Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PC
Sundered is a new indie platformer in the Metroidvania sub-genre, a category of games unhelpfully defined as being sort of like Metroid and Castlevania. 2D combat and exploration is the name of the game with Metroidvania titles, with the added twist of plenty of backtracking and the chance to unlock new areas as you pick up new weapons and abilities.
All that familiar gameplay is on display in Sundered, although I found that the "unlocking new abilities" part of the Metroidvania formula to take a bit too long to kick in for my tastes. The game is stylish as hell, though, with striking and colorful visuals that feel equal parts anime and The Last Unicorn. Fans of the genre are likely to love Sundered, and even those without much Metroidvania experience will be drawn in by its accessible combat and eye-popping hand-drawn graphics.
Jumping, slashing, and fighting hordes of monsters
The world and story of Sundered is revealed gradually. The game's main character arrives at a mysterious location after making her way through a hostile desert, and once inside begins to hear a demonic voice speaking to her. The voice offers guidance and assistance, as well as filling in backstory about a struggle between strange eldritch forces and technological warriors called Valkyries. I was never exactly sure of the details about what was going on, to tell you the truth, but I got the sense that was by design. Sundered is a game that does a lot with sparse narrative details, leaving the player to fill in the gaps and try to make sense of the world they are exploring.
Your character begins the game weak, and your abilities are limited. As you explore the game's surprisingly large map (which eventually extends to include multiple zones) you'll be attacked by hordes of strange creatures, and when I say "hordes" I really mean it. This isn't a game where you'll pick off enemies one by one: when monsters show up, they show up with dozens of friends. Sundered becomes a game that's alternately about quiet exploration and frantic battles against so many enemies it can become hard to track your character's location on screen, and this unusual tempo continues to work well as both you and your enemies grow stronger.
Every time you die you'll return to the game's starting area, and hordes of enemies will repopulate the world. Permanent progress is made by unlocking doors and shortcuts (some of which will require special abilities to access), and knowledge of the quickest path to take to get to your current goal is an important part of reaching new abilities, mini-bosses, and other key locations.
Currency and upgrades
As you defeat enemies and smash environmental items you'll collect currency which you can spend on upgrades back at the game's starting hub. These upgrades increase your health, shield, damage dealt, or other traits, which means you'll go back into the world stronger every time you die. Soon you'll be tough enough that the areas immediately outside of the game's hub will become relatively simple, and will provide you with some easy currency farming as you start each new run.
Aside from basic upgrades you'll also pick up optional modifiers (which usually give you a small perk or bonus but have negative effects as well). It is through these modifiers that much of the game's replayability comes in, as different combinations of modifiers encourage different playstyles.
The customization deepens when you reach one of the game's key decision points, which allow you to "corrupt" one of your abilities to significantly alter the way it works. Choosing to do this, from a narrative perspective, represents embracing the game's sinister eldritch powers in exchange for extra power, while resisting (and destroying powerful items rather than using them) makes the game tougher as you try to walk the path of purity and science. To give a sense of how these corrupted abilities work one of the corrupted upgrades causes your shield to damage enemies that hit you, which is undoubtedly useful when facing off against the game's endless hordes.
These big decision points are one area where Sundered's lack of explicit information feels like a mistake, since I wouldn't have understood what was going on (or even that a choice was possible) if I hadn't read about the game and taken a look at the associated trophies. Anyone just playing the game itself, without much outside knowledge, could easily miss out on alternate choices their first time playing Sundered.
Pacing and challenges
During my playthrough Sundered's pacing felt a little off. I spent about eight hours with the game without unlocking any significant new abilities other than a double-jump, and I found myself wondering if there was more to the game than slashing through enemies (which was fun, sure, but grows a little stale with time). When I eventually did unlock power-ups including a charged super attack and a giant hand-held cannon the game felt like it suddenly had a second wind, and I found my interest renewed, but there were some touchy times in the middle when I wasn't certain I wanted to keep playing.
Your mileage is going to vary in Sundered, though, because it's a broad and open game that will allow you to progress in your own way to a certain extent. The game's mini-bosses can be beaten in any order you can reach them, and you'll likely unlock access to the game's second major zone before you've finished exploring the core area. At that point you'll have multiple potential paths to explore, each with their own special challenges. Head west as far as you can, for example, and you'll fight giant tentacle monsters and hordes of flying worm demons, while a trip downward might put you up against rooms filled with damaging lasers.
Though I enjoyed using Sundered's different abilities and modifiers, I do wish there was a bit more variety to the upgrades you could choose and the game's combat throughout. No matter how you spec your character you're going to end up slamming the attack button while jumping around, occasionally roll-dodging out of harm's way. There's a definite strategy to the fast-paced combat to be sure, but the game would benefit from more significant strategic choices (especially early on).
A rough launch (but getting better all the time)
When I first started playing Sundered on PS4 it was with a pre-launch review code, and there were some notable technical issues. Chief among the problems I encountered was a tendency for the game to hang or stutter for a split second when entering a new area or (much more dangerously) during a large battle. When you're fighting in Sundered you need to be constantly moving and striking, and these momentary hiccups could be devastating to my combat rhythm.
Fortunately, Sundered has released several patches since then, and each one has substantially improved the game's performance. Hiccups are very rare these days, though loading screens are still too long. Importantly, the game doesn't have an issue with frame rate slowdown during big fights, so as long as the momentary hangs are eliminated you shouldn't have any technical problems that will unfairly hinder your fights.
Before and after launch I also encountered a few hard crashes and instances where the game would stop registering button input from my controller. I can't confirm these issues are fixed permanently with the latest patch, but they have been few and far between (and never resulted in me losing any significant progress, thanks to the game's healthy auto-save feature).
A grim and colorful world
Style counts for a lot, and when a game is as stylish as Sundered you're willing to overlook a lot of shortcomings that would be more glaring in a different game. Sundered's biggest weakness is its relatively slow start, and the fact that you have to invest a number of hours into it before the game's real potential starts to show through, but this is a game that's able to draw you in with the look and feel of its world, and that's enough to keep players engaged until the gameplay becomes as complex and satisfying as the environments.
By the time you reach the end of Sundered you will have run up against thousands of enemies, and every time you think you've seen all the game has to offer a new area will present fresh and ghastly challenges. You'll fight giant snipers that take aim at you from multiple screens away, corrupted "priests" who fill the world with demonic projectiles, and race through areas in which the enemy hordes literally never stop coming.
Sundered is a dark and beautiful game to look at, and it eventually becomes just as enjoyable to play.