Game Review: Sundered

A horrifying fight for survial and sanity.

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What is Sundered?

In the words of it´s creators, Thunder Lotus Games:

Sundered is a horrifying fight for survival and sanity, a hand­-drawn epic from the ​creators of ​​Jotun. [1]

Now, that does not tell you very much, so let me elaborate:

It´s a 2D platformer, with the ability-gated progression of a Metroidvania, sprinkled with some Roguelite elements. It´s main focus is fast combat, combined with exploration and a powerful atmosphere.
Also, the soundtrack is haunting and beautiful:

You take the role of Eshe, who is pulled into some kind of underground realm, where an ominous crystal (the Trapezohedron) welcomes her and offers itself to her as a weapon. After a brief tutorial you are left to explore this subterranean world and it´s (exclusively hostile) denizens.

Presentation

Image: Grasping hands in the fog.

So let´s get this out of the way first. In my opinion, the presentation of this game is absolutely top notch. The characters are hand painted and the animations are very fluid and dynamic.

I have tried to capture some of this in the GIFs attached here (while also learning how to record GIFs of gameplay.). For example this nightmare fog; I have looked at the grasping hands emerge from the gloom and dissolve again for quite some time before moving on. They grisly animals sound they emit is also very intimidating.

The soundtrack is led by eerie string instruments and evokes a melancholic atmosphere. It´s integrated into the world very well, and the sound effects are crunchy and punctuate the action quite nicely.

In addition to the handdrawn art, manipulation of palettes and different sprite sizes are used to mix up the environments and foes.
For example the cathedral looks bright, soothing and calm when first entered, but as you ascend further, sickly grey or greenish tones replace the original color scheme; suddenly it feels rotten and menacing.

Image: Grey tinted cathedral area "The Spires"

Gameplay – Movement & Traversal

I guess if I want to talk about the movement in this game I will also have to tell you a bit about the world you are moving through.

In typical Metroidvania fashion, some areas are blocked off and you can only access them once you have obtained an ability, for example the wall-run.
The starting move-set is very basic, you have a regular jump, you can bounce off of walls and you have a dash/roll to evade enemies.
As you progress through the game you unlock more abilities, which in turn allow you to access areas that were previously blocked off.

An interesting departure from the Metroidvania formula is the fact that there are no save stations / teleporters.
Instead, the game´s world is centered around the starting point, with the jungle and Valkyrie base to the south, the holy city of the Eschaton to the east, and the vast cathedral to the west.
You can return to the starting area whenever you want, and the even the most remote areas are about two minutes away from there (if you have opened the necessary shortcuts).

In the last third of the game, your moveset is extremely versatile. To me, it was one of the strongest movement systems I have experienced in a platformer in quite some time. Traversing the game world is satisfying in itself, just by chaining together double jumps, air dashes and the wonderful grappling hook.
In fact, if right now, a new game was announced with the exact same approach to traversal, flow and mobility, I would buy it blindly; just for the pure enjoyment of it.

Part of this comes from the way it is integrated into the combat.

Combat, you ask? Well, of course, as you leap and bound through ruined tunnels, sometimes, a distorted gong sounds, and swarms of enemies descend upon you.

Image: Eshe is chased by screamers and crawlers.

Gameplay – Combat

Just as with the movement, your combat options start out rather slim. You have a basic slashing attack which can be “combo-ed” into a heavy strike (think “1-2-3-4-boom”).

Fairly early in the game, tough, you receive the leaping device, which is a double jump, but with a twist.

Wait, why are we talking about movement again?
Well, as the game informs you with a loading screen hint: “Hitting an enemy resets the leaping device”. Plainly said, as long as you can land a single hit while in the air, you can remain aloft as long as you wish.

This is the key that prevents the game from becoming too centered on dodge-roll combat.
Instead of slogging through the crowds on the ground, fighting becomes this interesting airborne ballet, where you single out flying foes, flip-flopping between them with your extra jumps.
A rather unique take on platformer combat, at least I haven´t encountered this before.

GIF: Combat in the cathedral

I mentioned hordes. Here is the other departure from traditional Metroid style:
Instead of fixed enemy placement, the game lets you roam the procedurally generated rooms for a while, then the aforementioned gong announces the arrival of a horde.

Various creatures emerge from the edges of the screen, and as you fend them off, more arrive. Sometimes, there are a dozen or more enemies on the screen at once, which makes the action quite frantic, and keeps you on the edge of your seat.

On occasion, I found this a bit too crass, when you are fighting durable adversaries, these fight scenes can go on for a while.
This game has brought me to tears… and not due to the melancholic violins, the punishing difficulty or the ominous narrative, but because I didn´t blink for several minutes while being pummeled by lovecraftian monstrosities.

Regarding monstrosities, there are about a dozen a dozen bosses and mini-bosses scattered throughout the three main areas.
The three main bosses are mandatory, but can be tackled at a later point in time, in case you feel underpowered.
These encounters are quite stressful, the bosses are huge, screenfilling things, with complex attack patterns, and the blaring horns and war drums aid in unnerving you even more.

Have a look:

Image: Xea’sh’kaebt attacks Eshe with an array of ethereal fists.

Overcoming these is challenging, but not impossible, and you are granted Elder shard fragments/shards for each of them. These play into the “Resist or embrace” theme that is alluded to in the trailers.
You can use them to corrupt your seven main abilities, or decide to resist the temptation, and incinerate them, angering someone greatly…

This is one of the upgrade systems in the game; I should mention that there is also another one, dealing with passive upgrades.
After defeating enemies, you collect a crystal currency that can be spent in the main hub, on an upgrade tree.
This includes mostly minor, incremental upgrades to your damage, shield, health etc., as well as some major enhancements such as a talent that allows you to block projectiles with your attacks.
This system is functional, but ultimately, I think it is one of the weaker spots of the game. Due to the nature of these incremental bonusses, they feel like a bit of a “gear-check”, an unspoken barrier that prevents you from rushing through the game too fast, because you lack the damage and health to face the later, stronger opponents.

Themes/Story/Atmosphere – Resist or Embrace

Interestingly, the game only has a skeleton plot.
The protagonist, Eshe, is trapped in a subterranean realm and witnesses the aftermath of a clash between the Valkyries, using technology, and the religious people of the Eschaton.
On her journey, she learns about this, but must ultimately decide for herself which of the two sides is the right one.

So the plot is simple, summed up in one sentence, basically, however, the game has a rich atmosphere, the central conflict pits religion against technology and shines light on the actions of both sides.

While it is easy to say, yes, the Eschatons have allied themselves with terrible elder gods, they are the villains here, it is alluded to that the Valkyries also aren´t quite the nice and shining heroes. They´re presented as violent conquerors and destroyers, using their technology to create only weapons.
Most of the exposition is provided by an unreliable narrator, so it should be taken with a grain of salt, but I think it´s an interesting viewpoint anyway.

The game oozes atmosphere everywhere, with little flavor texts on in the upgrade tree, and even an invented language. I just love the way the narrator pronounces the word “unbelievers” in the voiceover: “heresh!”.
As I mentioned before, the presentation here is worthy of high praise.

Image: Eshe ensnared by corruption

Critique / Negatives

As always, not everything is perfect, and there are a few things that could be improved, tough none of them is critical.

The first thing I must mention is the second large game area, the Holy City Of The Eschaton. While the starting area and the final area are very beautiful and have a large variety of enemies, the second area feels underdeveloped.
It consists mostly of samey corridors, and the enemies are rather basic. This could have benefitted from another design pass, with a bit more variation in the art department, and maybe one or two new enemy types.
I suspect this area was designed first (It was heavily featured in the original kickstarter pitch video and the announcement trailer.)

Something that amplifies this is the fact that the horde-style combat prevents the developers from designing encounters, as a traditional level designer (in the role of a dungeon master or director) would. Instead, the horde mode takes command. A little more curation on these combat scenes might have spiced this area up a bit.
The other two major game areas have enough diversity in terrain, and some special features (heavy wind, moving elevators) that mix up the encounters enough, so this is only a problem for maybe a quarter of the game.

While I mostly like the various skills and abilities the game equips you with, some of them feel a bit obsolete and underpowered.
The strength amplifier is too much of a “lock and key” mechanism – it allows you to break certain otherwise impassable barriers – and it´s utility in combat is rather limited (because you have to stand on the ground to use it).
The other one that immediately comes to mind is the cannon. It can also only be fired while standing, and its beam erupts in a straight horizontal line. With these limitations, and the fact that many of the passive powerups serve to increase it´s damage, you would think that it is powerful, but even in the late game, it does not really cut it.
A way to improve it would be allowing the player to shoot in different angles. A possible idea would be firing while airborne, tough it would require careful balancing of the recoil (preventing large sequence skips via quasi “rocket jumping”).
They could have made it worse, a smartbomb-effect would have undermined the sense of being overwhelmed by hordes, which I suspect the developer were aiming for.

One thing I am a bit torn on, is the way information is carried to the player.
On one hand, I really like that there is no “hand-holding”, the game expects you to figure out how to use your abilities yourself.
On the other hand, some of the concepts are not intuitive and should be shown. The major culprit on this is the double jump reset I mentioned above. It is an absolutely fantastic game mechanic, but if you don´t realize it´s there (after all, why press the jump button a third time?), combat becomes unnecessarily hard and frustrating.

A criticism that I have heard levelled against the game is that the boss fights are very confusing. The reason for this is that the camera zooms out very far, and Eshe becomes a tiny speck on the screen. Sometimes you lose track of where you are amidst a multitude of foes.
Personally, I only found this to be a problem on the boss “Dominion”, but I can understand if it detracts from your enjoyment.

Verdict

Overall, I am quite impressed with the game. It held my attention for three playthroughs (I wanted to see all the endings), and it compelled me to write a review, which not all games do. So it is for me, but is it for you?

I´d say if you like platformers, especially Metroidvania-style ones, you should at least take a look. Sundered is a fresh take on the genre, and instead of going full retro like some other have done, it adds some procedural elements to the mix.

The game is carried by rock-solid combat, strong atmosphere, beautiful visuals, and in case you missed it, a wonderful soundtrack.
Here is the launch trailer, which is surprisingly accurate (Yes, the game looks that good.):

The major thing that might push you away is the excessively long horde combat sections, if you do not like prolonged challenging combat, this might spoil the game for you.

I, for one, am looking for to a DLC that Thunder Lotus Games has teased, as well as their next full game.

Embrace the madness.

Footnotes

[1] Jotun had a free weekend on Steam at some point, and I played it for a few hours. I did not like it very much, it felt slow and plodding.

A game that plays itself

First, revivify your brain with some rad video game music, click the little triangle button to make delicious sounds spring forth from your computer´s speakers:

Recently, I pledged towards the kickstarter for the game Blasphemous.
It looks very cool, I love the handmade pixel art.
More importantly, what inspired today´s post is this update the developer, The Game Kitchen posted about some of the technology behind the game:
[…]
Our goal is to create an AI system that is able to deliver powerful, challenging and meaningful opponents for you to fight against. But we’re not stopping there, we also want an AI system that is able to impersonate a human player! “Why?” You’d ask. We want to take advantage of what is know as “automated testing” which is having the game being able to play itself overnight, finding holes in the collisions of the level and other systematic bugs. That would allow us to deliver a better quality game, despite not having key resources (like a dedicated QA department in the studio). 
screenshot15

In my day job, developing online shops, I have worked with automated tests for quite some time now.
It´s considered a best practice to do so, and there are tools that facilitate it.

However, when it comes to video games, there is not too much information about it out there.
I guess this usually happens behind closed doors. Personally, I always assumed that automating tests in video games is very complicated (with exceptions).

What is automated testing?

I will probably write a separate article on this, but the gist of it is:

You have a piece of software, the test subject, and you want to make sure that it acts in a certain way.
A very simple example would be a calculator app that performs multiplication.
It is in it´s default state, the display shows “0
You input the sequence of keys: [6], [*], [9] and [=]
The expected output would be “54“. Any other output would be an error.
Now, for a software project, you would have hundreds, thousands or even more of these test cases, ideally set up in such a way that you can run them all on a single command and see if they all succeed.

Why do automated testing?

So why would you write all these tests? The software works already, all the tests do is say that “Yes, the software works.”, which we already knew?

Software is often subject to change. Development cycles for commercial software (such as games, apps, websites) often are 6 months or more.
During that time, many changes are made to the code base. Each of these changes could affect other parts of the program.

Automated tests help find such cases. Once such a problem has been identified, a developer can check why this is happening, if this is something that should be happening (and then adapt the test) or if this is an error (and then look for an error in the respective code, and adapt or correct that).

In our calculator example, a developer adds new functionality to the program, let´s say the ability to calculate square roots.
They might need to change or add some algorithms, and our multiplication function could be affected.
Now, multiplying six by nine results in 42, which is the wrong answer (in our universe).

How do you find out? Manually test all pre-existing functionality of the calculator? This is fine as long as there are only two features, multiplication and square roots, but look at an actual calculator, nobody actually tests all other functions when they change one, it´s just too tedious:
calculator
The developer happily finished programming the square root function, it seems to work, all is well.
In the meantime, they might have unknowingly broken the multiplication function, but didn´t notice.
Here, automatic testing steps in. After finishing their work, the developer runs all tests available on the calculator app. (Or they run themselves.)
The test for the multiplication function would fail, and the developer would be notified that their changes have broken something.

A calculator is a simple application. I do not know how many lines of code reside in this monster:

Excel

Automated testing in video games

So why did I think that testing video games in an automated manner is too complicated?

Look at this scene, there are only two characters, but still, there is a lot going on:

cf67f10c16409f293d1e7417fff31139_original.gif
The amount of input parameters and variables in video games are staggering, and so is the amount of output that is generated.
Let´s take a fairly simple example:
The original Super Mario Bros.

At any point in the game, there is a multitude of possible game states.

The game keeps track of the level architecture, the enemies, the player, and items. But also the score counter, live counter, coin counter, objects in the game world that can be interacted with (e.g. the blocks which Mario smashes his head against, coins or vines erupt from them… Mario is absurd.).

Each of the objects in the game world can move independently of the others, there are things like collision detection, movement speeds etc. to be taken care of.
Oh, and all of these things happen on a timer, the game world updates 60 times per second.

giphy

To test a very simple game scenario such as this one on the right, very complex input and output scenarios have to be created.The input is not too hard. You can break it down frame by frame. The expected output however?
Very difficult. You would have to specify the expected game states of, at least:

  • the goomba (dead)
  • the 4 question mark blocks (2 are now empty),
  • the 3 bricks
  • the mushroom
  • Mario
  • etc.
Now what would happen if, for example, the developers decided that the wanted a faster game? Let Mario move 10% faster. Or the Goomba is a turtle now.
Our test scenario is broken and needs to be rewritten.

Adding more complexity

Additional difficulty arises when you have to take into account that the game might have to run on different hardware and software configurations (E.g. various versions of windows, different graphics cards, CPU etc.).
The game should also not be silent, so sounds should be played at the correct time, the list goes on.
download

Of course, some games are better suited to automated testing than others.

Turn-based games, and classics like Chess should probably work already.

On the other hand, 3d games, where
the player has six degrees of  freedom of movement, it suddenly becomes very hard.

I wouldn´t know where to start.

Calculations are very good subjects for Unit Tests.
Things like damage calculation in RPGs can be tested with Unit Tests. E.g. a character with fire immunity should never take fire based damage. Stuff like that.

Classic video game testing: Why bother?

So you might ask, why bother?
Couldn´t you just hire a bunch of students, they want to play video games don´t they?

Sure, they do, as do we. But usually, you play a video game until you have finished it, or until you stop having fun with it.
You play it at your own pace, and do the thing that is the most fun/excitement for you?

The reality is different. Game testing is hard, tedious and low paid work, that is apparently also severely “unfun”.

Part of this problem comes from the fact that they have to test stuff that could be tested automatically.
With a shift towards automatic testing, the focus of these test users could go from
“Does it work?” to “Is it fun?”, “Does it look good?”, “Do the controls feel right?” “Is the puzzle in the fourth level too abstract?”, etc.
You know, concentrate on the stuff that humans do better than machines:

Finding the fun in the game, identify bad level desing or missing clues, getting the pacing and “feel” of the game right, finding visual glitches and audio problems.

The Final Form: Tool assissted speedruns

Something I thought of, shortly before hitting the “Publish” button on this article:
This means that tool assisted speedruns (TAS) are basically the final form of testing a game.
A test scenario for one particular version of a game, on one particular difficulty setting, with one specific path throughout the game. (An example.)
If you are interested in this kind of thing, the TASBOT demo at SGDQ 2015 has a good explanation by a nice man named Dwango AC: Youtube

I think The Game Kitchen are going in an interesting direction here.

If they do this right they develop their game AI and ensure a smooth development process with the testing grounds they put up.

I´d love to have a look at this.

A game that learns to plays itself, dreaming of being played.
A simulation of a fantasy scenario, in which a fictional character – controlled by a machine that thinks it is playing a video game –  fights for survival against an equally unconsciously manipulated virtual antagonist.
There is a kernel of weirdness hidden here, I just can´t quite put my finger on it.