Sundered – A Lovecraftian Metroidvania acid trip
tl;dr Sundered is fast-paced, full of awesome, and madness inducing. Resist or embrace? Why not go both ways? It's more fun like that.
Sundered is an addicting love letter to all things eldritch and exploration. After a very successful Kickstarter campaign earlier this year, it launched recently on Steam. It masterfully combines rogue-lite elements with the traditional Metroidvania formula and throws in tentacles for good measure. The entire game is beautifully hand drawn. The only thing that it’s a little light on is story. Despite that, Sundered is a standout title in a genre that’s been needing some new life for a while now.
What’s going on?
Before I gush about the rest of the game, I’ll start with the lack of story. I’m given virtually no clue what’s going on in the beginning. Almost no information is given by the developer when trying to sell the game on Steam.
You play Eshe, a wanderer in a ruined world, trapped in ever-changing caverns filled with hordes of terrifying enemies. Harness the power of corrupted relics to defeat gigantic bosses, at the cost of your humanity. Resist or embrace.
I know that I’m making a choice to embrace or resist the whisperings in my head, but I have no idea how my protagonist ended up in this situation to begin with. She’s wandering the desert for reasons before getting swallowed up by ruins inhabited by an elder god. I was able to find plenty of story in game about the conflict that happened inside the ruins, but none of it explains Eshe or her reason for being there. I just want a little nugget of backstory, guys! Something along the lines of a lifetime of research into a lost civilization finally leads her to this remote desert. Plucky archaeologist makes discovery and ends up in a crazy situation. It’s not a major issue, but I’d like to know more about her and her motivations.
Sundered versus my thumbs.
There’s no getting around it, I haven’t repeatedly hit every button on my controller in a long time. Sundered has heralded the return of my button-mashing callouses. There’s a lot of double jumping and dashing involved while running around. However, it’s the horde encounters that really take their toll. Dodging, slashing, and shooting so many enemies that they sometimes clog the screen can get frantic. On the other hand, narrowly escaping a horde wave is freaking exhilarating! Running my butt off to get through an endless horde area and snag the perk usually takes me a couple tries just because I can’t stop running and jumping to consult the map. Damn you, dead ends.
The hordes are significant, but the boss battles are immense. Two of the level bosses are so huge that I can have a hard time keeping track of my tiny character on screen. Defeating Xea’sh’kaebt (Dominion) for the first time was no small feat. Luckily, these encounters aren’t forced–I was able to grind, get new abilities, and power up before ultimately defeating them. As they said on the Kickstarter: Explore. Fight. Die. Upgrade.
Dying in Sundered is a bit of a reset switch. Two things happened every time I got crushed by a wave of enemies. First, I was sent back to the sanctuary where I could use the shards (the currency of madness) I’d acquired to upgrade my skills. As abilities (double jump, cannon, wall run, etc.) are found, sections of the skill tree unlock. This works in place of a leveling system for making Eshe stronger. Small nodes do things like increase melee damage while larger (and more expensive) ones add more substantial bonuses. It allows for growth in a customized manner since it’s not a linear progression. The entire game, in fact, is meant to be non-linear.
Which brings me to the second thing that happens when I die; the world changes. The map is made of two parts, the overall shape that stays fixed and the smaller areas that are procedurally generated within it. The largest blocks of the map never change. If the boss is located in the upper left of the map, it’ll always be located there. However, all of the rooms that make up an area will change. This includes the ways that smaller rooms are connected. So while it’s still kind of the same direction, my path was different every time I loaded in. That sort of thing helps keep me on my toes.
Resist or embrace.
The crux of the pitch for Sundered is the choice between resisting or embracing the corrupting power being offered by the voice in your head. The Shining Trapezohedron (which sounds like I should be rolling it in a D&D encounter) is clearly not a good guy. I mean, elder shards with shadow tentacles that I’m being encouraged to corrupt my abilities with isn’t even sugar-coating it. However, unless players are unreasonably driven by their morals in game, it’s a great hook for multiple playthroughs. I, of course, went full corruption my first time through. It was a cool kind of creepy as Eshe transformed into darkness for certain abilities. Obviously, my second time through was a full resist run. Of the three endings, I actually prefer the mixed result.
A must for fans of the genre.
From the hand drawn art, to the atmospheric soundtrack, to the tension of never knowing when the next horde wave will attack, Sundered is phenomenal. I’ll admit that I did spend a good amount of time playing while listening to the soundtrack from Heavy Metal because it seemed to fit. The choice to resist or embrace the corrupting power being offered is fun and adds to replayability. In total, it was about thirty hours of play to get all of the Steam achievements. That includes maxing out my skill tree the first time around. I’m going to recommend Sundered to everyone I know that enjoy anything Metroidvania while I wait for Bloodstained to eventually get released.
(Sundered official website)