Sundered Review

You know one of the original posters for Star Wars, where Luke Skywalker, with his shirt ripped open, holds his lightsaber over his head, pointing it up towards space all raw and heroic? Now, imagine Luke replaced with Starkiller, a young woman in the original concept of the movie. As much as Sundered, the latest title from the makers of critically-acclaimed Jotun, draws its inspiration from Lovecraftian mythos, I can’t help but think of the game’s heroine Eshe being a rendition of Starkiller, a lost jedi wandering in the desert and falling into caverns of trials. Always nimble with her energy sword at ready, she's blessed with awesome powers the more she outcomes her challenges.

In short Sundered is a 2D-scrolling metroidvania with plenty of skill-based platforming and action, presented in beautiful hand-drawn art and animation. In the process of exploring her predicament in the overgrown underground technological ruins, Eshe learns new skills which help her reach previously inaccessible areas. But that would be putting it too simple. Sundered evoked strong echoes of some of my favorite 16-bit platformers in its gameplay and rules. In the games of old, each play took you always a bit further because you learned the hazards the more you played. Sundered expands upon that idea and as mad as it sounds, makes a death rewarding.

Defeated monsters drop shards which can be used to buy skills in a safe zone called Sanctuary. The skill tree is massive and covers everything from expanded health and shields to better melee damage and improved special abilities. In theory, all slots in the skill tree can be unlocked. If you die enough, that is. The beauty here is that every death takes the player back to Sanctuary which urges to spend the shards instead of just hoarding them needlessly. So, each time you die, you come back only better and can advance further.

Sundered lets to explore its vast myriad of caverns relatively freely. It’s never a linear path and should the way be blocked by yet impassable obstacle or adversary still too tough, the exploring can be taken elsewhere. The game won’t exactly point out where to go next. It almost has to be anticipated, and the automap is a mandatory tool in planning out routes. The game randomizes part of its layout on each play and after every death. The main outlines remain the same, like opened pathways and key rooms, but the platforming bits in between shift to some degree. Sometimes you’re dealt with an easier layout in otherwise familiar surroundings, sometimes there can be more of nasty underground defenses in the way.

Wandering around can feel eerily tranquil until all the hell breaks loose. Hordes of enemies, perhaps automatic defenses of the caverns belonging to some long, lost culture swarm on Eshe the more she spends time exploring. Considering how clunky Jotun’s controls were, I was surprised how smooth the gameplay here is. Eshe’s energy sword hums uncannily like a lightsaber as it slices and dices biomechanical foes with simple and easily comprehensible controls. It plays a lot like old games too, with different directions of the thumbstick bringing out different attacks. As for the platforming, there’s just the right amount of inertia to the movement to get a hang of it.

Special abilities are gained after defeating sub-bosses, as are fragments of shards. Bring together three of them and an elder shard is formed. They can be either burned in the purgatory or selfishly spent to improve Eshe’s abilities - at the cost of her humanity. Souped-up skills, like a better double-jump or damage reflecting shield, aren’t necessary to progress in the game but they sure are nice to have. The question is, do you want Eshe to keep her humanity or improve her abilities beyond that? It’s reflected in one of the many endings. The more human Eshe is, the better it will be. Of course, the game will be harder in turn.

Sundered builds intrigue with a minimal narrative. The story is in the details, in the huge statues looming in the background, in the names of the enemies. Like one of the sub-bosses is called Arlie Weylon – a fallen panzer. You start to think, who was this Arlie Weylon and why was he disgraced? More than that, the game plays with an aspect of sanity. The main bosses are so outlandish in their design and Eshe looks so tiny next to their ridiculous sizes that you must question are they real. Or do they exist only in her imagination, drawn from her culture and beliefs to explain the secrets of the lost caverns? Or am I simply reading too much to the context, blindly impressed by the sheer madness of the bosses which are like illustrated ancient Gods from H. P. Lovecraft’s short stories?

Repetitiveness can sink in the long periods of playing and if anything - besides obvious skills - Sundered demands time. Difficulty spikes can be punishing as the more you play in a one go, the enemies will mount in ever-increasing numbers and toughness. But again, what does kill you, makes you only better. Sundered is a hardcore game, not some casual fun which can be completed in a matter of few hours. The game rewards the time spent on it, and the more you put into it, the more awesome it gets. Just like Eshe, who in the beginning is a mere shadow of the lean, mean killing machine she’s to become. To me, she is the Starkiller that never was and the caverns are her proving grounds.

Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.