There really are no lack of metroidvania action platformers out on the market these days. In the last few years, indie studios have been cranking them out like it’s nobody’s business. Of course, when that happens, it can be a real challenge making something that stands out from the pack. Certain core principles need to be adhered to like exploration, cool weapons, and epic boss fights. After that, it’s on developers’ shoulders to bring their own special touches and making something memorable.

In the case of Sundered, they went with aesthetic and how some of the exploration works to make their game different. Graphically, the game looks like it was hand drawn. The environments are dripping with detail, monsters have a slew of creepy animations, and the bosses are something to behold. From a visual standpoint, the game looks great with a very unique style. Then again this was done by the same company that did Jotun, another title with an interesting art style all its own, so this probably shouldn’t come as a surprise.

When the gong rings, trouble approaches!

Exploration is divided into three major areas that slowly become unlocked while progressing through the game. Each has its own theme to help differentiate them. One is a mixture of high tech facilities and jungle fauna with robots and the occasional mutant wandering around. Another is a labyrinth of poorly lit caverns inhabited by all manner of eldritch horror. Finally there is a massive stone city connected with yet more caverns where even more terrifying horrors lurk. Each of these areas is quite large and will take quite some time to explore. The art is so well done that running through these places doesn’t start to feel old. These places have all sorts of little details for the observant eye to enjoy.

One weird thing about exploring the game, though, is that there is an element of procedurally generated content at work. Boss and power-up locations are basically in the same place for everyone, but the areas between them are divided up into sub-sections. In each of these, the terrain will be different on each playthrough. It’s hard to figure out exactly why the developers did this because it doesn’t bring anything to the table. After killing the bosses and getting the goodies, there isn’t much reason to traverse these places again. Assuming players are being reasonably efficient about going through the areas, they won’t travel these routes multiple times and there’s no motivation to do otherwise. So, why bother with the procedural content? It feels like this was added simply to try and do something different but it does nothing to improve the experience of the game.

If anything, this could hold it back. On the odd chance someone does need to go through there again, they need to waste time guessing what chambers won’t have dead ends in them. They already know where they’re going and what they’ll find upon arriving. Needlessly running through an obstacle like this benefits no one.

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Some of the bosses in this game are gigantic.

Sundered’s story is reasonably interesting. Players take control of a woman named Eshe. The game starts with her walking across a desert wasteland when all of a sudden she is consumed by a set of black tendrils and pulled beneath the sands. When she comes to, Eshe finds herself in a mysterious chamber when a rather evil-sounding voice introduces itself and tells her she’ll need to help it if she wants her freedom. What could go wrong? As the story unfolds, it becomes quite clear that wherever this is something very bad happened in the distant past. Two factions went to war a long time ago, and they’re both long gone. However, their machines and beasts still roam the halls that Eshe explores. Gradually, tiny morsels of information are given as to what happened, and it’s quite enjoyable as details emerge. That being said, the endings themselves are a tad disappointing as they don’t explain exactly who these factions were, or what Eshe was going to do next outside of a vague move in this or that direction while a lot is left up to players’ imaginations.

Throughout all of this exploration and storytelling there are a whole lot of nifty abilities to unlock. These can range from a grappling hook to gravity boots to a giant cannon and a bunch of other gadgets. They all have their uses and will make new areas of the map much more accessible. Sundered does something quite interesting on top of this, though. As the game progresses, Eshe discovers a bunch of items called Elder Shards. She can either use them to corrupt her abilities or destroy the shards. Corrupting her abilities makes them much more powerful and allows them to do more than before. For example, while the cannon normally shoots a single projectile across the screen, corrupting it allows the thing to fire a continuous beam for a much longer period of time. Meanwhile, gravity boots go from being able to run up a wall to being able to cling to them at any time. There are a lot of pluses to corrupting abilities and doing so makes the game a lot easier. If one decides to destroy the shards, however, they forfeit these enhanced abilities, but get more options in their talent tree to help offset this. That being said, passing on corrupted abilities will make the game harder. It should also be noted that depending on whether the player fully embraces the corruption, fully rejects it, or does a mix will change the final boss of the game as well as the ending.

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Lith enemies can pop up out of nowhere and make life difficult.

On top of this, there is the aforementioned skill tree. As Eshe kills enemies and smashings vases, boxes, and the like, she will collect small shards that are tallied until she returns to the sanctuary at the start of the game (she can warp here at any time). There, she can begin to meditate, allowing players to spend their shards, improving armor, shields, attack power, health, etc. Spend an hour or so farming these shards, and go to town boosting her abilities. It’s quite helpful.

Really, a lot of people are going to need all the help they can get, as the game can be fairly challenging. For one, Eshe tends to be swarmed by enemies. Instead of them spawning in the same specified places all the time, a gong or alarm will sound followed by hordes of enemies all charging Eshe all at once. At first this isn’t too bad, but later in the game there are a ton of baddies all over the place. Players are going to need to make use of all of Eshe’s abilities to survive these situations and some folks may not be up to the task. The boss fights will be even tougher, especially the major bosses. Those things are huge, taking up the whole screen, and completely dwarf Eshe. Players will need to have mastered all of her abilities in order to defeat these creatures, and a lot of people will need to take several kicks at the can before they’re successful.

In the end, Sundered is a very good action platformer. The exploration is satisfying. The abilities are cool and the choice of corrupting them is interesting. Meanwhile the game is gorgeous. This is also a very challenging outing. A welcome change of pace in an age where hand holding reigns supreme. Those looking for a good-looking metroidvania with nifty power-ups and that will put players through their paces would do well try taking this game for a spin.

- Jeff

June 26, 2018