Many moons ago, in a dark and dingy bar somewhere in the South of Scotland, I went to see a covers band play live. They were skilled musicians and the gathered crowd were really getting into hearing hits from Britpop’s heyday. Deep down though I spent the time thinking that this was simply a copy of songs that you’ve heard from better-known people. It was fun certainly, but it was never going to be quite as good as who they were trying to be. I’d entirely forgotten about the feeling in question until I played Sundered.
The introduction to the game doesn’t exactly give much away as far as the story goes. The player character, a hooded woman called Eshe, wanders through a desert against an ever-increasing sandstorm. Within a few seconds, she is seemingly captured by a large demon and dragged underground. She awakens in an underground city and is found by what sounds like a mystical god known as The Shining Trapezohedron (a name which I’ve just had to look up to make sure I’ve got it right). From here it’s a battle of survival as Eshe unravels what went on to leave the city in this condition and who she trusts. Further parts of the story are revealed upon finding different artifacts later in the game. There is very much a Lovecraftian vibe running right the way through the entirety of Sundered. It’s a game about being alone against the unknown.
The first thing to note is that Sundered is a very gorgeous looking game. The hand-drawn art style is not only wonderful to look at but feels right at home in this story about legends, gods and the monsters that lurk in dark corners. There’s a certain mixture of technology and nature as thorn laden plants mix with automatic security gun turrets. The animation of Eshe is a particular highlight as she runs, jumps and springs off walls with agility and elegance. The art team at Thunder Lotus Games certainly know how to make something to wow your retinas.
It’s something of a shame then that whilst they look and move well, the environments of Sundered can start to feel a little bit repetitive as you walk from room to room trying to find out where to go next. The game subscribes to the idea of letting the player go where they want to and the game doesn’t give a great deal away. A map is readily available to you but there’s not much indication of where to go next and what you might find once you’re there. More likely is that you’ll trip up on something of interest almost by accident and work from there. All the while you’ll be smashing pots and other pieces of metal to gain ‘shards’ which are used to upgrade Eshe’s abilities and occasionally be set upon by various monsters.
The combat system in Sundered certainly feels adequate. There’s plenty of chunky sword swings and clubbing blows to deal out to any enemy that crosses your path. In the initial stages of the game, you’ll find yourself dealing with small outbreaks of creatures who will fly around the screen before setting upon you and these are handled quite easily. Almost at random however Sundered decides to suddenly throw whole battalions at you and it becomes quite difficult to cope with. Huge security turrets will fire lasers across entire areas at you whilst smaller enemies will charge in an effort to swamp you. Any deaths bring Eshe back to the game’s starting area to spend shards and level up so she’s better prepared for the next encounter. The trouble is that there’s absolutely no warning of these larger encounters and the impression given is that Sundered simply wants you to die so that you’re forced to see how the upgrade system works. Whilst you can access the Sanctuary from the menu screen it does involve starting from there again and staring down the overbearing skill tree presented to you. Any restart also means some parts of the map will change around. Routes you’ve learned before might not be there afterward. It might be a good idea from a replay perspective but it often feels like you’re being punished even more for failure. The game doesn’t do handholding, instead, it’ll bark at you to get better and start again.
Sundered is a solid enough game and there is enjoyment to be had here. The systems work well and the art and sound design compliment the theme of ‘a single lost soul battling against all odds’ extremely well. As you play it though you’ll start to see echoes of other games it’s riffing from. Posthumously spending shards to improve your ability feels very Dark Souls, the art design and lore looks very much like Pyre and the overall idea of collecting upgraded items to gain access to different areas of the map harks back to Super Metroid. The influences that are apparent in Sundered’s development are all fantastic games but the thought always lingers in the back of the mind that you might actually be better off playing those games instead. Sundered is a little like the covers band. What’s there will probably still be enjoyable enough but you might be better served by going back to the originals.
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