Sundered Review (PlayStation 4)
There are few absolute truths in this world, but one of them is death. We're all going to die. It's a grim, sad fact, but we all face mortality eventually. Unlike the character in Sundered, who lives a Groundhog Day experience in a world full of eldritch horrors, we only have to face the dark embrace once in our lives. You're going to die a lot in Sundered, but it's all part of the plan. It's a tormented way to let players experience the terrors of eldritch monsters, but it's just so dang pretty you won't mind much anyway.
Sundered follows the plight of Esche, a lone wanderer that found herself transported to a world beneath her own. There, she meets the spiritual embodiment of the Trapezohedron, a mystical gem that was the center of a great war between the Valkyries and the Eschatons hundreds of years ago. This battle over the gem opened a portal to a realm of creatures both unsightly and deadly, and turned both the Valkyrie and Eschaton into monsters themselves. Now inhabiting the remains of the world they fought over a century ago, these terrors are a threat to Esche's survival, and the Trapezohedron's clever plan for freedom.
Story beats are doled out slowly in Sundered, with much of the mythology of the world narrated by the Trapezohedron as Esche progresses deeper and deeper into the ruins. As you uncover new areas, explanations of what happened in a particular region reveal not just the story of the past, but the fate of those who once lived it. What first seemed like random creatures become monsters that were once more human. It's a somber tale, and one of the costs of war relevant in any era. Just as much, if not more, of Sundered's tale is told by the world Esche explores, hoping desperately to find a way out of this nightmare.
Hand-drawn animation is a rare thing in this day an age, and that's part of what makes it such an appealing aesthetic when done right. All of Sundered's art and animation was done by hand, and you can see so much personality in every weighted line of a character, the depth of levels and their backgrounds, and the sketchiness of movements. Esche herself is an agile combatant, able to leap through corridors and across platforms with grace, while also laying down heavy attacks with a blade that flow smoothly from one to the next. Watching her tear through the world is something else, as you can really feel the love and attention that went into crafting her every motion.
It's truly the eldritch that make Sundered such a visually captivating piece of work though. As lovingly as Esche was crafted, the grotesque menagerie of beasts trying to murder her appear even more deftly rendered. Perhaps it's their unique anatomy, and the way these new bodies give them such inhuman movements, but there's a beauty in their monstrousness. That's particularly true of the Eschaton, who have more in common with Esche's humble wanderer design than the Valkyrie. The transformed Valkyrie still maintain a bit of their technological roots, making them less of a frightening force than the Eschaton you encounter deeper in the caverns. No offense to the Valkyrie, but robotic snipers and flying armored brutes just don't have the same face-value scares as a cloaked creature that turns into a massive mouth or a veiled mass of conjoined beings that wants to eat Esche's soul.
Sundered does wear its Metroidvania action-platformer influences on its sleeves, and that's very obvious when you start taking in the level design in every region. The Valkyrie areas are reminiscent of a militarized and sterile science-fiction landscape, and the Eschaton regions having much more in common with Gothic religious design. Those latter areas are much more frightening, especially with all the massive religious icons looming in the background as shadow beasts try to eat your face off. That's not to say that Sundered loses any of its visual impact once you catch on to the thematic reading of the genre tropes. It's stunning no matter what, and that's a big part of what makes returning to this game after every death so tolerable.
Did we mention that you die a lot in Sundered? No? Because you do. It's built into Sundered's design though, and dying is merely a way for Esche to return to the central hub of the world to invest in her abilities so she can progress further. The skill tree is massive, and is loaded with traits for Esche to evolve, including health, shield, armor, luck, attack power, and most importantly, upgrades to her newfound abilities and weapons. It wouldn't be a Metroidvania without skills to unlock so you could progress deeper into the game world, and Sundered has those in plentiful amounts. There's an energy canon, which offers both offensive capabilities and the power to open locked doors, a double-jump that can be upgraded to be an offensive attack, and so many other staples like a grappling hook and gravity boots. All of them can be built up using the skill tree and shards enemies drop after death.
The great thing is you can explore all of Sundered's world without having to fight any of the major bosses until you've acquired as many of the tools as you deem necessary. You will have to take on mini-bosses to earn some of those coveted items, but all of the regional boss fights are completely avoidable until you want to proceed to the end game. It's not that you'll want to skip out on boss fights, as they're some of the most harrowing encounters in an action-platformer we've ever had. It's just nice to have the option to continue powering Esche up to the point where these fights are more than just manageable, they're downright doable. The disappointing part of all that exploring is having to do it so much and so often because you died along the way.
Sundered mixes in static locations throughout the map with entire blocks of randomly-generated rooms. Anytime you look at the in-game map, you'll see darkened areas, which will always be in the same spot, surrounded by lighter areas, where the game will insert any number of random rooms with random exits to explore. At first, it's a neat trick, and one that keeps your level progression from getting stale.
As you get deeper and deeper into the labyrinthine regions, those procedurally generated rooms become the bane of your existence. It's not because tracking through them is any great difficulty, but because enemies outside of the bosses are also randomly spawned. You might only have to fight a handful of creatures on your way to a hub room one time, only to die and find that you'll have to face hordes of them the next time through.
Sure, you'll be leveled up a tiny bit more, but the hordes are one of Sundered's biggest challenges to overcome. You'll know when they're coming as each region has a distinct three-chord warning hinting Esche is about to be overwhelmed by incredible force. Like Left 4 Dead's Director, Sundered always feels like it knows when you've had an easy spell, and drops dozens of enemies on you at once in the hopes of stalling you. Until you get far enough into the first region to find the cannon, hordes are a massive pain to survive.
Even with the help of the massive energy blast, it's still easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of enemies Sundered throws at you, especially once they start throwing bombs, firing sniper rifles, and and cornering Esche with no hopes of escape. Additionally, these horde moments are a bit too much for the PlayStation 4 to handle, with some dramatic choppiness as more and more animations are happening at once. We died more than a few times due to our inability to get through these framerate issues, though we did thankfully keep our shards to level up at the tree. That's another thing we can say Sundered gets absolutely right. Allowing players to keep shards after death is key to ensuring you can make it even just one or two rooms deeper the next time you set off exploring, even if those rooms have changed since the last time you saw them.
A gorgeous game that requires a lot of patience and commitment, Sundered will challenge you early and often. Even with that in mind, Thunder Lotus Games has crafted another special game. The design is just wonderful, and the combat and platforming are easy enough to grasp that you don't need to be an expert action-platformer player to get the most from the experience. Yes, you will die, and it can be frustrating at times, but for every moment of brow-furrowing angst, Sundered presents an equal number of awe-inspiring segments to keep you coming back for more.
This review is based on a downloaded copy of Sundered provided by the publisher for PlayStation 4.