Sundered: This Bold and Ambitious Metroidvania Epic is a Visual Tour de Force | A Short Pause Review
I had no idea what I was in for with Sundered. No idea.
I was a huge fan of Jotun: Valhalla Edition and it’s incredibly gorgeous hand-drawn art style when it hit consoles last year (check out my review here!), so at the very least, I expected to love Sundered aesthetically. I didn’t think I would love it this much, though; Sundered is pound for pound one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever seen in motion. I love the Metroidvania genre (Quick aside: How should this be written? Should it be metroidvania? Maybe metroid-vania? Capital letter? No capital letter? We need a formal ruling on the proper way to address this in written form! I’ll stick with the no hyphen/capital letter approach for this review. End tangent.), so I expected to hack and slash my way through a five or six hour adventure here and have a good time doing it. What I didn’t expect from Sundered was a 20 hour epic that pushes the boundaries of what I expect from the genre. I assumed Sundered’s combat would be fun and moderately challenging. What's here is a tough, balletic approach to action that is an exquisite juggling act between melee attacks, powerful abilities, and dodge rolls that has more in common with Dark Souls than Metroid. I figured there would be a skill tree with which to upgrade my abilities as I played through the game. The one included here is quite possibly the largest I've ever seen a game in the genre feature. I could go on and on, but you get the picture. Sundered is a big, bold, and exploratory take on the tried-and-true Metroidvania model that turns a number of the genre’s classic traditions on its head, crafting a unique platforming proposition that challenges what to expect from games of its ilk. It’s a flashy and experimental statement that demands genre stalwarts to set aside any preconceived notions they may have about this space and open their minds to a different approach, and the game is all the better for it.
Before we go any further, I’ve got to spend a few minutes gushing about Sundered’s visuals. I know, I know, I’ve talked about this ad nauseam on the Short Pause Gaming Podcast and I’ve waxed poetic about Jotun’s pleasing aesthetics in the past, but this is such a good-looking game. It’s not hyperbole when I say this might be best-looking game I’ve played on the PS4 this year, or maybe ever. That’s not to say that Sundered can necessarily go toe-to-toe with the likes of Horizon Zero Dawn or Uncharted 4, but the hand-drawn art, the quality of the animation, and the game’s visual fluidity are unmatched by its contemporaries. Many developers employ a hand-drawn style of art in their titles nowadays, but no one does it like ThunderLotus and Sundered. Even when compared to Jotun, which was a stunner as well when it comes to the looks, Sundered is on an entirely different level (a theme which applies to more than just the game’s graphical fidelity when comparing the two). Oftentimes throughout my playthrough, I found myself just getting lost in the graphical splendor of the game’s rhythmic combat, drooling over the clean lines and smooth animation as I hacked my way through a horde of enemies. That old childhood dream of the animation cell come to life in video game form has never been better realized than it is here with Sundered. If Ratchet and Clank is a Pixar movie you can play, Sundered is an animated Disney film brought to life (albeit a dark, twisted, and violent one, but you get my point).
There is a semblance of a story here, but it’s not the main attraction. You play as Eshe, a wanderer trapped in a forgotten world full of mysterious, ever-changing caverns, grotesque monsters, and strange, otherworldly abilities. There’s talk of Valkyries invading (or were they?), humanity, and embracing darkness, but none of it really matters. There are some voice overs here and there in an alien language briefly expanding the game’s lore and pushing you forward, but the rest of the “narrative” is basically yours to interpret through the environmental storytelling and combat encounters. Which is totally fine; this is a metroidvania experience first and foremost and, as such, combat and exploration are and should be the main focus of the game.
Still, there's a tiny part of me that’s a tad bit disappointed we don’t get more here narratively than we do because what’s here is incredibly interesting. A huge part of this is the game’s arresting visuals, of course, but an even bigger contributing factor is the game’s amazing creature design. I’m no student of Lovecraftian horror, but I want to be after playing this game; the revered author’s creations are a clear inspiration in Sundered. Electrified worms, hulking plants with extending thorns, shield-bearing armored knights packing potent shotgun blasts, and massive eyeballs sporting dangling tentacles and concussive energy blasts are just a small sampling of the eldritch creations awaiting players within. The innovation and creativity on display in the enemy design is just spectacular to see. The game’s three massive environments are designed well enough — and there are some really cool vistas to take in over the course of your journey — but the enemies and their attacks have a twisted beauty I just couldn’t get enough of.
Speaking of twisted beauty, if we’re talking Thunder Lotus and Sundered, we of course need to talk about the game’s bosses. These behemoth, screen-filling monstrosities further cement the title’s incredible design work. Whether it’s a giant sitting on a throne possessed by a demonic mask, or a gargantuan, heavily armed skeleton spider tank, you can’t help but be awestruck the first time you face one of these big baddies. They’re fun to battle, partly because of their scale, but also because they’re mechanically interesting as well, especially the ones you encounter later in the game. The final boss in particular — during my “embrace” playthrough, at least (there are 3 different possible end bosses) — was a classic exercise in patience and learning. Over the course of an hour or so, I went from bewildered to emboldened, progressing a little further with each defeat as I learned how to properly utilize all of the tools at my disposal and best my enormous opponent. It was frustrating at times, sure, but it felt really good once I finally tasted victory. When all was said and done, I came to appreciate the final boss battle as one of my favorite in recent memory. It’s got me extra curious to experience the other two I’ve yet to face.
When it comes to the actual moment-to-moment combat, I imagine Sundered is going to be a polarizing experience for the gaming community. I know it was for me at first — and still is to a certain extent — but I’ve come to embrace (no pun intended) it for what it is, going so far as to evangelize its merits to those I speak with about it now. Enemies are randomized throughout Sundered’s winding labyrinths, typically signaling their arrival with an ominous gong that alerts the player to their impending presence, and their threat is constant. No matter how many times you defeat them, they will always return. And we’re not talking about one or two little creatures for you to dispose of, we’re talking about upwards of 20 or 30 enemies attacking you at the same time. It can be jarring, even off-putting, at first, and I imagine this is where the game is going to have some trouble connecting with the audience initially. While I didn’t find the game to be unfairly difficult, it’s tough at first as you’re beginning to build your character, and the enemy hordes that attack you early on don’t make it any easier. If you can’t get past the initial shock of combating that many enemies at once and come to grips with the fact you’re going to die often early on, something special awaits you.
When Sundered clicks, it becomes something magical, something transcendent. You lose yourself in the rhythm of the game’s relentless combat encounters, dodging and taking advantage of attack openings with grace and panache. If I can use a football analogy for a moment; when you start Sundered it’s like an NFL rookie getting the playbook and taking the field for the first time. The game is fast, relentless, and it comes at you from all sides. But then the season begins and you get a few games under your belt. You know the plays now and the game starts to slow down. You start to see things before they happen. You understand how to play the game and the expectations for victory. The same thing happens with Sundered. It’s tough to pinpoint exactly when it happens, and it’ll occur at different times for everyone, but once it clicks and that light bulb of understanding goes off inside your head, your Sundered experience truly begins in earnest and the game’s addicting combat and exploration loop consumes you. The different abilities you gain along the way are fun to utilize and master (especially when corrupting said abilities), and the game’s skill tree is truly epic, a sprawling upgrade path that legitimately imparts a sense of power as you rank your character up. The game nails that sometimes nebulous RPG feeling of advancement that comes with a well-done system of leveling up and progression.
All that said, there are a few nagging issues with Sundered, chief among them its technical hiccups. In a game as breathtakingly beautiful as this one, it’s disappointing to see the game hitch up every now and then. While there isn’t necessarily any rhyme or reason to the strange frame skip, it doesn’t only happen when there’s lots of action on the screen. Oftentimes, the game will hitch when simply exploring the world. In addition to the frame skip when the action gets hot and heavy, slowdown (understandably) occurs when the screen is full of baddies. It’s another byproduct of the choice to stage enemy encounters around these massive hordes. I don’t know that this problem is exclusive to the PS4 — I haven’t had a chance to test the PC version of the game — but the hardware has a difficult time handling the most populated hordes when they’re bearing down on you. It’s not unplayable, and it only happens with the largest groups of enemies, but it happens enough to be noticeable. Load times are also problematic. These only occur when first loading into an area, so they’re by no means a deal breaker, but this initial load is pretty lengthy. I have to imagine this is a result of the game randomly generating the map layout of an area prior to traversal. I don’t know this for sure, but I would think this has to be part of it. The thing with the randomized world layouts, though, is that they don’t really add anything to the experience. The world doesn't change in any meaningful — or even noticeable — way. I never felt I was exploring an all new space because of what the random number generator cooked up. This is another one of those things where, if indeed the random world layouts are a legitimate cause for the game’s extended load times, it would have been better to just keep the environments stagnant and eliminate the longer loads all together. To top the technical issues off, the game can randomly crash after death as well. Kudos to developer Thunder Lotus, though. They’ve been working on the game since launch, and many of these issues are in a much better place than they were a month ago (especially the random crashing; it’s been all but eliminated). They’re still present, they’re just less intrusive and happen much less frequently.
I wasn’t even sure I was going to like Sundered when I started playing it. I was thrown off by the hordes, I didn’t entirely understand how it was meant to be played, and the technical issues were pulling me out of the game. After months of hype, though, I was excited as all hell to finally get my hands on the game so I knew this was something I was going to have to stick out. And I’m glad I did, because Sundered is now one of my favorite games I’ve played this year. Once I threw out all of my preconceived notions of what I thought a Metroidvania should be and how it should play, and I embraced Sundered as the bold and ambitious title that it is, I found myself hooked on its brand of action-platforming. The technical issues, while still present, have been cleaned up considerably since launch, and the game’s sense of progression based around its epic skill tree and fun abilities is top notch. I’ve come to appreciate Sundered’s intense and challenging horde-based combat as well. When this is all wrapped up in an insanely beautiful hand-drawn package, full of innovative creature design and mammoth bosses, it’s easy to see why Sundered eventually dug its hooks into me. If you’re a fan of the Metroidvania genre, or 2D action-platformers in general, give this one a try. It’s a unique title with a scope unmatched in this space. Oh, and it’s drop-dead gorgeous. Have I mentioned this yet?
We reviewed Sundered using a digital code graciously provided to us by the fine folks from Thunder Lotus Games.