When it comes to modern 2D games, it seems that we can’t escape the usage of pixel art. Everyone and their dog wants to pay homage to (or emulate) the games of their youth, which has led to an unyielding amount of pseudo-8/16/32-bit titles.
This isn’t to say pixel art is a bad thing in the least, as there’s a number of indie titles with downright beautiful pixel presentation (with Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight immediately coming to mind personally). More recently, though, many indie and 2D titles have started featuring another style: hand-drawn art.
Whether literally drawn by hand and scanned in, or drawn digitally via tablet or some other kind of input, hand-drawn art is quickly becoming the next big thing in modern 2D games. Ranging from small indie titles like Karma. Incarnation 1 to critical darlings like Rayman Legends and Ori and the Blind Forest (the later have a pseudo-hand-drawn presentation), this style is a booming fad that I can greatly appreciate.
The game we are looking at today features this style, using detailed hand-drawn art to bring some unnerving Lovecraftian horrors to life.
Developed and published by Thunder Lotus Games, Sundered was released on July 28th, 2017, for PS4 and PC via multiple digital stores. We played through the Steam PC release for this review.
A Hollow Shell
The story of Sundered begins without much setup. You play as Eshe, taking control of her as she pushes her way through a violent sandstorm. After some wandering, she comes across some ruins…and is immediately dragged into the Earth by some kind of massive creature.
Eshe awakens to find herself in the underground ruins of a past civilization. Immediately after waking, a disembodied voice speaks to her, compelling her to explore the ruins and gain power. For what, though, is left unclear.
Story isn’t exactly a major part of Sundered, with most of it relegated to snippets of exposition during exploration. There’s enough to give you a general idea of what you’re currently doing in game, but the plot overall is pretty much forgettable.
The Harrowing Depths
Like many recent indie titles, Sundered is a Metroidvania game at heart. You’re given a massive map to explore, with multiple unreachable areas that you’ll have to return to upon finding items and abilities elsewhere.
General navigation and platforming feels great, as the game offers very tight and precise controls to navigate with the acrobatic Eshe. Right from the outset, you’ll be leaping chasms and wall-jumping up tunnels fluidly and naturally.
World exploration has a bit of a unique twist here, in the form of procedurally generated environments. While the basic map remains the same throughout the game, the actual rooms within each section change in every run. While it seems like an interesting idea, this causes some of the environments to become repetitive (sometimes literally, with reused rooms easily noticeable), and makes renavigating to areas upon death much more annoying.
Where this game stands out in the sea of other games of this style is in combat…although it’s not immediately noticeable. Sundered is incredibly combat heavy, with hordes of enemies randomly rushing you as you explore. I’m not using “randomly” as any kind of hyperbole – enemy spawns are completely random, from location to size and specific creatures.
Eshe is primarily a melee fighter, using a sword-like weapon to take down enemies. Between this and your ability to dodge-roll, combat initially reminded me of the aforementioned Momodora, but at a faster pace, and much less refined. For the first couple of hours, the combat feels especially button-mashy. With 15-20 enemies rushing you at any one time, there isn’t much else you can do but tap the attack button and hope to survive.
Once you make progress in the game and start leveling up your character, though, combat becomes much more interesting. Unlocking abilities, such as a massive energy cannon and multi-direction rush attacks, gives you more combat options alongside their navigation uses. Also available is a stat tree, accessible upon death (or returning to starting room of the game), in which you can spend the gold you collect in the world to purchase upgrades to your attack, shields, and abilities.
Speaking of death, prepare to die a lot. Like, a staggering amount of times. Sundered is quite difficult right from the outset. Unfortuately, I can’t really call it the satisfying kind of difficulty, as this game seems like it was designed tough for the sake of it. As such, you’re forced to spend much of your time grinding gold to upgrade your stats, which begins feeling like a massive chore the later you get into the game.
Of final note is this game’s absolute highlight: the boss battles. There are only a few, but all of them are incredibly memorable. These things are massive monstrosities that dwarf Eshe twentyfold, providing a satisfying challenge and forcing you to use everything in your arsenal.
As mentioned earlier, Sundered features hand-drawn art and assets, and the result is absolutely stunning. Each of the three main environments you’ll explore emanate style, and non-procedurally generated rooms stand out even more. The creatures you fight are unique and wonderfully animated, and the bosses are grotesquely terrifying.
On the down side, though, there isn’t much enemy variety. In each of the main environments, you’ll be fighting the same four or five enemies, with multiple palette swaps throughout. It’s not incredibly annoying, but as you’ll be spending about five hours in each of the environments, it does become quickly noticeable.
Musical presentation is a bit of a mixed bag. In most of the game, the soundtrack is atmospheric, blending into the background to the point I hardly noticed it. You’ll still want to pay attention, though, as there are subtle audio clues as to when an enemy horde is going to rush you, and noticing it early enough can give you time to prepare.
The musical highlight comes, once again, during boss battles. The tracks here actually change as the battle progresses – as the boss becomes more threatening, so does the music. This gradual increase in intensity serves to amp up the emotional excitement of these moments.
Bask in the Horror
Overall, Sundered is an engrossing experience that could have used a bit more polish on the gameplay front. The graphical design here is top notch, but the actual exploration and battle system suffers due to the randomly generated rooms and enemies.
Really, it’s the areas built with specific purpose that are the highlights. The distorted areas that provide plot exposition. The rooms where you find abilities and equipment. Most notably, the boss battles, which are far and away the best thing about this title.
Even with the repetitiveness and occasionally ridiculous difficulty, Sundered is still a title I’d recommend to fans of the genre. It’s worth it just for the atmosphere alone, but even beneath that, you’ll find a respectably solid game.
~ Final Score: 8/10 ~
Review copy provided by Thunder Lotus Games for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.