Sundered (PC) Review – Expectations Torn Asunder(ed)

There was a time when video games were in a massive arms race against each other to achieve the “best” graphics. This competition resulted in an increase in technological progress at an alarming rate, creating an obvious divide between high-end, top-tier graphics and everything else. The problem was that most of those games strived for very similar graphic styles, resulting in some very pretty but grim fantasy worlds. It was a dark time for all of us. Nowadays, consoles have fairly comparable specs and the differences between visual quality is significantly less. So, with this graphical high mark more attainable, developers have freedom to explore more nontraditional art and visually arresting art styles—to mixed success.

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Sundered – gameplay images courtesy of Thunder Lotus Games

Thunder Lotus Games certainly delivered something gorgeous with their newest 2D action platformer Sundered. With fluid animations and crisp hand drawn graphics, Sundered may be the most visually pleasing thing I’ve played this year, but that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, as their previous game, Jotun, employed similarly awe inspiring visuals with a Norse flavour. Sundered takes a more original thematic approach, with its deserted laboratories, fearsome cave dwelling monsters, and outright abominations set to evocative, moody music. I’ve always loved the idea of technology and mysticism mingling and Sundered uses this idea to great effect.

However, visuals are not everything. There are plenty of pretty platformers and attractive ARPGs that end up devoid of any sort of mechanical merit. Games should be played, or else they’re just movies. Luckily, Sundered just begs you to take up arms with your gamepad and while away the hours with its enjoyable, engaging mechanics. Personally, I hate the term Metroidvania, but that’s exactly what we have here; Sundered is an action platformer that uses abilities to gate progress in an open environment. In this case, those abilities not only gate map progress, but also open up progress on the talent tree for character progression.

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Sundered – gameplay images courtesy of Thunder Lotus Games

The abilities themselves are pretty standard—a double jump, a shield, a gun—but the engaging gameplay more than makes up for it. The combat flows well, demanding the player memorize enemy patterns and rely heavily on frames of invincibility granted by strategic rolls. Once you feel like you have a good understanding of your foes, some new enemy type tends to show up to ruin all of your plans. You see, the map is partially procedurally generated, with everything staying in the same general locations, but the actual map layout changing a bit from death to death. With this in mind, Sundered doesn’t promise any particular enemy spawn in a specific location, rather throwing massive hordes at you once it feels like you are having too quiet a time.

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Sundered – gameplay images courtesy of Thunder Lotus Games

I understand why combat is structured like this. The unending hordes tend to start slowly, building up the momentum and pace of things organically until what was originally just a few funky tentacle looking things is an out and out war against the torrent of baddies, forcing you to dodge through laser fire, traps, and charging foes to find a safe time to attack, because you just have to survive a few moments more, there just can’t be that many more. Death comes frequently, but it doesn’t really feel like much of a punishment. After falling to the multitudes, the player will be given the opportunity to spend currency to level up and return to the dungeon. Boss encounters are suitably bigger and more intimidating than your average enemy group, requiring you to refine the skills you use in against standard enemies—the way it should be.

The problem with this structure is that it can be tiring and repetitive. What once was, “What is that,” turns into “Oh not this crap again,” pretty quickly. Luckily, new enemy types, or at least derivations on the old, show up often to help break the monotony and bring the player back into the action.

Storywise, there is not a lot there. The environments heft the brunt of the world building to great effect, but the cryptic voices that drip feed you actual narrative feel more like they had to be there as an excuse for there to be a story at all. The plot itself is interesting, but I care more about the world than the main character or what he’s doing here. Maybe the whole trend of giving the player as little information as possible while they seem to heedlessly throw themselves into dangerous situations with little apparent motivation has finally gotten old. I blame Dark Souls, personally.

That aside, Sundered is an experience from its jaw dropping visuals to the ocean of relentless attackers. Come dive into the depth and give it a look and you’ll see something truly worthwhile.