Sundered (Playstation 4 Review)
As the desert sand scrapes against your face by forceful winds, you grow weary and desperate for shelter. Suddenly, a pillar erupts from beneath the earth and tentacles rise up, dragging you to the depths of this weary world; our protagonist Eshe finds herself in a worrisome predicament.
From the sands up above to the rocky belows, Eshe finds herself in a world unknown and now seeking the aid of what would appear to be a malevolent force disguising itself as a friend in this time of need. Taking the appearance of a red crystalline object, this entity tasks Eshe with exploring the extent of this Eldritch world. And that is all the exposition that is given to the player. From here on, it’s good old platforming and button-mashing fun, facing off against the likes of robots and wraiths to uncover Elder Shards that contain immense power. All in hopes of some viable conclusion to this twisted series of events.
Eshe is a rather one dimensional character in that’ not only does she not have a personality, but there doesn’t seem to be any real motive behind why she is doing everything that she does. Her character design is great–her shawl puffs about in the wind as you leap from platform to platform, her attack pattern is almost dance like as she combats foes with her ethereal like sword–but everything that makes her ‘Eshe’ is absent. Motives, charm, morality, all missing. We are left with a flat, yet beautiful character. One which could benefit from an injection of spirit, to help her stand out on her own.
As Eshe, players traverse a course of environments with the next one looking more stunning than the last. From vine-covered caverns, cold metallic interiors and otherworldly vistas, they are a treat on the eyes. With Thunder Lotus Games having previously developed the splendidly looking Jotun, it’s no surprise that Sundered would follow suit in the graphically appealing category. Granted you don’t grow tired of the repeated backdrops and subsections of each area then Sundered easily out-styles games like The Banner Saga, and that game was stunningly gorgeous.
Sundered follows similar patterns to old style Metroidvania games where objectives lay strewn across the world ready for you to discover, although it usually shoehorns you down particular paths to grab required upgrades and abilities first. There is little freedom to player choice, objectives are highlighted on the in-game map and it’s up to the player to navigate the procedurally generated subsections–the overall map remains the same but some small areas change appearance–of Sundered’s Eldritch playing field.
As you continually progress through Sundered’s puzzling labyrinth you’ll meet foes that range from the mundane to the obscure and usually come at you in swathes, not confined to the realm of static enemy placement, and instead live on a predetermined timer that will seemingly unlock the gates to a celestial world, spewing forth an insurmountable of enemies for the player to deal with; which more times than not will see you dead. Small pupae-like enemies will rush at you and pounce whenever they have the chance, while other robotic enemies have railguns that can fire through solid matter, walls and world geometry won’t protect you. As players progress, enemies become more abstract and obscure, reminiscent of H.P. Lovcraft’s celestial beings.
Frankly, I found that fighting bosses was my resting point, alleviating any stress of having to deal with an unreasonable amount of enemies and focus on fighting a singular foe felt relaxing. Strange I know, especially when these foes are supposed to represent a particularly difficult hurdle and I’m here causally praising the encounter and giving my mind a much needed rest. As a nice bonus, Eshe also receives Elder Shard’s which dark power can be used to upgrade abilities or instead be burned and destroyed, depending on the player’s morality.
And this is where my main gripe comes in: enemy numbers. Eshe only has a basic string of attacks and is limited to 3 dashes before her stamina depletes (can be upgraded later on). This and a few air moves leaves Eshe heavily underpowered in terms of abilities and techniques to use against foes that would do her harm. Most acquired abilities are for navigational purposes, used to lock off harder areas to reach until you’ve played the easier sections–a sort of modernised keycard system–resulting in an overwhelming necessity to grind, die, rinse and repeat. And with areas that don’t differ too much from one another, this becomes a tedious chore. Continually making it one small step forward each time before you have to die, and repeat the process all over again. And this is driven home by the inability to lose your experience points that you’ve accumulated, or ‘shards’ in Sundered’s case. Insinuating that death is inevitable and you’ll be sent back to the Hub to level as much as need be.
With all the above said, I find myself at a complete impasse. On one hand, I love the artstyle and the overall aesthetic that Sundered puts forth. The combat isn’t bad; it’s fluid, responsive and satisfying to say the least, but it could do with a bit more diversity in terms of techniques to help the player out of an overwhelming situation. And on the other hand, you have the flooding of enemies that are on a pre-defined timer, swarming you whenever appropriate, with hordes growing increasingly larger as time goes on. Combined with having to continually repeat the same areas over and over again, until your health pull is large enough to withstand the endless barrage to continue onwards.
Sundered at heart, is a Metroidvania game that I could only recommend to those who have the tenacity to steel themselves for hours upon hours of grinding. There is a lot of fun to be had with Sundered, but it is quelled by an overwhelming amount of forceful pushback by enemy numbers and its desire to extend its own lifespan.