There aren’t a lot of new ideas under the sun anymore, and at first, Sundered by Thunder Lotus Games seems a smidge reductive; I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to make it through the game to see the end credits. However, the team at Thunder Lotus Games borrowed a lot of good ideas and smashed them together into what turns out to be quite a lovely little pot of stew that had me racing through the final sections of the game to see how it all turned out.
Sundered is one part “Metroidvania” style game, where progression is blocked off through a variety of pieces of gear and skills, and another part “Roguelike” as the map layout resets upon death, but you continue to gain experience and skills with each subsequent playthrough. Toss all that on a backdrop of a little Ori and the Blind Forest as far as tricky platforming segments, implied backstory, and hostile environment and you’ve got yourself a game. And yes, don’t think as a reviewer I don’t know the irony of calling a game reductive and then going through and breaking it down by the games that Sundered is most like isn’t reductive in and of itself.
So the story of Sundered is somewhat head scratching. The narrative is told to you in dribs and drabs through the environment, as well as a disembodied narrator who inhabits a shard which your character, Eshe, carries with her. Games in this era generally beat you over the head with the main plot and cast of characters, to the point that when the designers craft this amazingly detailed world and then tell you about 10% of what’s going on, it can be a bit off-putting (I’m looking at you Dark Souls).
Sundered’s story is a little more structured: on the brink of death while walking through a desert, our hero Eshe is…saved?…and pulled into an underground bunker by using the power embedded in a crystal she finds. Honestly, as I’m typing this, I’m not remembering how Eshe got into this mess in the first place. But as you progress through the land under the sand, where you can tell over time that a great battle between a force known as the Valkyrie did battle with a cult like group who was trying to open a portal to summon…something. Well, something not great, as when has anyone summoned a friendly unicorn from a portal. Again, this is based on my context clues from what I’ve been told through the narrative. I could be completely wrong here based on my assessment. That said, Sundered tries to set up plot device that anyone with half a brain could see coming from a mile away.
Oh, and something else for the game: Sundered’s ending has to have been the shortest ending I’ve ever witnessed outside of old arcade cabinet games that simply pop up, “Congratulations, you win!” I have to imagine there are different endings if you choose to “Resist or Embrace” (I won’t go into more detail, but…), I certainly am not going to grind back through another 16 hours to see the 10 seconds of the other direction, no matter how good the gameplay was.
And the gameplay was real, real good.
Sundered starts the hero off with an extremely basic series of skills and powers; you quickly get a bladed weapon and a double jump which is the backbone of many games that have come before it. However, by the end of the third act, I had such an array of attacks and traversal abilities that I was flying through the air like a whirling dervish of destruction. The beauty of games like Sundered is that you accidentally enter an area that is far above your current powers and get quickly defeated, only to come back 10 hours later and absolutely decimate the place. Only with game mechanics of Sundered, I never truly felt I had the upper hand in a situation. By the third act, the game is making up for handing you a variety of powers by throwing every environmental difficulty at you on top of a “bullet hell” level of enemies.
The gong has sounded.
The key to the Sundered’s gameplay is that every few minutes, an alarm will sound and a wave of enemies will be unleashed upon you. Generally, these are not too much of a problem and good fodder for gaining crystal shards to level up your powers. However, after 10 minutes or so, a gong will sound, and the game will unleash hell upon you until the screen fills up with enemies, projectiles and spinning death until you die. You can fight it off, run for your life, make some progress, but generally speaking, when the gong sounds, you’re eventually going to get overrun by a literal screen full of enemies and sent back to the citadel’s sanctuary to take what you earned during that run to level Eshe up. Many a time I would be going into newer territory and I’d hear that gong sound, and it became a sprint to move as quickly as I could to the next landmark so I could at least hopefully fast travel back to that spot after I died. I’ve completed the game and there are still spots in the last area of the map I couldn’t get through because the hell wave that I ran into there was just too intense. What this invisible timer does do is it gives you a sense of purpose and desire to move quickly through the areas to try and outrun that damnable gong, and it got my blood going as I was trying to hop Eshe from platform to platform, knowing that time was running out.
We also have to talk about the artwork; Sundered looks amazing. The entire game is hand-drawn and animated, which gives the game a Don Bluth/American Tale/Dragon’s Tale graphical style. The area and enemy designs are something to see, but the game really shines with its boss fights. There are mini-bosses which are simply jumped up versions of the enemies you’re facing in each environment, but the big three bosses and final boss are stunning. Taking up the entirety of the screen, you literally have to ask yourself, “How in the world am I going to be able to take this giant thing down?” They are a sight to behold and almost worth the price of admission alone just to defeat these beasts.
Overall, I warmed to Sundered as I progressed through the game; while I’m not sure I would have made it all the way through if I had not been reviewing it, as the clock ticked on and I powered Eshe up further and further, I kept wanting to play more and more, especially after seeing that first major boss fight. Despite the game slapping me in the face with its anemic ending, I enjoyed my time playing Sundered as the gameplay mechanics and graphical design really grabbed me and strongly recommend anyone looking for a good action platformer to not miss this one.