Our review has now been updated with post-release impressions. Read them below!
I stumbled into Raslan like a newborn foal, aimless and on wobbly legs. Absolver [official site] and its labyrinthine city are not gentle with Prospects, the masked warriors who make up the game's players and AI-controlled enemies, but I assume that ritualistic combat trials aren’t typically easy-going affairs. Regardless, for the last week I have persevered, fighting my way from lowly Prospect to the coveted position of Absolver. I remain absolutely lost.
Journey is probably not the first comparison that springs to mind for a multiplayer martial arts game, but it is unexpectedly Absolver’s closest relative. Both are games of quiet beauty set in worlds filled with ruins, accompanied by a rich, atmospheric score from Austin Wintory. More notable, however, is the forging of fleeting partnerships with anonymous strangers that lies at their heart.
I’d been fighting for a few hours, barely scraping the surface of Absolver’s elaborate and technical combat system, when I got myself into a bit of bother. Another Prospect, an NPC, had ambushed me as I wandered, confused, through the Raslan docks. I’d only just survived a beating, so I expected to lose this one rather swiftly. Then, out of the alley a human player appeared. A potential chum. He swiftly charged in and unleashed a barrage of kicks. At my face.
Thankfully the other player proceeded to kill my NPC ambusher and not me. After the fight he helped me off the ground and, through Absolver’s gesture system, tried to make it clear that knocking me out was a mistake. These things, I’ve since learned, happen all the time. You get carried away and, before you realise it, you’re kicking your pal in the skull.
During my travels through Raslan I’ve encountered countless allies, and more than a few new enemies. It’s not an MMO, but Absolver connects players on the fly, and even with the low pre-launch player numbers, there’s almost always been someone sharing the world with me.
The fact that it isn’t an MMO makes interactions with other Prospects all the more meaningful. Raslan’s an incredibly lonely place; it’s beautiful, sure, but it’s still a dead city populated almost exclusively by warriors who want to fight you. Meeting another player is as rewarding as finding loot-containing cairns. It’s a temporary respite from the isolation, perhaps an ally in your quest, maybe even a mentor who can teach you how to fight and how to navigate the maze.
By restricting communication, Absolver has actually made me more sociable. In a typical online game, I’m unlikely to stop and chat to random players, but in Absolver I’m always happy to encounter a new Prospect. If they’re fighting, I’ll stop and watch, giving them a thumbs up when they win. If they’re struggling, I’ll jump in and maybe join them for a few more fights. And if we duel, it’s always followed by a polite bow.
The simpler gestures make me more willing to communicate because, frankly, it’s less effort, but it also makes it less likely that I’ll have to deal with someone acting like an arsehole. It feels thematically appropriate, too, as if each Prospect has taken a vow of silence to better focus on their trials.
Absolver has a conventional level system, where you get experience from combat that translates into points that can be added to attributes like strength and dexterity. But it also has a distinctly unconventional skill system, where new combat moves can be learned through fighting before being applied to a deck and used in battle. The simplest way to learn new moves is to block or dodge attacks in regular combat, but players can also engage in friendly spars, teaching each others their combos.
Other players are invaluable, then, providing much better opportunities to perfect your techniques, while you play that same part for them. Eventually, after getting a few PvP battles under your belt -- you can queue up for structured 1v1 PvP duels -- it’s possible to become a mentor, starting a combat school to educate other Prospects. I’ve resigned myself to waiting until after launch to embark on such an enterprise, since it requires a community that has yet to arrive.
Constructing new decks and then learning their rhythms, perfecting the timing of each strike for maximum effect, is utterly compulsive, like Pokemon for warrior monks. Combat is very much an art form in Absolver, and despite the uppercuts, flying kicks and swords, it never really feels violent. It’s aggressive, sure, but in the same way a dance can be aggressive. Duels become dance-offs, and each deck a set of steps that must be remembered and combined to the beat of an internal DJ.
Getting to grips with the system isn’t something that comes quickly, though fighters are easy to control. There's one button for your basic attacks, strung together to create combos, and another for heavy attacks, and they all drain stamina. So far, so simple, but stances complicate matters. Every customisable combat deck contains four combos, each with three moves, assigned to a specific stance. So what combo you use is determined by your position relative to your opponent. In the forward-right stance, for instance, you might start off with a kick, but in the back-left stance it could be a swift elbow jab behind you. The trick is to craft combos that flow effortlessly into each other, leaving no gaps for enemies to strike. Ultimately, you'll want your combo finishers, the third move, to set you up for another attack straight away.
In addition to all your deadly kicks and punches are special skills, like shields or debuffs, that can be learned by defeating specific enemies. Swords and fist weapons can be unlocked, too, and with them you get another deck, and more moves that have to be studied and added. Further deck slots are unlocked later, introducing even more flexibility and, yes, complexity. Throw in dodges, dashes and parries, and it might actually be easier to just learn how to dance. But not nearly as much fun.
I’ve not even mentioned gear. Or weight, and how it relates to speed and how quickly I can unleash a beatdown. Or how each new piece of armour comes with agonising decisions. Do I want to give up my swiftness, and thus my damage output, for an increase in my defence against cuts? Or do I want to take a risk and wear the flimsiest of gear with the promise that I’ll strike like a viper? The most important concern, of course, is do I look good in it?
I must have experienced just about every type of fight imaginable. Long, tense one-on-one duels where we slowly circle each other, locked on, waiting for an opening; furious brawls where neither of us rest, even when our stamina gauge teeters on empty; terrifying battles against three enemies at once, forcing me to dash around and change stances constantly; and even fights that last a mere second, with one of us swiftly kicking the other off a cliff -- I'm still crap, but I'm a crap veteran. And, surprisingly, fights against the AI prove to be just as tense and dangerous, with the AI being as unpredictable as a human opponent.
Look, I'm trying to tell you everything you need to know, passing on my wisdom just as I pass on my combos, but my attention is waning because my obsessive streak is demanding that I hop back into the game to make some changes to my build. But I can't do that just yet because I have to tell you all about Absolver’s not insignificant problems.
Though Absolver is a multiplayer game through and through, it doesn’t always make teaming up easy. Boss battles are single-player only affairs, even though sub-bosses aren’t; getting knocked out and then respawning removes you from a co-op group, even though it keeps you in the same instance; and hitting a buddy too many times turns them hostile, breaking up the party.
All of these things seem directly opposed to the philosophy of seamlessly connecting players. Aside from the first example, they feel like punishments for things that already have consequences. So being forced to send a request to cancel hostilities, and then another to rejoin the group might make you more likely to be cautious in future, but it’s entirely redundant when friendly damage already teaches that lesson. The only result is breaking up the flow of the game.
These peculiarities are made even more frustrating when they’re accompanied by crashes, stalls, disconnects and lag. Before the weekend, the game often descended into unplayable territory, especially in co-op. The lag and disconnects seem to have subsided, though I did experience one more crash on Monday.
I’ve made some favourable comparisons to Journey, but the similarities aren’t always to Absolver’s benefit. Like Journey, it provides little in the way of direction and explanations, but unlike Journey, Absolver is quite complex, with its deep combat system and RPG trappings, and it has an unusual structure that isn’t particularly clear. Not at the start, and not even at the very abrupt end.
Some five hours into the game, I reached the tower that dominates Raslan. After a climb that seemingly forced my co-op partner and I to break our party, even though we both saw other players in our respective instances, I reached its zenith. Cue a silent cutscene, then a battle and then… the end of the game. What feels entirely like a first act is actually the whole journey. The rest of the game is spent wandering the world, looking for humans to fight and teach, or queueing for more structured PvP.
It’s not just jarring because of how abrupt it is, it’s jarring because it ends with so little fanfare, and no real explanation of what happens next. Indeed, both myself and my co-op brawling buddy were convinced that there was more to it, and that we just needed to find another door, or another map carved into a monolith. But that was it. And if you've noticed that I've not really mentioned the story, that's because I'm still looking for it. Absolver makes Dark Souls seem positively exposition-heavy. What brief bits of NPC dialogue exist reveal next to nothing, and there's little in the way of environmental storytelling, either. All I know is that I had to climb a tower and become an Absolver so I could protect people and teach new warriors.
The PvP is fantastic, and I have plenty of moves still to learn, but if anything I feel more aimless than I did at the start. At least then I had a tower to climb, but now I’m just pottering around in a small world that I’ve already explored, hoping to bump into someone willing to duel. They usually are, but there are still gaps where I just stand around, waiting.
Proper PvP duels, started by finding an altar and then using the matchmaking system, offer more instant action, but the small number of players means that there’s rarely ever someone else queuing when I am, and queuing also means I’m unable to look for bouts in the open-world, or do anything other than kneel in front of the altar, which seems like a significant oversight.
Some -- but certainly not all -- of these issues will hopefully be alleviated by the influx of players after today’s launch, and I’m not done with Absolver yet, but I do have concerns about its longevity. More post-launch PvP modes have been promised, and it will absolutely need them if it wants to keep people around after the first week. Random scraps in the forest can only keep people occupied for so long.
Update after a week of post-release play:
Almost a week after Absolver’s launch, I’ve still been answering its call, doling out batterings and taking more than a few lumps myself. The combat continues to be a digital pugilist’s dream, and now that the servers are full of new players, PvP has started to take up a lot of my time.
The broad range of individual moves, martial arts styles and potential combos makes every fight a surprise. It’s very hard to predict how an opponent is going to attack, and even when it feels like I’ve gotten a bead on them, there’s always the chance that they’ll quickly cancel a combo I recognise and bust out a trick I’ve not seen before. Finding opponents is a doddle, too, with servers full of potential foes, but the simplest way to get into a game of fisticuffs is through PvP matchmaking.
Combat trials, the name Absolver gives its PvP mode, isn’t particularly different from the vanilla open-world PvP. It’s more structured, however, where brawlers must win three rounds to claim victory, and each bout takes place in an enclosed arena drawn from spaces in the open-world. These arenas are, in a few cases, visually striking, but their only feature that has an impact on the battles are the occasional long drops.
What I wouldn’t give to never have to deal with another one ever again. In the open-world, it can be thrilling to kick an enemy into a river or off a cliff, but in PvP the apparent temptation to knock an opponent off a ledge risks ruining the entire scrap. The best fights are the long ones, where there’s a struggle, but also an opportunity for each player to learn some new moves.
I was worried, last week, that the dearth of PvP modes -- there’s only a single 1v1 mode -- could put the longevity of the game in jeopardy, and while their absence, on top of persistent issues like server lag and PvP matches sometimes not getting past the load screen, makes Absolver feel a bit like an Early Access game, I find myself compelled to keep fighting.
More players mean more chances to flesh out my burgeoning collection of combat decks. Since launch, I’ve made significantly more progress than during my review. But there’s another way to increase one’s bag of tricks: schools. These optional organisations let you join up to learn new abilities, such as heals and stuns, along with fancy combos.
It’s a great system that encourages PvP by teaching you even more new skills as you use that school’s abilities in the combat trials. Unfortunately, it’s utterly obfuscated thanks to Sloclap’s desire to keep players in the dark. Players can start their own schools after they’ve risen through the ranks in the combat trials, though the process of joining them is never explained, and the limited communication available to players makes it even harder. You need to meet a player who is already in that school, then head to the altar, look through the list of players you’ve encountered, find the one that’s in the school you’d like to join and then enroll.
So far, there don’t seem to be many -- if any -- player-created schools, but thankfully there’s a pre-existing one: Stagger School. You’ll need to fight an optional sub-boss in a quest and then open a secret door to join, but it’s worth it to become a drunken master. It’s a sneaky, hard-to-parse style that is great at catching opponents off-guard, and for anyone who is a fan of Jackie Chan’s two greatest movies, it’s a real treat. It’s worth noting, however, that while schools give you new combos, you’ll still need to go out and learn the moves yourself, either by learning them from human chums, or by brawling with enemies who already know those moves.
I still like Absolver a lot, probably even more than I did before launch. Thanks to the myriad possible move and combo loadouts, along with the various weapons and classes, PvP is both challenging and full of unexpected comebacks and knife-edge duels, but it just doesn’t feel like a complete experience. Bugs, server issues, a small, dull open-world and the lack of modes is definitely holding it back.