Thunder Lotus Games provided us with a review code in exchange for our honest review.
The game begins with you controlling Eshe, a mysterious robed figure struggling across the vast dunes of an unnamed desert. Suddenly, you find yourself whisked away to an underground sanctuary where you are introduced to a sentient blade, who tells the history of his people, the Eschaton, and their vicious war against a tribe of men known as the Valkyries. Set against this backdrop, you begin your descent, both physically and mentally, into the depths of the ruined civilization.
If you’ve been a fan of Mithical Entertainment for a while, you know that this isn’t my first foray into the Sundered experience. We first got our hands on the demo back at TwitchCon 2016, as well as beta access shortly afterwards. In the iterations leading up to the official release, I was only able to play it on Steam, but I was always looking forward to the console release. A few days ago, my wish was granted as Thunder Lotus graciously passed along a review code for PS4, and for the past 72 hours I’ve more or less been completely enveloped in their labyrinthine masterpiece.
First, I will say that it’s refreshing to follow a game from concept through Kickstarter campaign, Alpha and Beta access and finally to full release. I regularly frequented the feedback forum on Steam and saw first-hand some of the changes they made to make the game better. If you played earlier versions of Sundered you will no doubt notice the revamped skill-tree and upgrade system, the refined Perks, and also their attempts at balancing out the difficulty of the game – a sore spot during early testing that I’ll return to shortly.
At its core, Sundered is a metroidvania game that utilizes a procedural generation system to fill in the larger rooms on the map. That means every time you go through a larger room or corridor, it often consists of a different room layout or path than you would have traveled before. There are landmarks as well; rooms that remain static and are easier for you to spot from the map. This combination of ever-changing paths to anchored rooms does a fantastic job of establishing the mood and theme of Sundered as a battle not just for survival, but your own sanity. You’ll find yourself murmuring “This wall wasn’t here before…”, as what was once up is now down, and at times the entire map feels as though it’s been flipped upside down.
Navigating this world requires more than just a standard run & jump formula – in traditional metroidvania style, you find yourself unlocking a variety of powerful abilities as the game goes on; from double jumps to air-dashing, charged attacks, shields, gun attacks and more. Certain areas of the world are off-limits until you find the upgrade that you need, or, alternatively, you jerry-rig your current abilities to try and clear an otherwise impassable hurdle (e.g. abusing the bomb-jump technique in Super Metroid). The pacing and utilization of these various abilities is well-executed: early on it’s obvious that this tall wall requires a double jump to clear it, but with later upgrades they are used with a bit more ingenuity to move forward.
As you navigate this world, you will, of course, encounter a variety of enemies – enemies that you’ll want to kill in order to acquire shards for precious, precious upgrades (more on that later). Apart from the procedural generation engine, the “Endless Hordes” mechanic in Sundered probably does the most work in really driving the point home that you are, in fact, in some distorted version of Hell itself. Enemies spawn at random, and can approach from any direction, at any time. This will constantly put you on guard. It gets better: intermittently you will hear a cacophony of enemy sounds followed by a foreboding *gong* sound. This gong will continue as endless hordes begin to crawl out of the woodwork in an attempt to overwhelm you. This often results in dozens of enemies on the screen at once, lunging, blasting, tearing at you while you feverishly fight them back, desperately battling to survive.
This was a frequent point of conversation in the early phases of development, all the way through the final days of the Beta test. Some gamers welcomed the challenge, and felt that the Endless Hordes heightened the sense of urgency while exploring the dark caverns. Others, well, weren’t so excited.
Now, speaking for myself: I love it. The gongs certainly do instill a certain level of fear, and hearing the rush of enemy cries, I know what’s coming. I immediately scope out the room I’m in, try to get an idea of where an advantageous position will be, dig in my heels and get to work. However, I will admit that there are some hordes that are seemingly impossible to overcome. This can be frustrating for players, because spending more time dead staring at a loading screen than alive and playing is A) No fun and B) a valid reason to not like a game. However, luckily for you there is a robust skill tree and perk system that allows you to be better equipped for the hellish legions that lie ahead.
In your sanctuary, the one place where you can retreat in safety from the countless eldritch horrors that are out to end you, you have access to your Skill Tree. Different segments branch off from the main abilities that you unlock as the game goes on, such as when you unlock double jump, or get your cannon. These upgrades can improve your health, energy (which dictates how many times you can dodge), damage, armor, luck (which improves shard drops), cannon damage, etc. The upgrades are broken into 3 tiers, and all 3 levels need to be activated before the next node is opened. For example, you can’t just sink 150 shards into a Damage upgrade for a single “tick” and then move onto the next node, say, health, and put 150 shards into that 3 times. To be honest, I’m kinda miffed by that, because I feel like the dynamism of allowing a single upgrade could make for more interesting builds. Still, once you know the name of the game, you can easily start to plan out how you’re going to spend your precious shards.
In addition to upgrades, you have powerful boons known as “Perks”. You discover these as you explore the larger world, and they also drop from elite enemies that you encounter. These perks often provide a, you guessed it, perk for being equipped – but it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Almost every perk has a “disadvantage” to try and balance it out. For example, you might get a perk that increases the chance that a health elixir might drop, but enemies will drop 15% less shards in exchange. As you acquire higher ranks of these perks, the disadvantages are dulled, making it much easier to elect one perk over another. In total you can equip up to 3 perks, and their added benefits can certainly make traversing the harsh underworld just a little bit easier. Which is good, because the gargantuan boss battles will be sure to put your mettle to the test.
If you’ve been following Sundered, you are probably familiar with its tagline: “Resist or Embrace” – the final element of the game I wanted to talk about ties directly into this slogan. As you venture through this world, slaying mini-bosses (and not so “mini” bosses), you will acquire powerful artifacts known as “Elder Shards”. These elder shards are magically imbued sources of power and energy that can be used one of two ways. Either you can “resist” their allure by incinerating the defiled shards, or you can “embrace” the dark power by returning to an ability shrine and modifying it.
By battling the hordes, discovering perks, investing in upgrades and trusting in the power of the Elder Shards, you will soon find yourself evolving into a highly effective Eldritch-killing machine. And holy crap, is it fun. I did have some frustrating moments when I came across my first proper Boss – which Thunder Lotus is famous for making ridiculously large. On a few occasions it was very difficult to figure out just exactly what was going on, and more importantly, where the heck I was. It took some getting used to, but I finally got a good grasp on it – though I imagine other gamers will likely encounter some similar frustration.
The gameplay is crisp, and extremely responsive. Whether you’re wall jumping or air dashing, plummeting into the ground with your downward attacks, or firing off a cannon blast that knocks you 50 feet backward, the action is fast and furious. There is a bit of hit-box frustration sometimes, as enemies that are directly in front of, and almost on top of you, don’t seem to be struck unless you put just a slight bit of distance between you. I also encountered a few momentary stutters in the action, but nowhere near as bad as I experienced during the Beta while playing on my computer.
The smooth video made it all the easier to appreciate one of the crown jewels of Sundered: the beautiful hand-drawn art style. Everything from Eshe’s movements to the gorgeous backdrops and grand halls lead you to feel as though you are manipulating characters within a grand renaissance painting.
The beauty and complexity of the worlds must be contributing factors to what is probably my biggest gripe about Sundered: loading times.
So, when you first venture into one of the three major “regions”, it apparently loads the whole map for quick access between Sanctuary and the region you’re currently exploring. This loading time is, approximately, 30 seconds each time. If you return to Sanctuary, that’s also an extended loading screen. If you accidentally go into a different region than the one you pre-loaded, that’ll be a loading screen. Dead? You bet your ass that’s a loading screen.
Now, I’m a patient guy. What compounds this loading issue is a similar problem that Bloodborne had in its early release: you will likely die a lot. So, frequent death + extended loading screen following death = frustration! My hope is that this will be optimized with the last minute patch that is planned prior to the official release, or, following the Bloodborne example, enhancing the loading screen to include useful information or something more interactive to help pass the time.
In all honesty, however, the loading times are my biggest and only real complaint. Apart from that, Thunder Lotus has created a vast, compelling world, riddled with challenging enemies and formidable power-ups. With larger-than-life bosses, an engrossing narrative, and frenzied combat that borders on pandemonium, Sundered will have you eager to plunge into its hellish depths.
Don’t resist – just embrace it.