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Absolver (PC Review)

When someone on social media whispered to me that indie developer Sloclap had created Absolver to be “Dark Souls but with Kung-Fu”, I was intrigued. Requesting a code from publisher Devolver, I was able to get early hands on with the game to see if such a thing could really exist in this world.

Absolver does definitely borrow a lot of great ideas from the brutally difficult dungeon crawler Dark Souls, but it has trouble actually achieving any them.

Let’s start with Absolver’s story. The story behind the Dark Souls series is absolutely baffling, requiring a Masters degree in historical studies to untangle from the bizarre series of cutscenes, in-game references, and clever item descriptions. Absolver tries to do all of this, but you’re left just scratching your head: you’re dropped in the middle of a “Prospect” ceremony, where fighters are chosen to take on the challenge of becoming Absolvers. To become an Absolver, a Prospect must go out, defeat a series of chosen fighters called “The Marked Ones” and climb the Tower of Adal to defeat a final boss named Risryn. Why? Who can say? Is Risryn bad? I’m not sure. Even after defeating her, I was very much like, “Oh, she seemed bad, but if this is a right of passage to become a vaunted ‘Absolver’ and I’m not the only one attempting this climb…wait, how does Risryn keep coming back? The point of training prospects is to climb the tower to defeat Risryn, but if I defeat Risryn and come back as an Absolver to train other prospects to…climb the tower to defeat Risryn…wait…” The problem is that there is very little in the way of story to fill any of this out, even to the point of making someone wonder why they’re playing Absolver in the first place. There’s no exposition at all.

Anyway, eye rolling story aside, let’s get into the gameplay, where Absolver strives to make its mark in the world. Where in a game like Dark Souls, you have a half dozen moves as best to attack enemies, Absolver throws the book at you with over 100 different moves you can unlock and string together. Utilizing the “combat deck”, you take basic fighting techniques and add in skills that you learn by fighting with other combatants to build out effective combinations. The problem here is that you do not need 100 different moves; Absolver’s overly complicated fighting system can be whittled down to a series of moves that you use and abuse. I found that in my “dexterity” based combat style, I could simply wait until I saw the enemy make a move, then interrupt with a flurry of light attacks, over and over again.

There is an “active reload” style mechanic (from Gears of War) in the game to keep people from mashing the attack button over and over again; simply wait until the blow strikes, then attack again to chain together a series of quick and devastating attacks. This isn’t really explained to you in a tutorial (nor is really anything), but once I figured it out, I was devastating on the battlefield. Which was a shame, as I really wanted to implement some of the other skills I’d learned from the enemies I fought, but the nosebleed I got from looking at the combat deck and trying to piece it together (“okay, now this skill is being used, but now wait, this one is from a different style, so it would do less damage, but I need a move for this stance…”) made me more or less give up on the system altogether.

Absolver is also built on its solid player vs player mechanics through its combat trials, as well as just allowing players to come and go into each other’s games as it pleases. The problem is that where in Dark Souls, you had the ability to opt-out of this annoyance or bring in defenders to aid you from trolls, you regularly have other players in your world. This can lead to some interesting issues, where other players can completely come in and wipe all the enemies out of an area, leaving you with nothing to fight unless you reload an area. This also means you are susceptible to getting murdered by other players, which isn’t terrible until you realize that these same trolls can resurrect you on the spot and then proceed to murder you again…which happened to me three times until I finally had to flat out run away.

I did have some good interaction with another player towards the end of Absolver, where the two of us fought side by side together…but even that was clunky. We were regularly accidentally hitting one another while trying to hit our targets, and then being marked as “hostile” by the game. Absolver’s lock on mechanics are rough; you can lock onto a target, but you can’t flick a button to quickly switch targets: you have to unlock your current target, then make sure the target you want to fight is closest and the one you’re looking at, then hit the lock button again.

On the more technical side of things in Absolver, well, the game definitely has its issues. One part of the map, I had a boss that spawned in twice in the same area, forcing me to try and fight both of them. Another, I clearly kicked an enemy off a ledge to have them rubber band back to safety.

Loot drops! Surely there are unique items that drop off enemies so you can personalize and power-up your character, right? There are, but never enough to feel like you’re making much on an impact. As there are no real “power weapons” in the game, you’re simply finding better and better balance between being too weighed down and how much damage you can sustain. Generally, the heavier the armor, the more punishment you can take, but there are no special attributes or abilities assigned to any piece of kit. Nothing gives your attacks elemental damage, nothing makes your stamina regenerate faster, no bonus increases to statistics, nothing.

Back to the Dark Souls analogy that this entire review and all of Absolver revolves around: there’s just no surprise, no tension of death. Dark Souls thrives on murdering you in unique ways, whether a dragon flying out of the sky, a crossbow bolt from out of nowhere, or a pack of savages waiting just off screen to one-shot kill you, and you lose precious experience that can be used to level your fighter. In Absolver, you’re fighting humans, over and over again. Some have different armor sets, some from varying schools of martial arts, but they’re all the same size and they all just punching you. Sometimes there are two or more of them. Sometimes you die and lose a few hundred experience points, then you regenerate back to the closest shrine (which are strangely reminiscent to Dark Souls firepits), run back to the area you died to find another player has cleared out all the enemies in the area and you have to go somewhere else to find things to fight.

In the seven hours it took for my to finish Absolver, I saw that it has a lot of great ideas, but with its overly complicated combat system, bland and repetitive environments and enemies, and a lack of real purpose makes it a tough sell. I like where I think Absolver was going overall, but there are just so many promises that it is unable to fulfill that I’m unable to recommend it to anyone.

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