Sundered, the most recent release from Thunder Lotus Games – makers of Jotun – is another in a long line of successful Kickstarter ventures. While there have been some crowd-funded stinkers, others have been rousing successes, like the incredible Hyper Light Drifter. Sundered lands somewhere in the middle of those two as it does some things incredibly, but falls infuriatingly short in other areas.
First off, Sundered is a Metroidvania game, and a relatively standard one at that. It features a large map with areas that you can’t access right away, incremental upgrades, side-scrolling – the works. That being said, being a standard Metroidvania release isn’t exactly a bad thing: it’s a tried-and-true formula and it serves the title well –especially given the fact that Thunder Lotus has a couple of unique ideas up its collective sleeve.
You assume the role of Eshe, a woman exploring a ravaged world. A war between two factions – The Valkyries and Eschatons – over a powerful and mysterious stone has upset the balance of reality, resulting in a flood of disturbing creatures enveloping the land. As you wander, you’ll have to fight them off, while uncovering the secrets of the world for yourself. To do this you’ll have to navigate the game’s ever-changing environments. And this is where its most unique feature comes into play.
While the general map layout of the game is intact, individual chunks of it are procedurally generated, meaning that while large swathes of the map are in the same place, the rooms within those places will change each time you die. And you’ll die. A lot. On the bright side, your constant death is what leads to the unlock tree offered in the game, and we’ve got to say, it has one of the most expansive and impressive unlock trees we’ve seen in some time. Filling out the maze-like tree will result in hundreds of unlocks, all of which help prepare Eshe for the fights ahead. While it doesn’t feel particularly impactful in the earlier parts of the game, as you keep adding to it, you'll slowly start to feel the increase in power affect you in-game. Unfortunately, getting past the earlier portions will prove surprisingly hard. This comes down to one of the games other unique features: hordes.
In certain areas of the game, a siren of sorts will sound, and an absolutely massive onslaught of enemies will pour out of the cracks of the environment. This is the most frustrating element of the game by far. While the hordes caused massive framerate drops near constantly, Thunder Lotus has mercifully already patched this, so the frame drops are far less constant now. Even with the framerate being steady, this element is still incredibly annoying, however. In the early-game, Eshe simply isn’t strong enough to tackle the amount of enemies around her, and any combination of things we tried were met with death. Running also doesn't work as the enemies just hunt you down despite Eshe feeling nimble enough that she could in fact outrun the scenarios; other randomly encountered enemies actually inflate the number of creatures you have to deal with. Not only that, but there are rooms that you encounter that offer some insight into the game's back-story, which are legitimately interesting, that are completely ruined by enemy encounters.
At least the game has gorgeous hand-drawn environments. The enemies as well, are expertly designed, with a gorgeous and vibrant look, which makes combat exciting to look at. The mixture of organic and industrial for the environments make for some exciting backdrops with which to fight in. Even this, though, is somewhat spoiled by the enemy spawns. Apart from the hordes, the enemy spawning is random, which, while it offers excitement and surprises, also results in very little downtime with which to enjoy the game's art direction. The constant fight for survival might make for a challenge, but it makes it much harder to drink in the release's beauty.
Granted, the game’s focus is indeed on a fight for survival – its menacing but still sombre score hammers this home – rather than lazily frolicking through beauty, but we found ourselves wistfully hoping for more opportunities for downtime than we actually got. Sure, the game's shockingly long load times gave us breathers, but that’s not exactly what we had in mind.
Despite our frustrations with the game, there are still enough interesting things on display not to make the game a hard pass. One of the more highly publicised features of the title is the corruption system. Narrative-wise it’s a big deal, where Eshe can sacrifice more and more of her humanity to get increasingly more powerful abilities or resist the temptation to sacrifice bits of herself. From a gameplay standpoint, these are really just another set of upgrades, but they are painted in such a way that the moral quandary they present to you becomes one of the more engaging facets of the title. How attached to being truly human are you? Is the power worth the sacrifice? The powers are literally a game-changer for Eshe, but aren’t exactly revelatory from a design standpoint.
Sundered is a Metroidvania that's left us with mixed feelings. The gorgeous environments and enemy design help to make the title a visual treat. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t really offer enough downtime to actually enjoy that element. It instead serves up near-constant enemy encounters and frustrating hordes of enemies that end up irritating rather than exhilarating. While the game controls very well, and the upgrade tree is incredibly impressive, its light procedural elements still end up being the most unique feature.