Review: Sundered

I had the fortune of being able to access a little preview of Sundered a few months back. Being one of the latest Kickstarter darlings that raked in quite a hefty amount during its campaign, and coming from Thunder Lotus Games, the developers behind the acclaimed Jotun, there were expectations to meet. But during my play session, something kept nagging at me. A puzzling question that wasn’t the greatest omen kept running through my mind, that of “why am I not having as much fun with this as I should be?” But what I experienced was one one tiny portion, surely the final game would be an enjoyable romp, right? No, the question came back again. So where exactly did some of Sundered’s fun disappear to? Well, let’s find out…

Set in a seemingly post-apocalyptic ruin, players take the role of a wanderer named Eshe who stumbles across a large facility with connections to frightening cosmic landscapes filled with bizarre, Lovecraftian horrors, where they’re encouraged onward by a dark weapon that can help them escape with more power, at the gradual cost of their sanity. As expected, the typical metroidvania approach soon takes place, wherein you traverse vast areas, unlock new abilities to reach previously inaccessible places and eventually uncover more information concerning just how this world wound up the way it is. The creepy atmosphere and bits of story are perfectly done, helping build this world up.

The graphics are obviously drop dead gorgeous. Thunder Lotus’ hand-drawn art style and animation is an absolute feast for the eyes, making the more surreal, horrifying parts come alive, especially when you unlock the more otherworldly areas, also accompanied by some appropriately creepy ambient tunes and effects. Eshe and her foes move nice and fluidly, and as expected, and the massive bosses are especially delightful, filling up huge sections of the screen and putting up a fight. They also allow you to unlock the Elder Shards used to corrupt abilities (or that you can destroy), setting up a good moral quandary.

Along with the fluid animation comes impressive combat, with a set of melee, projectile, dodge, wall jump, et cetera moves that almost feel like second nature by now. Nothing too revolutionary, but still fun to move around with. There’s also your standard set of upgradeable bits such as health, shield, stamina, and more, done through a tree you spend upgrades on after each death with currency collected from enemies. You also get to unlock various perks along the way, though some of them feel a bit random in the way you uncover them (like getting one involving ammo before receiving the cannon), but they’re always a fun addition, and the passive benefits and drawbacks they give allow for some strategy. The idea that the various sections in between each major area are randomized a bit with each new life is a nifty idea as well. It adds to the challenge, though it is frustrating when you hit a dead end, but it still encourages exploration nicely overall.

As expected, everything seemed to be perfectly fine with Sundered so far. So what was getting in the way of any fun, to answer the big question? Well, after the tenth or so horde of monsters spontaneously appeared, I finally figured out the fatal flaw: the game is horrible when it comes to combat with regular enemies. Because the mooks in Sundered never attack you one at a time, oh no. Instead, clumps of at least half a dozen to ten or so are spawned in seemingly random sections at random times and the majority of them try to kamikaze you as much as possible. Yes, as seen in such lesser works as Bombshell and We Are The Dwarves, we’re looking at the form of fake difficulty here where a metric ton of enemies lunging at you is meant to be a substitute for challenge.

And when we say that these enemies will lunge at you, they will be relentless. They will either run up to you, run over platforms to you, fly over to you or even seemingly teleport over to the area you’re in. And you can’t escape them. They will chase you right into story-relevant areas if they can. Hell, some with lasers will even target you from across the map, obstacles be damned. It is actually possible to run away from one group of enemies that spawned, only for them not only to chase you into a new area of the map, but to have another batch of enemies spawn there as well. And I love a match against a horde of enemies as much as the next person, but the hordes here seem to get particularly cheap at times, cluttering up the screen and attacking you from different angles at the same time.

And yes, the intended point of the combat is that you die, get returned to the beginning, spend the loot you’ve earned on upgrades, go back (utilizing any shortcuts you may have unlocked), get a little further, repeat. So you’re encouraged to tackle hordes of enemies for their spoils in addition to uncovering hidden treasure. But the numerous spawns of repetitive enemies just feels a slog, having to halt any progress just to take a whole crop of them down before you can proceed any further. Compare this to the likes of, say, Dead Cells, where the spacing of enemies and lack of random spawns allows for a lot more freedom in how to approach or evade enemies, without removing any of the challenge. Sundered’s enemy encounters just feel cheap, and if I die in a tough-as-nails roguelike, I want it to feel like it was due to my own fault, not just because the game spammed overwhelming amounts of enemies and I hadn’t spent all my time grinding towards countless upgrades.

But the horrible management of spawning enemies doesn’t just harm the general combat and gameplay. See, enemies in your typical metroidvania game aren’t spaced out just for difficulty purposes. Having various creatures wandering about each area like it’s their normal, everyday business until you enter their territory adds to the atmosphere, making everything truly feel like a living, breathing world. It helps strengthen the general feelings of exploration and discovery that the genre is known for. Sundered, sadly, does not give off those feelings. Instead, it feels more like a desolate wasteland where an Eldritch god keeps tipping over a bucket of monsters every five minutes or so.

Yes, I know it seems insane to harp on this one particular flaw for four paragraphs, but what can I say? Everything else in Sundered is good, sure, but the enemy encounters make for such a poor impression (they even attack you when using the map!) and an annoying set of hurdles that it basically becomes a massive tumor infecting the rest of the game. And it seems odd, since Jotun spread out obstacles and occasional enemies between bosses perfectly. Alas…

Closing Comments:

Sundered has the basic foundation for a metroidvania/roguelike hybrid down pat, but its poor handling of enemy distribution and the otherwise fine combat that comes with it sadly drags it down. If you’re willing to make it past several hours of brutal horde attacks, there’s a gorgeous and well-crafted action-platformer to enjoy, but those turned off by lengthy grinding or chases through barrages of enemies had best look somewhere else. There’s fun to be had, yes, but you may not have as much of it as you hope for from this cosmic horror.

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