Republished on Wednesday 27th June 2018: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of July's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
As we looked away from the screen to make some review notes, another player rounded the corner and started beating our motionless avatar. Not wanting to stand for such horseplay, we retaliated, which must have caught them by surprise, as it wasn’t long before they were on the ground, defeated. We revived the player and invited them to join us co-operatively, and so we did - all for a few minutes, until we accidentally kicked them in the head.
It’s this kind of interaction that separates Absolver from most brawlers. This latest title from Devolver Digital is an online-focused fighter where your aim is to become the best bruiser you can by doing battle with all on your path. You begin the game as a Prospect and are tasked with defeating a handful of bosses in your quest to become an Absolver. There is very little in the way of narrative, with most storytelling implied by flavour text, the odd NPC, and the world itself - a ruined civilisation full of crumbling architecture and tranquil vistas. Once you’ve customised your Prospect and picked one of the three fighting classes, you’re sent into the world to scrap with all and sundry.
And, fortunately, the fighting is very well done here. Punches and kicks land with real impact, the tactile thuds and thwacks giving plenty of feedback. Pulling off moves is mostly down to just two buttons, but rest assured that there is plenty of extra nuance layered on top to keep things interesting. You need to manage blocking and dodging incoming attacks, feinting your own manoeuvres to keep the foe guessing, swapping in and out of the four stances and more besides, all while also watching your stamina metre. You can’t button mash, either, as moves are pulled off more quickly if you successfully chain them into each other by hitting just as your character flashes gold. There’s a lot to think about, but it’s a fresh, satisfying combat system that feels extremely rewarding once you learn its intricacies.
Winning fights means XP, of course, and there are various altars that act like the bonfires in Dark Souls. At altars, you can level up your character, increasing your stats with any accrued attribute points, as well as equip different clothing, weaponry, and abilities. It’s all typical, straightforward RPG-lite stuff.
More interesting is the method by which you learn new moves. When you successfully defend an incoming attack you haven’t learned yet, you start to gain XP for that move, and if you beat your opponent, you get to keep that XP. Once the symbol for that move has been fully outlined, you unlock it, and can use it yourself. It’s a neat way of introducing new manoeuvres and encourages you to spar with everyone you come across to see if they have anything to teach you.
Any new moves you do learn can then be equipped in what is Absolver’s real stroke of genius: the combat deck. This is your fully customisable moveset, and it’s an extremely flexible tool that allows you to constantly change up or refine your play style. The four stances we briefly mentioned earlier each have up to three slots. You can assign a move to each slot you’ve unlocked, mixing and matching as you like with fast moves, powerful moves, charged attacks, and so on. You can equip moves from the other classes, although you get bonus damage for attacks of your own class. Some transition between the four stances automatically, so if you want to, you can have a combo that loops endlessly. There are also slots for alternative moves which you can use to further diversify your moveset. Weaponised combat gets its own combat deck, too. The combinations are virtually endless, and you can spend as much or as little time as you like tinkering and perfecting.
The combat deck means that no two players will have the same combos, adding a layer of unpredictability to proceedings. Absolver’s combat is one of those game systems that constantly feeds into itself, with every aspect complementing another, and nothing without a purpose. Another example of this is the armour, which is occasionally dropped by enemies but can also be found in the world. Heavier armour tends to give better protection but reduces your speed and damage output, adding yet another layer of customisation and character building.
If you’re feeling confident in your Prospect’s abilities, you can access Combat Trials via the altars. These are 1v1 battles, with the first to three knockouts claiming victory. Ranking up here unlocks the ability to form your own school. If you do, other players can join and will have access to your combat deck. What this means is that they will instantly have access to your moves whether they’ve learned the attacks the hard way or not. You can also join a school if you fancy trying out an entirely different style but you can only be a member of one school at a time.
Unfortunately, for as good as the online elements are, the stability is currently very turbulent. We experienced moments of no lag at all, but also moments bordering on unplayable. There is an offline mode, but it neuters the game with only AI fighters to tango with and slim single player content. The framerate can also be rocky even when playing offline. We’re hoping that this is just early teething issues that the developer can iron out, but as of right now, it’s a problem, especially for a game with combat so reliant on timing and judgement.
It’s a real shame that it’s currently experiencing these connectivity issues, as Absolver is an otherwise great melee action game. The combat is deep, tactical, and wonderfully customisable, and interacting co-operatively or competitively with other players can be a real joy. Once SloClap can ensure players of a lag-free environment to play in, this will be a knockout multiplayer brawler.