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.