Hot on the heels of the excellent Jotun: Valhalla Edition (which we also reviewed here), Thunder Lotus Games is back at it again with new PS4/PC exclusive Sundered. Sundered is a 2D sidescrolling hack n’ slasher with some RPG-like progression mechanics. In addition, it is both non-linear and a little bit rogue-like, as the caverns Eshe has to fight through rearrange themselves every time she dies. So did Thunder Lotus manage to crank out another great game with Sundered, or did they simply get lucky with Jotun the first time around? Let's take a look and see how it stacks up!
The game opens up with the protagonist, Eshe, as she is caught up in the midst of a blinding sandstorm. After stumbling across some ancient ruins, a malicious darkness drags her into a deep complex of caverns where she encounters a mysterious entity who calls himself the Trapezohedron. He gives Eshe the power to fight back against the eldritch horrors that have manifested throughout the caverns. He also provides the only narrative in the game, dishing out facts and ominous history lessons on the war between the Eschatons and the Valkyries who previously inhabited the caverns. I thought it was cool to slowly piece together what happened between the Valkyries and Eschatons in such a passive way: not to have it explained to you outright but instead to see the aftermath of the events without every truly having a comprehensive explanation of what exactly started the war in the first place. It adds a welcome level of mystique that many sidescrollers lack.
Sundered is a non-linear game at heart, with rogue-like elements and a progression system that allows you to improve Eshe’s powers and increase her stats. Dying is not the end of Eshe’s journey. When inevitably killed by one of the cavern’s many dangers, the cavern rearranges itself and Eshe is brought back to the main hub known as Sanctuary. There are a few fixed rooms on each map that never change position (shrines, bosses, and minions are good examples) but everything else gets remixed. At the Sanctuary, you can access the skill tree and spend the shards you’ve collected by defeating enemies and smashing breakable objects to upgrade your various stats. The grid is made up of nodes and multiple branching paths, with more paths to unlock once you meet the requirements, which we’ll talk about soon. Each node contains a stat (like an armor or health increase, for example) and it requires you to level it up three times before you can unlock the next node in the path. There are special nodes scattered across the grid that can only need to be purchased once to unlock special upgrades like an increase in a number of health elixirs you can carry, or add a bonus 30% to your armor level. There are perks to be found and equipped, but these are often double-edged swords. Most of the time they offer useful benefits while penalizing you in other ways. For example; one perk can revive you once during a run, but enemies will drop less shards. You will need to balance the good with the bad and adjust the perks to suit your playstyle if you want to beat the tougher bosses of Sundered. Now let’s talk about how to unlock the other branches of the skill grid.
Found throughout the game are special shrines that once activated unlocks a special ability for Eshe, along with a new branch of the skill grid. Most of these abilities come in the form of improvements to your mobility, allowing you to access areas you couldn’t before. A double jump, a midair dash, and a grappling hook that connects to specific glyphs are a few examples. There are a couple of offensive abilities to be gained from shrines. The cannon is easily my favorite. It is incredibly useful to blast hordes with, plus it is also used for activating certain switches. If you’ve seen or read anything about Sundered, you’ve probably heard the tagline ‘Resist or Embrace’. There are Elder Shards to be found in the game. Beating an area’s minion (miniboss) gets you a piece of a shard. You can get full shards by collecting 3 pieces to form a complete shard, and also by defeating the main boss of the area. Whenever you get a full shard you can either resist by destroying it or embrace ancient evil by taking it to an ability shrine, therefore corrupting that ability and gaining a more powerful eldritch version. How you choose to deal with the shards determines the ending you receive. It’s an interesting twist on a standard choose your own ability mechanic that fits well with the dark theme of the game.
Now I’m sure you’ve all played at least one sidescrolling action game in your lifetime. One of the best things about Sundered is how it deviates from the typical way that enemies are always in a fixed position. As you explore the ever-shifting caverns, monsters will randomly attack you from any side at any time. Then as you explore, an ominous gong will ring out: the horde has arrived. This is where things get intense. Hordes can come at any time without warning. You could be exploring the caverns, searching for treasure or trying to navigate a difficult part when all of a sudden a horde swarms you from all sides of the screen and you find yourself fighting for your life against a seemingly endless wave of horrors. Luckily there is no penalty for dying, aside from the fact that the map changes. I’ve died many times to the hordes, the important thing to remember is to try and choose a good place to make your stand.
As with Jotun, Sundered’s animations are drawn by hand and have a gorgeous fluidity to them that is a pleasure to see in action. This is one of those games where the screenshots simply don’t do it justice. The special effects can be quite spectacular too. In certain areas of Eschaton City, there are no-go areas where a thick black darkness with writhing tentacles and grasping hands that can kill you if you get too close. Another favorite of mine is the Meteoroids. They spin around in the air while engulfing themselves in flames, and then they streak across the screen towards Eshe. When the hordes are swarming and the enemies are using their abilities the action on-screen can become quite hectic. This is usually not a problem, except for Sundered’s trademark epic boss fights. In one particular fight, the boss is so big that the camera has to pan way out to keep the boss in the frame, reducing Eshe to a tiny spec. Combine that with all the enemies and projectiles flying around and its hell just staying alive. There is a learning curve to all enemies, though, and that includes the bosses. Once you learn the patterns and equip perks to match your style, it is only a matter of time before you slice and dice these horrors back into oblivion. Normally I would have some things to say about the soundtrack but honestly, not a single track stood out and caught my attention. It’s just there. It works, but ultimately it is easily forgettable.
Sundered has a lot of good things going for it; super-smooth animation; fluid combat; excellent hand-drawn graphics; epic bosses; and a satisfying progression system. Challenging gameplay and multiple endings are just icing on the cake. In my own humble opinion, Thunder Lotus Games has another fantastic title under their belt with Sundered. It has the feel of a triple-A quality title but at a fraction of the price, so unless you hate Metroidvania-style games, I highly suggest that you give Sundered a go.
*Note: A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of this review.
Final Score: 8.5/10
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