Martial Arts Sim Absolver Was One Of E3’s Best Games

I saw good games at E3 and I saw great games, but no other game surprised and delighted me as much as Absolver [official site]. It’s a game about punching and kicking opponents in an open world, but describing it as a beat ‘em up seems unfair. It’s a martial arts simulator, with elements of both Dark Souls and Zeno Clash but a combat system all its own.

Even though he’d asked me to hit him as hard as I could, I apologised when the final kick landed. I’m not sure I was supposed to follow up with a roundhouse after breaking through his guard.

The man I’d just kicked in the face was my guide through the world of Absolver, and one of the developers of this extraordinary game. We’d just entered a new area, our masked characters reunited after a brief separation, and had paused to spar.

Playing a game while a developer sits next to you, talking you through the controls and nuances, can be a very strange experience. With Absolver, there were several points when I wondered if the chap describing the game realised how remarkable it all was. It was a bit like eating the most extraordinary meal while the chef watched over my shoulder, explaining how all of the ingredients come together. In this case, it was the kind of meal that makes a mockery of any attempt to describe those ingredients. You can say what went into the pot but the proof really is in the eating.

It begins as simply as any game I’ve ever played (Canabalt excluded). Left stick to move, right stick to look around, one button for a light attack and another for a heavy attack. Twenty minutes later, I’m told, “they’re not really light and heavy attacks. I lied,” as I customise a sequence of moves that allow me to transition from one stance to another, linking together strikes into a single flowing action. The lie is important; nothing in Absolver is as simple as it seems.

Even before you start to peel back the layers, you’re confronted with a strikingly beautiful game. The masks that the characters wear are the cherries atop a subtly surreal confection. Clothing is fully customisable and enemies leave items behind when you pummel them into submission. I shed the tattered tunic I’d started the game with and wrapped my upper body in bandages, just for the hell of it.

There are stats to take into account when playing dress-up, but given that I was playing cooperatively with one of the developers, I suspected I could strut around in my bandage-suit without worrying too much. Most of our fights were against small groups of enemies with simple attack patterns, and as soon as I’d learned how to parry, I made short work of them. Later, we ran into tougher opponents but I’d already learned enough new tricks to counter the threat.

Absolver is a skill-based game. You’ll collect new attacks and can learn them through observation, but even the most powerful strike is of little use if you don’t have an understanding of when and how to use it. The construction of movesets is central to the game’s intricate simulation of hand-to-hand combat, and piecing together a flurry of strikes that flows from one stance into another, mixing in guard breaks and other special moves, adds a level of controlled complexity that I find more exciting than anything else I’ve ever seen in a fighting game. That’s no idle remark – Absolver abandons complicated input and replaces it with customisable martial arts, planning and preparation. It’s a revelation.

It’s also slightly overwhelming, initially. There are four stances, each of which is essentially an orientation. For each of those positions, you can edit your combat deck to string together a series of moves attached to the ‘light’ attack button. The heavy attack is an interruption to that flow, an alternate strike that allows you to either react to an opponent’s awareness of your moveset or simply to mix things up. Some moves provide special bonuses and some switch your stance, which is how more complex combos can be constructed.

Three light attacks delivered from a certain orientation might be followed by an alternate strike that turns your character to the left, opening up a new branch of attacks that ends with a knockback and a swivel back to the right, looping back to that original string of light attacks. You can’t combo forever, no matter how cleverly you construct your deck and follow its threads, because there’s a stamina gauge to take into account as well. That means you’ll want to place yourself in a good defensive position as your chain of strikes peters out.

There’s a lot to think about during every encounter, which is where the Dark Souls connection comes in. Every time you raise your fists, concentration is key and you’ll need to keep your wits about you, relying on feints and parries as well as the structure of your deck.

Feints are brilliant. Perform an attack and then pull out of it as soon as the opponent moves into a blocking position, following up with a jab to their unprotected flank. What’s even more brilliant is that after fifteen minutes, feinting, parrying and constructing combos felt entirely natural – the control system (using a PS4 pad during the demo I played) is equal to the combat system. Every button press and nudge of the stick can be pivotal, but there are only a few to remember, the bulk of the combinations being built before you actually encounter an enemy.

There’s a sense of progression as well, so you won’t need to master four stances and all of the branches of your combo deck immediately. New abilities are unlocked as you move through the world, as are slots in which to place them. One of the neatest features, feeding into the martial arts roleplaying theme, is the ability to learn moves by sparring with other players. As a player uses a move against you, you’ll gradually learn that move, eventually able to use it in your own deck. That allows for mentoring, as well as the exchange of skills between masters of distinct martial arts, transferring abilities through combat.

Although I played the demo alongside a developer, our characters alternating between fighting AI enemies and sparring with one another as he taught me how to use new skills. In the game itself, you’ll be able to wander the world fighting AI enemies but other players will be dropped into your sessions. It’s another Souls-like feature, though players won’t have to purposefully invade worlds, instead just happening to share them from time to time. Whether it’ll be possible to drop directly into a friend’s world, I’m not entirely sure at this point, but it seems likely.

When you encounter other players, you can fight, trade, team up to fight the AI, or learn from one another. Even in the demo, when I had a definite ally, there were moments of tension. Friendly ‘fire’ (fists?) is enabled and I caught my companion with a couple of kicks to the side of the head before I got to grips with the targeting system. And at the end of the playthrough, we both took up swords and fought to the death.

Yes, there are swords as well as fists and feet. And they come with their own combat deck to fill with slashes, spins and stabs.

Absolver is a game about fighting but it has more layers of complexity and depth within its one central system than I expect to find in games about simulating an entire life. As I sort through my thoughts on the many games I saw at E3 last week, I’m not going to be declaring any of them the ‘winner’ of the show. But if I were, Absolver would be standing tall.

Disclosure: our own Alec contributed some words to the lore side of Absolver. He didn’t contribute a single punch or kick.


  1. AutonomyLost says:

    This excites me. I’ll be watching the trailer posted above after I’m home this afternoon. Thanks, Adam.

  2. DaftPunk says:

    Combat doesnt looks special at all :/

    • hennedo says:

      I’d be interested to know what types of combat you’ve enjoyed most in games. Maybe it’s a genre difference?

  3. KillahMate says:

    Never heard of this before – it’s now instantly in my shortlist of Games To Watch.

    Aside from the frankly incredible production values (not just the superb visual design and animation, but also thoughtfully balanced sound design), what really got me is how the game leans into one of my long time pet peeves, which is that almost all popular ‘fighting games’ bear at most a passing resemblance to the realities of actual hand-to-hand (or edged weapon) combat. I feel that much could be done by moving away from the rock/paper/scissors sets of predefined moves and special attacks, health bars, and other ‘gamey’ concepts, and in the direction of a slightly more simulationist and physicalized approach to unarmed combat.

  4. Grim_22 says:

    This looks like something right up my alley, looking forward to it. I’ve got issues with the art style for some reason, though… it reminds me of some other game that I apparently don’t like, but I can’t remember which one it is.

    • Grim_22 says:

      I will add, however, that the screenshot of the forest in this article is breathtaking.

    • Aitrus says:

      The impressionistic look feels a little Life Is Strange-y, but I doubt that’s what you’re thinking of.

      • TheAngriestHobo says:

        You’re thinking of Life is Pain, the Life is Strange fighting game coming in Q4 2017.

        • Aitrus says:

          Tagline – “Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.”

    • Pilchardo says:

      I instantly thought of The Witness when I saw it. Doubt there’ll be many other similarities though…

  5. DanMan says:

    This comes down to how good matchmaking will be. If you get your ass kicked by pros all the time, it’ll die fast.

    • Blackcompany says:

      Agreed. Games like this need either PVE servers, or incentives to group up and learn from one another that greatly outweigh just killing everyone else.

      Had DayZ ever bothered to learn this, it might still be a thing…instead, it helped kill a genre it had previously helped create.

  6. thatfuzzybastard says:

    The fighting deck system reminds me a bit of God Hand… which is a very good thing.

  7. Assirra says:

    This looks really cool.
    Seriously, is there any place where i can find EVERY trailer of E3? I keep finding stuff i didn’t knew about for a week.

  8. indigochill says:

    The “Pre-build your own combos” thing sounds like Remember Me, which is also by a studio in Paris. I’d have a hard time believing there’s no connection. In fact, given that we haven’t seen any similar mechanics from DONTNOD since then and knowing how developers tend to move between studios, I’d hazard a guess this might have some of those guys working on it.

    This looks like it has plenty of its own feet to stand on, though, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays.

  9. GWOP says:

    Sounds great. I always wanted a spiritual successor to Oni.

    • Replikant says:

      True. Here’s hoping that “stats”, “open world” and “online” don’t add to another story- and direction-less multiplayer grind-fest.

  10. Sadfist says:

    Yeah! I am waiting for this game since I’ve first heared about it! Everything about the game feels right for me – theme, graphics, aesthetics, proper mix of PvE and PvP..
    The only thing that scares me is a controller. I really hope they will have a decent Keyboard+Mouse support, as I, personally, can’t enjoy even the most awesome games if they force me to play with controller or are controller-oriented (e.g. every time I try Dark Souls or Necropolis – it ends up with severe case of motion sickness and frustration for me). After using a keyboard to play games for 30+ years my brain simply refuses to readjust.

    • Niko says:


    • mercyRPG says:

      Well said. I can’t find “Left Stick” on my good cheap keyboard I just bought to use , because its satisfying to punch & hammer it really hard. The other fluffy expensive keyboard – I bought for coding – would fall apart by such physical abuse.

  11. Eight Rooks says:

    I’d seen the trailer already (I forget which site) but while it was incredibly pretty I’d written it off as multiplayer-only. I’m actually far more interested now. I might even risk giving it a shot (and one reason I’ve mostly given up on Dark Souls as a series is the increased emphasis on PvP).

  12. AutonomyLost says:

    Ok, just watched the trailer; I have to say that I found the small portion of combat that was featured very satisfying. I also quite enjoyed the aesthetic of the environment and characters. Thanks for the heads-up on this one, Adam. I’ll be sure to keep an eyeball or two on Absolver over the coming months.

  13. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    You had me at Dark Souls. Cor, this commenting malarkey is easy, innit.

  14. Rumpelstiltskin says:

    They should just realize that what they really want is it make it properly turn-based (though possibly with simultaneous turns).

    • April March says:

      Oh man, that reminds me of Hybrid Heaven for the N64. I have to play it with a memory pack one of these days.

  15. Terics says:

    I’m interested but not sold. What I saw of the combat made it look really slow.

  16. Rizlar says:

    Mmm give it to me.

    Looks brilliant. Only immediate concern is the online element, if the combat is as reliant on reading and responding to attacks, timing and feints etc. as it sounds then latency will surely make a complete mess of it.

  17. racccoon says:

    Does the modeler not like doing faces. I do not think this was that great a game at all. Zelda wins..

  18. April March says:

    Looks like an attempt to go way outside the box to accomplish what CLANG didn’t. It certainly makes me want to go stab people (and in the game etc).

  19. Lintire says:

    Please tell me there’s no stamina bar.

    Otherwise I’m looking pretty sold. Ambitious in all the right ways, hope it pays off.

    • Lintire says:

      Aw, I looked it up further and it does. Along with an atrocious lock-on walk speed. And no BGM, because that’s still a trend?

      I want to know who decided that BGM killed immersion.

  20. Niko says:

    That looks like a fighting game I’m interested in. The description of mechanics reminded me of PS2 game Kengo, which I quite liked.

  21. Premium User Badge

    Qazinsky says:

    That disclosure shows a lack of understanding how Alecs word slapping process work.

  22. bill says:

    Sounds great… but every time I’ve tried a melee combat game like this it’s never lived up to my expectations.
    Which might be down to me sucking, who knows.

    Fingers crossed.

  23. Daigoji_Gai says:

    Great review, but seriously, the combat system – as you described it – doesn’t sound like anything new. Sounds like the same fighting system that I remember first seeing in the underrated SoulBringer, and later in the quirky Japanese fighting game GODHAND. Really sounds like a refinement of the fighting/construction of move sets systems those games did really well – where every attack had a purpose and role, needed to know when to do them, and how to string them for the right enemies.

    • Daigoji_Gai says:

      There are four stances, each of which is essentially an orientation. For each of those positions, you can edit your combat deck to string together a series of moves attached to the ‘light’ attack button. The heavy attack is an interruption to that flow, an alternate strike that allows you to either react to an opponent’s awareness of your moveset or simply to mix things up. Some moves provide special bonuses and some switch your stance, which is how more complex combos can be constructed.”

      I mean seriously, that is a pitch perfect description of the combat system in GodHand.

  24. Hunter_Wolf says:

    First rule of fight club .. you don’t show your face in Fight Club XD

    I got some Eyes Wide Shut vibes from the “everyone is wearing masks to hide their identity” thing going on here, it’s both cool (considering some of the creative mask designs) and also a bit strange XD