welcome a little.
Developer Drinkbox Studios managed to strike gold with its indie hit Guacamelee! in 2013, producing a game that many hardcore fans felt was a worthy successor to titles like Castlevania and Metroid. The problem for the small Canadian studio was always going to be how it responded to new expectations regarding its game production – it’s one thing to create a game for people who have little to no knowledge of the talent behind it, and quite another to follow up an unexpected success. Rather than go back to the well and produce a sequel to Guacamelee!, however, Drinkbox has instead chosen to release an entirely new IP called Severed that does not, in truth, resemble the studio’s previous effort much at all.
That isn’t to say that this stark difference in game philosophy is a bad thing, though. Severed eschews the Metroidvania-style gameplay that made Guacamelee! so successful in favor of a touch-based action RPG approach that more closely resembles a game like Fruit Ninja with a much darker, somber tone. While it might seem like a strange point of comparison, Severed is a very strange beast that is an amalgamation of several tried and true game design elements, and any similarities to other games must inevitably be made quite loosely as a result.
Severed places players in the role of Sasha, a girl who wakes up to a nightmare. Her family is missing, her home is in ruins, and her right arm is missing, which would appear to be the event which gives the game its title. That’s not necessarily the case, however, as progressing through Severed‘s narrative forces gamers to ask important questions about themselves and the girl they are inhabiting the body of: As they come closer to discovering the truth of what happened to their family, have gamers disconnected themselves from their own humanity too much? In Sasha’s quest, does her relentless slaughter of “monsters” sever her own ties to humanity?
To the developer’s credit, Drinkbox Studios never truly feels the need to answer these questions, which helps Severed avoid coming across like a heavy-handed philosophy lecture and maintain some narrative staying power as a result. It doesn’t hurt that Severed is also a beautifully animated game, the kind that takes simple backgrounds and environmental designs and turns them into works of art that the player can often interact with as well. While Guacamelee! was charming and fun in its aesthetic, Severed is a mix of vibrancy and darkness, a powerful reminder that video games don’t need expensive graphics engines in order to be awe-inspiring in their appearance.
It would be unfair to discuss just how emotionally taxing and potent Severed‘s presentation is without mentioning its incredible soundtrack, scored by Juno Award nominee YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN featuring Pantayo. Whatever the narrative or gameplay calls for – eerie unease, dramatic confrontation, or cautious exploration – the soundtrack delivers on, and it’s the kind of musical effort that brings to mind some of the best Final Fantasy soundtracks of old.
That might be intentional, too, as Severed certainly borrows some classic RPG elements in its gameplay. Severed allows the one-armed, sword-wielding Sasha to hack off the body parts of enemies once they’ve been defeated, using those body parts to fuel upgrades to her combat abilities. It’s a cool spin on the usual character progression that characterizes action RPGs, although the skill trees feel a little stunted even for a game that takes about eight hours to complete. Sasha is a very fascinating character whose character development is inextricably tied to the way she progresses through the game – it would be nice to have more customization, as it was extremely easy just to get every ability before the final boss without any extra effort.
Luckily, while the skills themselves aren’t particularly impressive, the combat itself is. Severed‘s first few hours of gameplay are some of the most enjoyable combat available in recent game releases, and bears a passing resemblance to the Dark Souls series in that each enemy has “tells” regarding their attacks that make subsequent battles with them easier. Players must slash their way to victory using their fingers on the Vita touchscreen, and Sasha can also counter or block enemy attacks with some well-timed swipes.
The problem, unfortunately, is that the battles never really get much more difficult than that basic premise, and that after a few hours it begins to wear thin. It doesn’t help that, of the three boss fights in the game, the first two are very, very easy and don’t require much in the way of new mechanics or approaches. While the third boss fight was a wonderfully constructed, tense, and challenging experience, it felt like too little too late for a game that had an excellent premise that simply becomes a bit mundane after the first couple of hours with it.
It’s probably not even Drinkbox’s fault, honestly. The puzzles that make up each dungeon are unique and engaging, and each area has a unique feel to it. Enemies only really come in about four or five core variants that get reskinned for higher difficulties later, but again, there’s only so much a developer can do with the “swipe as combat” conceit. It honestly feels like Drinkbox did everything it really could. Unfortunately, the swipe premise doesn’t have as much depth to it as, say, other indie action RPG battle systems like Enter the Gungeon, and this is where a much deeper and varied skill tree could have helped Severed greatly.
Maybe it’s just that Severed‘s story and animation were so deep and enthralling that the much more simplistic combat was bound to feel shallow by comparison. Severed is still a fun game, and because it’s relatively short, even when the combat becomes more tiresome than exciting there isn’t much left to go before the final boss fight that every gamer should experience and enjoy. For that reason, it’s easy to recommend Severed, another success for Drinkbox Studios that ultimately presents some enjoyable, at times innovative gameplay wrapped in one of 2016’s finest minimalist narratives and vibrantly colorful environments.
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Severed is available now for the PS Vita. Game Rant was provided a PS Vita code for this review.