Review: SUNDERED Creatively Delivers Retro Gameplay w/ Unique Modern Mechanics

The indie scene is becoming much larger and more popular as time goes on. There seems to be a constant supply of indie titles as of late and not all of them are worth the price of admission. The cool thing about great indie titles is that they are full of innovative gameplay and made by a team that is willing to make risks to achieve their unique vision, in hopes of bringing something new to the industry. Thunder Lotus Games has brought us Sundered, a 2D sidescrolling Metroidvania and rougelite game that attempts to draw you in with its beautiful art, intriguing story, and AAA heart.

STORY

You play as Eshe, a wanderer that seemed to be in the middle of a sandstorm at the wrong time. The game begins with you wandering the desert and inevitably falling into a well or hole of some kind, which lies an incredibly vast underground world. You are greeted by a mysterious entity that requests your help in exchange for your freedom. As you explore the ever-changing caverns, the backstory is revealed by the entity and sheds some light on what this place is and who has explored it before you. As Eshe, your goal is to progress through the caverns, with the option to “resist or embrace” the corrupted powers that can enhance your abilities for your journey, but at the expense of your humanity.

GAMEPLAY

My oh my, is this game fun! Sundered’s gameplay consists of six elements: platforming, combat, exploration, giant boss battles, upgrade/perk system, and player choice. The last one makes them game highly replayable but we’ll get more into that later. The platforming in Sundered isn’t the best. There was more than one occasion where I missed a platform completely, not because I over shot it, but because the jumping isn’t as smooth as it should be. Double jumping and wall jumping is the norm and there are abilities you gain along your journey that can help you maneuver faster and more efficient.

Combat consists mostly of sword attacks and a giant cannon that you unlock early on in the game. There are other abilities that you unlock as you progress, some allowing you to improve your current abilities and others are completely new. Fighting cave monsters is what this game is all about and there’s lots of it. Monsters can spawn at any time at any part of the map and they typically spawn in hordes. These random horde fights will pop up when you least expect them, throwing you off at times, really forcing you to stay on your toes. Some have argued that this isn’t truly a Metroidvania style of gameplay since you cant completely clear out parts of the map due to this random horde spawn, but I welcome it. Not only does it add to the intensity, but it keeps things fun when you’re revisting explored areas, allowing you to gain more shards (XP) and level up.

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The death system in Sundered is a unique one. Once you die you immediately spawn at the Shrine room along with all the shards and abilities you’ve collected along your playthrough. This causes you to start from the beginning but it also lets you upgrade Eshe to become more powerful, giving you the choice to retry the current area your attempting or maybe explore a completely new one. The Shrine room is where you can spend all those hard-earned shards for new upgrades and improve your stats. Max health, shield, damage, cannon, luck, all of these skills can be upgraded through the skill tree. The upgrade tree is quite large and the way its set up, it will take some time to attempt to upgrade everything in one playthrough (not sure if that’s possible). Perks can be found along the way to enhance your abilities, but many of them also come with disadvantages. For example, 50% of your health becomes your shield (that’s good!), but your max health becomes 1 (no bueno!) causing you to die in one hit after your shield breaks.

Exploration is a main theme in this game; uncovering the hidden map and finding out how big the area really is. You will run into hidden rooms with secret treasure, unexpected hordes of enemies, mini bosses, new abilities, and challenging platforming areas. Sundered trys to keep the flow fresh, knowing that you will retread the same areas after every death, the game randomly changes the maps after every death. When you spawn, the whole outline of the map will be the same, but the path will be different every time. This feature really keeps the game from feeling too repetitive too quickly and makes spawning at the beginning every time a little more fulfilling.

Oh yes, the giant boss fights in this game will make you feel like you are burdened with the impossible. The very first boss fight takes up the entire screen, making your character seem like nothing but a dot on the screen, making it more challenging to platform and fight. Beating bosses in this game will not be given, they will be earned. That is what I really enjoyed most about Sundered, it kept to its old school roots, making bosses an actual threat, not just some timekiller eyecandy. If you’re stuck in one area, try exploring another one, allowing for Eshe to become stronger and possibly find more abilities to help you take down those challenging bosses.

Finally, it is completely up to you to “resist or embrace” the help form the corrupted. As you slay mini bosses and giant bosses, you will eventually gain Elder Shards, giving you the option to corrupt (power up) an ability you currently have. Allowing it to be much stronger or much more useful than before. For example, corrupting the double jump will allow you to transform into a bat-like purple demon that grants you the ability to glide. Your other option is to completely destroy the Elder Shard, pissing off your entity friend and maintain your humanity. It will also grant you a TON of shards, allowing you to upgrade your current skills and opening up more of your skill tree that wouldn’t normally be accessible.

GRAPHICS

Sundered is completely hand drawn and has major influences from HP Lovecraft; from the unique monsters to the breathtaking backdrops, everything about this game is extremely enjoyable to watch. At times, it truly looks like a moving painting. The art direction here is top notch and I will be incredibly shocked if this game doesn’t win any awards in that department this year. Absolutely stunning.

SOUND

The soundtrack is decent, giving you the feeling that you’re in another world, another realm in which the unknown lies deep within the caverns. The music isn’t really the highlight here as much as the sound effects are. Creatures, abilities, and even the exotic language of the entity all sound very unique and unnerving at times. The sound definitely adds to the immersion here, something that some games mistakenly overlook.

REPLAYABILITY

As stated above, Sundered offers player choice; resist or embrace the corruption. Will you embrace the darkness and bring your abilities to a more powerful level? Or will you resist and keep your humanity, striving to defeat the darkness and everything that stands in your way of freedom? This whole dynamic adds to the games replayability, allowing players to choose a path and experiment with different abilities. Choosing to embrace the darkness will bring a completely different set of upgraded skills and abilities than choosing to resist. Throw in multiple endings, a 14 plus hour campaign, and randomly generated maps, and you got yourself something worth replaying.  

WHAT COULD BE DONE BETTER

Ok, so here comes the complaints. The PS4 edition suffers from noticeable technical issues causing the game to have outrageously long loading screens and stuttering issues. You can see in my playthrough video above, the initial loading screen is the longest one and it really takes much longer than it should. Once the loading is complete, you spawn in the Shrine Room and have to choose an area you would like to explore. Once chosen, you have to sit through yet another loading screen (it’s pretty ridiculous how long it is) before you can explore the area. Now that being said, once the area has loaded, you can die and load back to the shrine and continue playing that area load free. It’s just that initial loading process is brutal. As for the stuttering, it will occur randomly but thankfully not often. The game will just freeze for a moment and then continue playing. This becomes extremely frustrating when you’re in the middle of a horde fight and need to time you’re attacks. The good news is that Thunder Lotus is aware of the issues and plan to address it with a patch soon.

On a gameplay standpoint, maybe adding an additional weapon for Eshe would have added to the “player choice” theme they were going for. The combat is great, but fighting with the same weapon for 14 plus hours can get a bit tiring, especially on a second playthrough. Again, the combat is great but having that extra bit of variety would have made it exceptional.

THE VERDICT

 Sundered is a fun and unique work of art that needs to be played. If you enjoy Metroidvania style games, do yourself a favor and buy this game. Not only will you own one of the best indie titles of 2017, but you’ll own a piece of gaming history. A title that can achieve so much in such a small package is a deed in itself. Don’t be discouraged that it’s an indie title, this game offers enough content here and deserves to be in your gaming library.

“Sundered elevates classic gameplay with a modern touch of player choice and a fully fleshed out upgrade system. With art this good, friends might think you’re watching an animated movie, but in fact this is your journey where you decide how it ends.”

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