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.

Game Review: 20XX

This is the Mega Man game that we have been waiting for.

20XX

In the year 20XX, a bad Mega Man clone called Mighty Number 9 was created. It was made to satisfy the craving for oldschool 2D platforming of Megaa Man fans. It failed on all accounts, with poor mechanics, weak controls, obnoxious cutscenes and uninspired level design. However, Batterystaple Games stepped in to counter Mighty No. 9 with their own take on the genre, 20XX.
— Not the intro for Mega Man 2

20XX header logo

So, 20XX, I have waited about two years for this game to come out of Early Access [1].
Was it worth it?

Yes! This is the Mega Man game that we have been waiting for. It has all the things that we want from such a game, as well as some spicy additions that are new to the formula.

What is it?

20XX is a 2D platformer that takes heavy inspiration from the Mega Man series, especially Mega Man X, and then spices it up with Roguelike elements.

On the Mega Man side of things, it has all of the staples that you would expect, dashing, wall-jumping, and charging your weapon. There are now two characters to play as, Nina, with the “arm-cannon”, as well as Ace, who uses short range melee weapons instead.

The roguelike heritage of the game manifests itself in semi-procedural level generation (Rogue Knight), random upgrades, item drops and shops (Binding Of Isaac), and a very light meta-progression, akin to Crypt Of the Necrodancer.

Interestingly, the original Mega Man arrangement still stands: Your fight 8 bosses in a non-sequential order, and you can obtain their weapons after defeating them. The order can not be chosen freely, but after each boss you can choose one of 3 levels, until you have beaten all 8 of them, at which point you progress to the two final stages.

20XX Gameplay - Platforming

Gameplay / Impressions

So far, I have put about 25 hours into the game. It is very well suited for medium sized gaming sessions (30 to 60 minutes).

Each level lasts about 3 to 5 minutes, which to me is a good size for a Jump&Run game. (This was one of the mistakes of Might No. 9, the levels felt very long, without having much actual content.)

The things that stand out most are the absolutely amazing soundtrack and the super crisp controls. Simply put, this play like a real Mega Man game, the right “gamefeel” is there, and in some aspects it is even better than the originals.

The available upgrades feel significant and make traversing the levels very enjoyable. Upgrades to jump height, running speed, and even things like air-dashes and double jumps are available, which makes hunting for upgrades feel worthwhile.

It also makes for some hard choices in the in-game shops. Do you take the cannon upgrade or the one that reduces your health but makes you faster?
Meaningful choices in games, good times. 🙂

The developers also managed to inject some longevity into the genre, most of which comes from the roguelike elements. The level generation keeps things fresh, and in case it becomes too easy, there are many modifiers that can be switched on to make the game harder, e.g. more enemies, longer levels, more damage from environmental hazards etc.

Did I mention the soundtrack? I guess I did, but let me do so again. The chiptune soundtrack by cityfires has passed my personal threshold of “Would I listen to this at work?”.
The tunes are driving the gameplay forward with simple but sweet melodies, just as they did in the 80s and 90s Mega Man games.

20XX Gameplay - coop

Critique / Negatives

Not all is perfect, I have some gripes with the game as well.

First are the special weapons that you receive from the bosses. Many of them feel superfluous, as they do not add anything except for an easy way to finish off the boss who has them as their weakness.
Also, their special functions could be explained a little better. I only learned that the Icicle cannon can freeze wall-mounted hazards by watching another player do it in co-op. An (optional) tutorial with a 10-second animation would work wonders here.

As it stands I usually only pick up and use two out of the 8 weapons, the rest seem useless. (But the basic weapons are powerful and fun to use, so this is not too bad.)

Secondly, there is very crass difficulty spike after defeating the 8 Robot Masters bosses. The ninth level is a series of bottomless pits with moving platforms, lasers and many enemies above it. Many of the jumps are very tricky, and having lots of enemies flying around only makes it harder.

The level feels a bit like a “gear-check”, as it is made exceptionally easier by having one or more of several upgrades (e.g. the double jump or hover boots, the anti-knockback body armor or many speed/jump enhancements.)

I think having such a level in the game is fine as it separates amateurs like me from the hardcore players, but I think it would have been prudent to move this to one of the “expert” modifiers that are optional, instead of having it in the standard level rotation. (I personally think the level is harder than level 10 and both of the final boss fights.)

Other features

Some features that have been cropping up in many Roguelikes are also present:

  • Daily and weekly runs with a fixed random seed (everybody plays the same generated run).
  • Leaderboards for these runs
  • Boss rush mode
  • Online Co-op mode (I only tested this briefly)

Verdict

This game is more fun than both Mighty No. 9 as well as the Mega Man Legacy Collection. I say, if you enjoy this type of Run&Gun games and have no problems with “random” levels, go for it, it´s a great game!

Footnotes:

[1] Early access: I personally don´t like it. I do not drive unfinished cars, I do not eat half cooked food, so I certainly won´t bother with unfinished games.

 

All images taken from 20XX press kit at http://batterystaplegames.com/press/