Sundered [official site] is the ridiculously beautiful Metroidvania from the people who brought us the ridiculously beautiful Jotun. In a busy genre, does it do enough to stand out? Here are my thoughts:
There is, unavoidably, an issue with the Metroidvania: to do it well is usually to do it familiarly. I got into a fair old bit of hot water for expressing some of this when it came to Hollow Knight. There the notion of familiarity became, for me, an ennui that spread into the game itself, the sense of its doing something I've already done so many times before worsened by a bunch of unfun barriers between me and those aspects I'm so used to in the genre. For many others it clicked very nicely. To me, it felt like revisiting the same very pleasant holiday destination, and finding the lifts don't work and the swimming pool's closed in the evenings.
Sundered is the very pleasant holiday destination, with everything working and open, a lot like last time we visited. In fact, they've redecorated, and very splendid it all looks for it. I'm having a lovely time, weather's great, food's amazing, wish you were here.
Sundered is, yet again, a team producing a really splendid Metroidvania that adheres to the rules of the format, while sprinkling in its own slightly distinctive ingredients. For Sundered it's a combination of the breathtaking animations, and the mobbing nature of the combat. Beyond that, you do exactly as you'd expect - explore an ever-growing network of chambers and regions, able to access farther reaches and previously hidden bonuses as new skills are gained. Gained by finding special shrines, and unlocking extras from a points-based skill tree. What you have to decide is how many more times you want to come on your holidays to this particular resort.
Let's talk about the combat first. I think, if I were to imagine the median MetroV game, it would have a combination of swishy melee and aimed range combat options, with an ever-increasing selection of enemy types with their own distinct attack behaviours. And it would most likely have them placed at fixed points in a level, regenerating each time to re-visit a location. Sundered deviates from this in a couple of ways. Firstly, there's no fixed spawn points or regularity to enemy appearance, and secondly, when you do find them, they all show up at once.
It makes a big difference in terms of how you fight, if not that big of a difference when you pull out to look at the game in all. You get mobbed, those different enemy types with their different attack behaviours all trying to hit you at pretty much the same time. You're fending off a dozen, or a couple of dozen of them, the slimy crawly triangular oozes trying to zap you while flying orbs go spin-crazy and fling themselves at you while crawling whale-blobs suddenly fling themselves up into the air and dive bomb you while laser-beam firing enormous beasties curl into balls when you try to hit them while... And it works. It's messy fighting, often desperate, but you're well equipped with a regenerating shield, a half-second-invulnerability dash move, and ever-growing pools of health, strength and defence. There's a lot of frantic and ungainly scrambling to survive, but it sure makes victory taste sweet. The further you get, the more enemy types are introduced, and the more complex the dance becomes.
Death is interestingly handled, too. It carries a weight of inconvenience, resetting you back to the starting location of the game, albeit with progress inevitably opening up shortcuts and routes to get back to your point of failure pretty quickly. But your starting location also happens to be the only place where you can spend the XP you've accrued from bashing monsters and raiding organic stashes. There's an intricately complicated tree of unlockable bonuses, primarily health, damage, shield and armour, but with little extras tucked along the interlocking chains like carrying extra health elixirs, increasing shield regeneration speed, boosting your maximum armour, that sort of thing. Then you can add in perks, gathered abilities that when slotted in might increase the numbers of elixirs dropped, at the cost of reducing the total number of XP you'll gather as you go. Some with penalties like that, some without.
When it comes to the big upgrades, like the phenomenally welcome double-jump you'll pick up early on, these are found in the field, and they too open up new chains of the skill tree themselves albeit to unrelated skills. Nothing especially unusual, perhaps, but nicely delivered, and the cleverness of having you spend your gathered resources as a consequence of death definitely takes away its sting. Not least because as you head back out, you'll be better defended to survive for longer.
It's as open as you'd expect, loading hints mentioning that the first three bosses can be tackled in any order, and suggesting that if one pathway is proving too tricky, just head off in another. I'm just past the first third, and at this point I do start to worry that the boss fight difficulty spikes will become too much. I certainly am getting the floor wiped with me by one, although that has appropriately prompted me to explore other quarters.
Oh but we must talk animations. Sundered is utterly, utterly beautiful. Hand-drawn cell animations that look like a pre-CGI Disney at its very, very finest. The player character is undoubtedly the finest, every tiny detail of movement exquisitely rendered, clothes flowing and flapping, utterly mesmerising. Even a death is hard to get too upset about when you get to see the incredible little animation of turning and twisting into its own form and sinking into the ground. Enemies are lovingly designed and animated too, making for a crazy feast of pretties. And gosh, the first chapter's are as nothing compared to the swirly, twisting wraiths of the second, complete with the eldritch tentacles reaching from platforms as you explore.
But they would be for nought if it weren't fun to control, and here is where this truly shines. As soon as you've unlocked the double-jump, Sundered becomes one of the most satisfying to control platformers I can remember, your rapidly-responding movement precision perfect. And this, more than anything else, is what keeps this very familiar format interesting for me. It is, in its movement, completely sublime.
There are a couple of noteworthy faults. The enemy health gauge is as broken as it's pointless - useful for bosses, in theory, but not for general mobs. And it flat-out doesn't work, regularly staying a third or half full after you've seen the enemy die. And it's definitely lacking in its narrative, meaning you really don't want to pause at any moment to wonder why you're doing any of this. Just doing it is plenty of fun, leave it at that. And the map - the game has the odd notion of including procedurally generated sections, that really add very little to the whole kaboodle, and mean that when trekking back to a previous location you can a) sometimes not find it at all, and b) have a map that's now blanked out previously explored sections. It's not as intrusive an issue as it might sound, but it wasn't the best choice.
The result is a completely wonderful Metroidvania, but at the same time, another Metroidvania. Its distinctive animation is worthy of accolades and awards - it is simply astounding. And its novel approach to being mobbed for combat has merits, alongside some frustrations. Neither dramatically shifts the game away from the most familiar aspects of the genre, all of which it delivers extremely well. It is that lovely holiday destination, and a lovely stay you'll certainly have - the question is, fancy going there again this summer, or maybe somewhere new?
Sundered is out now for Windows, Mac and Linux for £15/$20/20€ via Steam.