People like a rewarding challenge. In this era of games with mechanics and battle systems that seemingly take little effort to learn in order to reach success, it's refreshing to see a game that makes you constantly reevaluate your battle plan and forces you to learn how to use every aspect of it just make it through. That struggle; the amount of perseverance those games encourage from their players, leaves them feeling like they didn't just win the game, they achieved greatness. A game where you feel like you have surmounted an almost impossible task and are ready to take on anything life throws at you, will keep you coming back to it.
DrinkBox Studios knows how to elicit that feeling from gamers, which is clearly demonstrated in its past games, such as Guacamelee! Their latest call to contest, Severed, shows they definitely know that the amount of effort you put into something is proportional to how successful you feel at the end. And, as is expected from the Toronto team, they do it with style.
The game opens in a desolate, rocky, desert path, painted with sunset hues and drawn in DrinkBox's signature style, this time reminiscent of ancient South Asian motifs. Since your view of the game is first-person, you're given no clue as to how you got there or where you even are, so you must explore. Walking further along the path, you reach an eerie, dilapidated house. Still unsure of just what the hell is going on, you search the house where you find a mirror. You see yourself for the first time. You are a teen girl with long dark hear, in a disheveled tunic and a bandaged stump of an arm. Suddenly, bits and pieces of memories come flying back:You reach out to a hand, but your arm is violently severed. Shadowed images of people, possibly your family, who appear to have come to great harm fall across your field of vision. And then nothing. You come back to the world in a state of shock, and that's when you hear the heavy breath of something behind you. You turn to see an immense creature, cloaked in black, who hands you a demon-like sword. He tells you to find your family in this world and mysteriously disappears. It is clear that you must explore this unearthly realm in order to find out if they lived or died through their ordeal, so you journey onward.
Sasha begins her search exploring twilight woods, and ancient caves and ruins. Along the way she recalls, in a flashback, lessons from her warrior mother who taught her how to fight while her father took care of her younger brother. You quickly learn the mechanics: short swipes on the screen for quick, light damage, long swipes for heavier attacks, swipe against an oncoming blow to deflect damage. It is imperative that you remember each technique, as Severed demands you use all the tools it gives you in order to survive this place. As you continue onward, you meet residents of this world: a two-headed, tooth-faced bird and an old woman, both of whom have seen your kind before and hold no hopes of your survival, and are sure to let you know it. They begrudgingly help you along the way with clues of where to go, how to use some of the items you collect and sometimes throwing you a helpful tool. But it becomes very clear that it is entirely up to you to survive and rescue your family.
As you encounter monsters, you learn quickly that those lessons from your mother are important. Every one of the bizarre creatures has its own weakness you must take advantage of and learn quickly since you are fragile in this world and take damage heavily. Upon their defeat, you can use parts of the creatures - arms, eyes, wings, tentacles - to upgrade your sword and other equipment you acquire. Upgrading is essential, so it must be done as often as possible, and with careful planning, depending on your play style.
Severed does an excellent job of teaching you how to fight each new monster by introducing them one at a time so that you can learn their weaknesses and hierarchy. Once they are introduced in a group, you must determine the correct order in which to fight them as you bounce from screen to screen, carefully monitoring the icons at the bottom to see when each one will attack. Some are slower than others and if you plan your moves wisely, they can be reset, giving you more time to deal with the immediate dangers. Each combination of enemies has its own pattern of exploits and challenges, making the combat fresh and exciting throughout the game. It never feels like a grind, as the action is fast paced and you are constantly assessing and reassessing your strategy. If you aren't quick to do so, you will fail. A lot. Yet the game is so engaging, you will work through that frustration and feel as if you have accomplished something bigger than simply defeating a monster in an RPG.
As you progress, you will fight extremely difficult boss monsters that will force you to use every single strategy you have learned until that point in order to win the battle. You will absolutely feel the stress placed upon Sasha in this world. And your efforts will be rewarded with new, equipable items that grant you magical powers that you may also upgrade. But the new powers come with increasingly difficult powers and can only be defeated if you learn how to use your new tools precisely. There is no room for error in Severed, and it lets you know that right from the start. The game doesn't hold your hand, but it does give you a fair amount of opportunities to get it right.
The battles are not your only obstacle. Often times the environment itself is against you. You will enter poison rooms and rooms that blind you from your attacker. You must learn how to navigate each one and quickly find the source you must destroy to minimize the damage you take. Health items are strategically placed around for you as a reward for your efforts, allowing you to move forward without worrying if the next blow will unfairly be your last. And if it happens to be so, checkpoints occur often, and you will respawn with full health and mana, ready to try again.
The world itself is immersive and beautiful. Each new area in the landscape is stunning in its simplicity. The colour choice, subtle hints within the environment, and unique variations in each space encourage players to stop and take in its mystery. The soundtrack, a beautifully authentic take on traditional, ancient Malay music, composed for a kulintang orchestra - varying types of percussive bells laid horizontally on risers. The music major in me was absorbed by its rising and falling rhythmic melodies that fit every scene appropriately. But as gamers will find themselves repeating sections many times, and the variations on each musical theme are quite subtle, this particular style of music can be a little repetitive at times. Although the choice completely makes sense and definitely completes the experience, artistically.
Playing Severed on PS Vita made it clear that DrinkBox knows how to maximize the potentials of a touch-based system. It would be nice to see it come to other touch platforms in the future, simply for reasons of comfort, as that is an area in which the Vita holds many limitations, although DrinkBox can hardly be faulted for that.
Extremely challenging games such as Dark Souls have a solid fanbase because of the gratification players receive when overcoming intense conditions. So it is extremely empowering when a Canadian team creates a game that offers the same reward and does so beautifully. Although Severed is not for the faint of heart, it is an extremely immersive, rewarding experience that will keep this reviewer coming back again and again.