Coming to terms with the loss of a loved one is never easy; it’s a painful ordeal and one that takes time to recover from. Recreating this experience in a videogame without coming off overly bleak is not a simple task, but the minds behind 2013’s Guacamelee! at DrinkBox Studios have done an excellent job of balancing sorrow, wonder, humor, and hope in Severed, their newest PlayStation Vita exclusive. Unfortunately, while Severed excels at transporting its audience to an interesting and distinctly crafted world, the overall experience is marred by awkward controls and clunky traversal mechanics.
Severed begins abruptly and without context. Through a brief opening scene, the player learns that protagonist Sasha has lost her entire family, as well as her own arm, and is now trapped in an alternate world. Shortly after awakening in this strange place, Sasha meets a sinister-looking figure who informs her there may still be hope to save her family, and presents her with a living sword to help her on her quest. The story is relatively simple, but the focus here is clearly dedicated to the raw emotional and mental journey of Sasha, rather than on creating complex story beats. This ultimately results in a satisfying catharsis for the player by the time the credits roll, even if getting there doesn’t have as many twists and turns as some other RPGs. There are only a few supporting characters throughout the story, but each one provides a different perspective on this mysterious world. One of the most frequently reoccurring characters is a quirky, two-headed bird that gives Sasha advice throughout her search. Though not exactly compelling, this character does provide some much-needed comedic relief that helps even out the tone of the story.
One of Severed’s highlights is its rich and beautiful world. The graphic style mixes cell shading and an almost paper-like effect, resulting in visuals that are aesthetically appealing and feel like they could pop out of the screen at any moment. Due to the inherent hardware limitation of the Vita, choosing a simplistic graphical approach that lends itself to bright colors and smooth textures was a smart decision on the developer’s part. However, it is almost immediately undermined by a questionable decision regarding how the player must navigate this gorgeous setting.
There are multiple areas to explore in Severed’s semi-open world, each with their own branching pathways and secrets. The problem is that each time Sasha takes a step, the camera performs a disorienting transition from her current position to the next room or section of her path. This causes exploration to feel rigid and confusing. With most of the pathways devoid of markers to guide me, the only way I was able to successfully navigate through the game’s various areas was to keep a constant eye on the small mini-map at the top corner. This meant I could never feel fully immersed in this gorgeous world I was traveling through, which was severely disappointing.
When Sasha isn’t exploring the world and solving elementary environmental puzzles, the bulk of the gameplay comes in the form of battling hordes of monsters. The combat in Severed is entirely touchscreen based, and works on a foundational level, but is not without its frustrations. The concept is simple: your finger acts as the sword, and each swipe corresponds to a single slash. However, things get a bit more complicated when it comes to enemy designs. Each enemy has weak points and shielded points, and some are quite proficient at guarding your attacks. This means that trying to frantically swipe your way to victory is not a very wise choice.
Problems do arise, however, when the player has to counter enemy attacks. An indicator underneath each enemy will turn red when they are about to attack and in order to avoid their onslaught, the player must swipe at the perfect moment in the direction of the attack. In theory, this makes sense, yet I would often swipe at the correct time only to be told my counter attack was not angled properly. This happened far too often, leading me to believe the system in place was not nearly forgiving enough. It became especially annoying later in the game when the overall difficulty ramped up significantly and I would have to replay the same combat encounter numerous times. Additionally, the design of the Vita itself in conjunction with the control scheme became an issue during combat as I was forced to regularly adjust its position in my hands to be able to swipe effectively and switch between enemies. Thankfully, despite these problems, combat remained mostly engaging by the end due to a variety of enemy designs, a rewarding upgrade system and new abilities Sasha acquires by defeating bosses.
More than anything else, Severed wants to put you in Sasha’s shoes, and in that regard it succeeds, even if the whole experience lacks a sense of context. Though its bewitching world and stimulating combat are brought down by some counterintuitive mechanics, it’s still a provocative tale about fate and the human condition that left me contemplating what it really means to be part of a family, and the sacrifices we make for the sake of those we love.
I am a writer and journalist based in San Francisco. When I'm not getting lost in expansive open-world RPGs, immersive first-person shooters or any other type of game that grabs my interest, I usually spend my time taking photos and playing music. Two of my all-time favorite games are Persona 4 Golden and Metal Gear Solid 3.