When the idea of graphical advancement is discussed in video games, all too often talk turns to the AAA scene, and to such well-trod topics as photorealism. However, some of the most impressive-looking games in recent years have instead come from much more low-key releases, with games such as Journey proving that designers can achieve great things from a small budget. This is certainly the case with Jotun developer Thunder Lotus Games, a studio that has just returned with another game called Sundered.
Quite simply, Sundered is beautiful. The game focuses on brilliant, hand-drawn images that are equal parts dreadful and wonderful to behold, providing a real sense of uniqueness that is so rare to see in video games. The effort that was put into creating the mournful yet vibrant locations of Sundered is clear for all to see, from abandoned and overgrown facilities to deep, demonic lairs.
To top it all off, the title features extremely fluid animation, with player character Eshe moving effortlessly in ways reminiscent of the animation seen in The Banner Saga series. Indeed, Sundered is perhaps one of the most effectively-designed games in a long time, at least from a purely graphical perspective. This, of course, has been the real pull of the game for many, so much so that the game was considered one of the best indie games of E3 2017.
What’s also impressive is that the game’s art style matches up perfectly with the tone of Sundered. The title’s themes revolve around loss, yet the overall plot is expertly danced over, instead allowing gamers to get lost among the set pieces and varied locations. Sundered is at its best when allowing the player to become enwrapped in the overall themes and feel, and it does so very well.
What’s so interesting about the game is that it allows this thematic growth alongside gameplay that requires so much speed and precision. As revealed by the initial Sundered trailer, Sundered is a two-dimensional Metroidvania platformer, mixing exploration with combat and precision platforming. Added into the mix is a level of Dark Souls-style difficulty, and as such Sundered is a very intimidating game to play.
This game is tough. When playing Sundered you will die, return to the start, level up your stats, go back out into the world, and die again. There’s a looping gameplay style here that seems all-so-familiar for those who have enjoyed the roguelike revival, as Eshe builds her skillset to try and push further into the dangerous world below her.
Although the difficulty may put some players off, it’s worth noting that in general Sundered is harsh but fair. The game is certainly a punishing one to play, but it rarely feels as though it is stepping outside of the rules that it so ardently sets of the player. If Eshe dies in Sundered, there’s a reason for it, whether the player was too slow to react to an incoming attack or simply unready for a part of the game that was stumbled into without planning.
This sense of difficult-but-fair gameplay manages to make it through the whole of Sundered fairly well. The early parts of the game will be spent getting to grips with the mechanics and the overall feel of how Eshe moves and attacks, and thankfully Sundered teaches the player well, incrementally adding new mechanics as well as increasing the expectations of mastery of the controls. Eventually, the player will be at one with Eshe, performing complex gameplay combos that are truly a sight to behold.
All of this comes to a head in the boss battles of Sundered, too. These boss fights are genuinely outstanding, offering up fiendishly difficult and extremely foreboding fights against unbelievably powerful enemies. Here, the comparative weakness of Eshe is made clear, when coming up against huge enemies with overwhelmingly dangerous and varied attacks. It’s also here where the game’s graphical artistry really shows off its muscles, with wonderfully-animated bosses that are more than capable of bringing some uneasy chills.
There’s only one time where Sundered becomes a little too tough for its own good, and that’s during horde attacks. Every so often, the player will be attacked by an unexpected horde of enemies, a mechanic which is built into the design of the game. Although it’s a bold move from a Metroidvania-style title to have this kind of random element, with enemy difficulty building per ‘life’ based on a variety of parameters, it’s something that can become frustrating if suddenly attacked by overwhelming odds when close to a long-awaited milestone in the game.
Overall, though, it’s easy to see why Thunder Lotus Games decided to introduce this generation mechanic into Sundered. After all, the title is one of repetition, of honing your craft and retracing your steps as you grow more hardened and more vicious, and so an element of random generation can stop the player from having to witness the exact same scene too many times. In that way, at least, it’s a mixed blessing, but perhaps a little more of a balance on these horde attacks could have kept the player’s sense of autonomy up.
Of course, autonomy and self-control is something of an underlying theme when it comes to Sundered. Although the game’s plot is cryptic, dealing in half-remembered myth and an inscrutable otherworldliness, the overall narrative feels a little bit like an eldritch horror version of BioShock, feeding heavily on player paranoia as to whether they are being manipulated. Sundered is a spiral of violence and horror, in the best possible way.
All that would have been lost had the gameplay not been up to scratch, but rest assured that Sundered is a gem of a Metroidvania title, with addictive and more-than-a-little challenging gameplay. Mix that in with a neat repetition and level up system and – best of all – the game’s absolutely incredible graphical style, and it’s fair to say that Sundered is the kind of game that will live long in the memory.
Sundered will be released on July 28 for PC and PS4. Game Rant was provided with a PC download code for the purpose of this review.