Sundered (2017)

As someone who loves metroidvanias, action games, and Lovecraftian atmospheres, Sundered seemed like a perfect fit. This is the second game developed by Thunder Lotus Games, who have become renowned for their beautifully hand-drawn characters. At times, Sundered felt exceptionally exhilarating to play, but in other instances the game was pure frustration. This dichotomy stems from the game’s core ideas and the inherent randomness of the experience.

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In Sundered you play as Eshe, an adventurer who fell into an eldritch portal which transported her to an ancient underground city. Eshe encounters a shapeshifting sinister being, which guides the player on their journey and serves as their weapon. You travel throughout the devastated city, encountering monsters and bosses along the way. Eshe collects new weaponry and upgrades to aid her on her journey back to the surface. Simply put, the game is a metroidvania, but with a unique twist. The levels are partially randomly generated, which is a bold decision in a genre that heavily relies on its level design. Additionally, apart from new weaponry and items, you also collect currency and runes to upgrade Eshe’s abilities.

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As you explore the world, you will uncover runes that can be equipped. These runes are intriguing because they have positive and negative attributes. For example: you deal 30% more damage, but you have 20% less health. You must pick and choose which runes you would like to use, being aware of what synergies make sense. Players must decide what negative effects they are willing to cope with. I quite like the choices and I enjoyed testing out different combinations of runes. In addition to runes, you will collect currency to spend on your skill tree. This giant tree also implements some interesting decision making. Small nodes contain flat bonuses to your damage, health, armor, and shield. Scattered along the tree are larger nodes with more powerful bonuses such as an additional 15% damage or more critical strike chance. You must prioritize which bonuses you want to go for, as it quickly becomes expensive to work your way through the tree. I actually really liked this implementation of progression as building a character to my liking is engrossing.

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Each area in Sundered has a basic outline, represented by big blocks on the map. Within these large chunks, there are smaller blocks which are randomized. Every time you generate an area, these smaller blocks get jumbled around and create a different path through the big blocks. In essence, the basic structure of the area will always remain the same, but the exact path is going to constantly change. I actually feel like this works decently. Metroidvanias are all about exploration, and with the levels constantly changing, the player will always need to explore. With the unchanging large block locations there are cleverly placed shortcuts to open to ease navigation. As you progress through a level, you can open doors that link back to locations earlier in the level. This way, next time you go through the level you can skip many of the procedurally generated bits. This randomization also makes sense in the context of Sundered. It’s appropriate that the twisting, living tunnels of a demonic city are constantly shifting.

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The downside to the random level generation is much of the game ends up being entirely forgettable. The tunnels and rooms utilize the same assets, so there lacks a unique element to make areas stand out. Every trip through an area feels like déjà vu, you encounter the same rooms, just in a different order. Overall, a procedurally generated metroidvania works in the context of Sundered, but it ends up being repetitive after a while. Interestingly, randomization doesn’t end with the level design; enemies also spawn in randomly. Occasionally enemies will spawn in small groups, but the bulk of the combat occurs when hordes spawn. Hordes occur randomly and are signaled by the signature bang of a gong.

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The pure chaos which a horde brings is almost indescribable, hundreds of enemies run at the player from all directions. Many of these enemies can also shoot projectiles, fly, or teleport. Absolute mayhem. At times, hordes can be actually incredibly fun. If you are well equipped and in a prime fighting location, shredding through dozens of enemies with a few satisfying swings of the blade is viscerally gratifying. It’s challenging, intense, fast-paced, and pure fun. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. If you aren’t strong enough, hordes will absolutely wreck you. No amount of skill can overcome the muddle of hordes, you are guaranteed to be hit, you just need sufficient stats to win. Moreover, if the horde spawns in an inopportune location, such as one with many hazards or pits, the fight can become immensely overwhelming.

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Furthermore, with so many enemies, visual effects, animations, and projectiles, it is incredibly easy to lose track of where Eshe is. Especially since you get bumped around when taking damage. The absolute worst part about hordes is how randomly they occur. Sometimes I could play for 10-15 minutes with no combat at all, and other times there were so many hordes I literally could not progress forward. I would defeat a horde, move forward for 15 seconds, then the gong would sound and have to do it all over again. Fighting multiple hordes in a row can easily drain your health potions and get you killed. It can be frustrating that your progress is essentially tied to how many hordes spawn in any given timeframe. I wish hordes occurred in specific rooms instead of entirely randomly. That way the developer can control the environment, the type of enemies, and how many hordes a player has to deal with before unlocking a shortcut or new item.

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The enemies and bosses of Sundered are incredibly creative and interesting to look at. The bosses in particular are humongous, awe-inspiring beasts. The boss fights are mostly very fun, you have to hit weak points to do damage. Dodging the telegraphed attacks of the bosses works better than fighting hundreds of enemies at a time during hordes. Towards the end of a fight, the boss will begin spamming all of their attacks. It becomes a frantic rush to finish off whatever little bit of health they have left before you get overwhelmed. My only big issue with the boss fights is that they are so big that the screen has to zoom out, making it hard to make out where your character is located. Eshe and the weak spots are tiny in comparison to the gargantuan beings, making it unbelievably difficult to execute precise movements.

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Combat itself is fairly simple. Aside from basic directional attacks, there are also finishers. Hitting attacks builds the finisher meter, and getting hit drains the meter. Once full, the player can unleash a finisher attack which has high range and damage. These are quite useful for dealing with groups of enemies, the additional range is incredibly helpful. There is also a dodge roll that lets the player dodge through enemies. Additionally, hitting enemies in the air resets your jump. As long as you keep whacking at enemies, you can stay in the air. Overall, the combat is simple and intuitive. Unfortunately, when fighting hordes, you often just have to mash buttons and pray that your character is strong enough.

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Sundered is hit or miss. Every game design decision seems like a neat idea, but they have significant downsides. Randomly generated levels prompt exploration, but end up being repetitive. Hordes can be chaotic fun, but can get overwhelming. Bosses are awe-inspiring, but they are so big that I find it hard to tell what is going on. Combat is simple and character building is interesting, but it often becomes stat-check button-mash fests. It is for these reasons I give Sundered a 6/10. Sundered has many unique aspects, but some of these facets can grow irritating and spoil the experience.

 

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