If nothing else, Sundered from Jotun developer Thunder Lotus Games sure is beautiful. And for a while, I thought that’s all it was. Its hand-drawn, otherworldly art was its most outstanding feature. That it was trying to do something interesting by crossing genres and mechanics, was secondary to its art and animation.
Sundered is a 2D side-scrolling action game with a heavy emphasis on exploration. In it, you’ll play as Eshe, a woman who finds herself trapped in a constantly shifting cavern filled with eldritch horrors. It’s a cursed place, still reeling from an old war between the Valkyries and the Eschatons over an ancient power. Their battle caused a broken reality that’s turned everyone and everything inside of it into the stuff of Lovecraftian nightmares.
You’ll travel through three distinct worlds, fighting off hordes of macabre monsters and picking up new abilities along the way to help you reach previously inaccessible areas. Call it a Metroidvania game if you like, because it’s a label that fits – but Sundered does enough to keep differentiating itself from other games of this ilk, like the incredible Ori and the Blind Forest. It took a while for me to appreciate those things and for hours, I hated how Sundered deviated from the established formula.
For starters, enemies aren’t waiting in the wings for you to stumble on them. Instead, the game dynamically generates them. Sometimes, you’ll encounter just a handful. When the dreaded gong sounds, the game throws an insurmountable onslaught of macabre monsters at you. You’ll have to dive, attack, and use other powers to stay alive for long enough to earn a brief respite. You probably won’t survive though.
Death is a regular feature of Sundered – coming at the most inopportune moments. Just as you start feeling like you’re making headway through Sundered’s maddening caverns, you’re struck down by another wave of procedurally-generated deathbringers; a constant cycle of brevity and bereavement. It was frustrating. Said frustration was compounded further by the game’s roguelike nature. Whenever you die, the caverns – a combination of handcrafted and procedural rooms – reset. Your progress through the key important rooms remains, but the rooms that lead to them are different every time. It fits the theme but also, for me, takes away a little of the magic of progression in games like these where you start knowing exactly where you’re going.
But as I edged my way through, becoming more and more powerful, the frustration slowly turned into fulfilment. With each death, you begin at the opening sanctuary hub, able to invest the shards you collect in the game into your skill tree, upgrading core stats like armour, damage, shields and health – with each of the abilities you pick up along the way opening up new branches to upgrade. Each time you venture out, succumb to the odds and return strips you of your sense of progress, dually helping you feel a little stronger – and a little more ready to face the horrors ahead. You’ll need to be sufficiently buffed to tackle the game’s bosses; sometimes gargantuan, menacing creatures that tower over Eshe.
The mainstay of the genre is of course the abilities that let you reach previously inaccessible areas, and the ones here are typical of the genre; anti-grav boots, hookshots, double jumps and the like, but they’re made interesting through the game’s embrace and resist systems. When you’ve acquired a trio of elder shard pieces or one completed one, you can choose to either embrace their corruption or resist it. By revisiting the shrines that housed the abilities in the first place, you can embrace the chaos, unlocking more powerful corrupted abilities. Alternatively you can fight the temptation and incinerate the shards, earning an explosion of cash and a subtle, but more wholesome, powerup within your skill tree. The double jump as an example, becomes a demonic glide if you choose corruption, and a triple jump should you resist it.
Its disparate union of genres and ideas that coalesinton to something that frustrated me for hours before it got its beautiful hooks into me.
Last Updated: July 27, 2017
The roguelike elements didn’t quite work out for me, but I’m sure Sundered will find its audience. Though I learned not to hate them, I would have preferred if the game stuck closer to tradition. It becomes a good game, but until you really become acquainted with how it works, it can be a frustrating and monotonous slog.