Design philosophy. There is always a form of an idea behind a creation. Whether it is to go for a clear style, fix issues of a previous project, make something original or just to get a quick buck, there is always a clear goal when a game is made and thoughts on how to achieve it. This is important to remember, as while it does not necessarily excuse poor titles, it might be helpful to see games in a better light by understanding its concept. Not agreeing with or even appreciate, just understanding.
From the creators of one of my favourite random purchases ever, Thunder Lotus Games came back with another title. Instead of going for Norse mythology again, we are set in an Arabic world, and the genre has been shifted from an overhead hack & slash to a metroidvania. An interesting change, and one I am glad happened. I just wish they questioned their ideas more, since this is an interesting, but troublesome title.
Ashes are just ashes
In the midst of the desert we meet our protagonist Eshe, who is caught in a sandstorm. While trying to pass through this harsh weather, she comes by unfamiliar ruins and is dragged down by something otherworldly. She ends up in a bizarre underworld where she meets “the Shining Trapezohedron”, which fans of H.P Lovecraft might be familiar with. It senses a dark purpose in Eshe’s future and decides to lend her some of its powers in exchange that she helps it explore these caverns.
It is clear that the creators were big fans of Lovecraft, as they heavily use elements found from his work in order to create a strange and uncomfortable world that is hard to grasp. The problem is that nothing is elaborated in a clever or strong way, making the source material only relatable to fans. There are certain rooms used to tell about what happened to this eldritch world, but that is what they are: rooms that only tell about events that took place. There is nothing in this world that shows tracks from its history in order to create a mystery or are visualised through strong scenarios. Just these rooms and a couple of bosses that barely get any time to shine, making the story feel like an afterthought.
Without clear assets to help build theories about what happened to this world, there is really nothing interesting here in terms of story. There is something that the game wishes to tell, but it is also important to know how to tell it in order to keep the audience engaged. However, while the plot is shallow, the atmosphere is great by making Eshe feel alone in an isolated world where her only support, is a crystal with terrible desires. Depending on how you play the game, it can lead to three different endings and even affect how you play the game, which is a clever way to create immersion!
Sadly, it is only the atmosphere that Sundered has going for, as the lore is rather flavour text that really does not add to anything. Historical elements to create a world should leave tracks and give reasons to be invested in, not just thrown in with no solid context! With such a heavy focus on lore being forced down your throat, it leaves a lot to be desired. If the lore was optional and the atmosphere took focus instead, it could have made for a better experience and let the player decide how much info they want. However, this is not the case here.
Story Score: 4/10
Design-choices should be questioned
Taking a step away from the original setup, Sundered is a mix of two franchises I see more and more common at the time I write this review; metroidvania and roguelike. You see, whenever you are travelling through the depths of this underworld, some areas are randomised in design upon each death. The only exception to this are specific rooms being dedicated exclusively to bosses, gaining upgrades, and those needing a specific upgrade in order to get through. Already, this is a strange design-choice. Despite that an alternating world is a fascinating concept, it only meets you halfway by making the platforms randomised, but never altering the rooms’ locations.
This makes the roguelike aspect shoehorned in, as it never embraces the RNG in any grand or smart way, especially since the design of the rooms are lacking due to familiar set pieces being reused constantly. It honestly would have been better to scrap this idea, as it is an unnecessary addition. Although our heroine is already capable of taking on platforming challenges by having wall jump and air combo at disposal, the design of these rooms never change in any creative ways. This is a terrible shame, as Eshe will gather neat upgrades to help her with her progression through these corridors, such as a double jump, a hookshot and a gun that shoots through walls. However, they are all rather context sensitive assets instead of interesting upgrades, as they are never used to take upon clever challenges. They are just there as a means to get over one monotone obstacle each.
Adding to the problems, is the lack of treasures to seek out. Yes, this metroidvania is lacking exploration, as you will only be really going after the bosses or highlighted marks to get upgrades, and nothing else. You can find hives of currency or take on enemies to gain this as well, but that is it for collectables. Speaking of, the enemies are relentlessly aggressive without having any form of creative AI to them. They will charge you head on or shoot at you constantly, but never be smart enough to play defensively or try to take you off guard. What is quite the odd design-choice, is that flying enemies and projectiles can go through walls and surfaces, which can easily overwhelm you when the game decides to just throw tons of enemies at you at random. They do not come with anything to make them distinct either, besides having either melee or ranged attacks.
Despite that the enemies are poorly designed and implemented, it is actually made up by the combat alone. Eshe has different attacks depending on which direction you hold the D-pad towards and whether you are airborne or on the ground, making her quite the agile fighter that is fun to control. You can stab downwards, make a circle attack in midair and more, giving you plenty of ways to make combos. She can also dodge and, while I question why she cannot do so in midair, it is more of an invulnerability move that helps a lot and is restricted by her stamina bar, making her not overpowered. New with the Eldritch Edition, is also her finisher meter that builds up when she attacks and when activated in any direction, can do massive damage. It all makes Eshe fun to fight with, but the game should have had fiends designed to complement her abilities.
Sadly, that is not the case here, since all the normal enemies are just dull and underwhelming in concept. At least the boss fights fares better. While some are just bigger versions of normal enemies, there are also plenty of huge and disfigured creatures that incorporates platforming and tests your ability to see when to attack and when to dodge due to their animations alone. Unfortunately, the bosses are overall hit and miss. Each of the three regions contains three mid bosses and one main boss each, and I can say that I enjoyed about 40% of them due to some fights having redundant patterns. A better focus on quality over quantity would have gone a long way.
The lost potentials are not Sundered’s biggest issue, however. That comes down to its structure. I have already touched upon its flawed use of the RNG, but it also makes no room memorable or interesting to travel through, which causes the already tedious backtracking to become completely aggravating. This is made even worse by the complete lack of checkpoints. Whenever you load your saved game or die, you will be sent to the hub room connecting the three regions. This is just a terrible idea as retreading can take upwards to 20 minutes, making it actually demoralising just to continue your game. You can unlock shortcuts, but the RNG makes it rather annoying when mundane set pieces are placed instead of creating interesting levels or branching pathways for exploration.
So, why is the game designed to make you end up in this room? Because it is only here you can upgrade your character. Yes, it is here you see your skill tree for each ability you can improve and all are simple upgrades to stats that are underwhelming. Becoming stronger is one thing, but this could have easily been redirected to an in-game menu like every other metroidvania ever. You can also equip perks here and I love that they come with pros and cons for strategic planning or complementing your preference in playstyle. However, they are incredibly unbalanced and I found myself neglecting the whole idea all together. I do not know if I would like more shield for the exchange of only having one HP left.
It is such a shame that everything falls flat, as I do find a lot of the ideas interesting, even if they are unpractical or simply unfinished. Ideas of health potions being refilled by orbs, having a regenerating shield and no equipment, could for example have been more fleshed out to make this into a survival title. Then it would make sense for why the game does not pause when you are looking at the map! Unfortunately, it now feels more tedious when a bunch of easy to defeat enemies spawns constantly to take you off guard, just as a cheap way to keep you on your toes with minimal health being lost.
In fact, the only idea I really thought was well done, was what you could do with the shards you can find throughout the game. You can either use them at an ability shrine to upgrade Eshe with dark powers, such as being able to glide, or burn them in the incinerator to gain more currency and open up other upgrades. This is a fantastic idea of a risk vs reward system and letting the player go for a playstyle they find more interesting.
Sadly, the game is simply generic due to no clear gameplay being integrated well. Exploration is tedious and drawn out, upgrading becomes a chore and bland, combat is only engaging against certain bosses, and the neat ideas the game does have are never fleshed out. I wish the developers simply stopped with their plenty of ideas and tried to ask “why should we implement this” and “how can we make it fun”? Because of the lack of fine-tuning the core design, it just becomes a product that is functional and nothing else. Like wearing a washed hoodie to the opera. It works, but is far below decent.
Gameplay Score: 3/10
From viking’s heaven to Egyptian hell
I was very much expecting this game to be on par with what I witnessed in Jotun visually, but Sundered is interesting in this regard. It has a beautiful world with diverse areas to explore, be it the industrial location mixed with botanic life, the bleak underworld that seems like the stepping stones to hell or the crystallised rooms that is a major contrast to the rest of the world. This makes every area thematically memorable and fascinating to see. The enemies as well share the same wonderful quality in design, such as the detailed machines or the grotesque monsters that are as hard to comprehend as Lovecraft’s world. All contain lovely and smooth animations done by hand drawn craft, which is simply impressive. Eshe is the highlight of this all thanks to her combat abilities containing surreal attacks and by how one motion flows smoothly to the next one.
Unfortunately, the visuals come with clear blemishes thanks to the RNG. While the worlds are memorable, the areas within them are not. All set pieces are reused and breaks the immersion of being lost in a world far away from home. The same can sadly be said about the enemies, as their designs are reused with different colour pallets and can come in such a vast amount of a singular type that it makes them tiresome to look at. In fact, some locations with the same theming have an odd colour coding to distinguish one place from another, which is just a cheap way of creating variety. The bosses are fantastic by being sights to behold in scope and surreal details, but those are the only times you will feel immersed with how small you are in this unsettling world.
The composer of Jotun returns to provide a lovely soundtrack yet again. The dark and unsettling tone for Sundered creates a vibe of loneliness and the expectation of the unknown. This is all done thanks to subtle drums, eerie echoes of choirs and violins, and dark instruments overall being used. The songs tensity is picked up when a boss fight approaches or similar huge events unfold, which is great at highlighting the significance of the dangers around you. It does not hold a clear cultural tone or sticks to a specific genre, but it is a lovely soundtrack that compliments the atmosphere. The ambient sounds adds to the mood auditive, with the dark voice of the shard being a highlight by giving a sense that it will help you, but it will cost you. Shame the visuals could not reach the quality of the audio, but it is all more than just solid.
Presentation Score: 7/10
Going too deep
While it is hard to say yes to a second run of Sundered, it is not for the lack of trying. The possibility to change up the way you play the game thanks to the shards is fun, even if it is rather poorly implemented thanks to the bland platforming and enemies’ design. If nothing else, I love that there are three equally interesting and devastating endings depending on the decisions you made throughout the game, which also comes with their own bosses. It is also a nice symbolic way to see how much of your humanity you are willing to give up (interactively, of course).
Harder difficulties are also present, but they are just artificial as enemies simply do more damage and come in bigger hoards. That is it. An interesting addition, is that you can play the entire campaign with up to four players for local co-op! You all share the same abilities, upgrades and even health bar, but have your own bars for stamina, shield and finisher. This is a really smart setup to make the multiplayer needing a strategy behind it, with some clever restrictions and leniency. It is much more fun to go on this adventure with at least one more friend, but it is a shame there could not have been an option for split screen, as the camera will eventually centre on player 1. It is dangerous to go alone for sure, but the option should still have been present.
Extra Score: 5/10
I am really sad about being so harsh towards Sundered, as I do like the ideas it wants to implement. It is just problematic when all the design-choices provide problems that hinders the experience. The random platforms affects both the traversing and the presentation, combat gets stale thanks to enemies being underwhelming, only a some of the bosses were exciting, and while there are a lot of reasons to go back for a second run, the overall journey has too many issues. To top it all of, it comes with a story I ended up at best shrugging at. Sundered dug its own grave and I cannot see how this game could have been good without redoing the entire core ideas. I do respect the developers’ attempt at doing something unique, but Sundered is hard to recommend.