The crimson cataclysm of a family left in ruin gives way to a solitary figure striding towards their home. A glance in a full-length mirror reveals a young woman, Sasha, without her left arm. A recent wound, for sure, but it is already bandaged. A horrific looking figure rises from a swirl of inky miasma behind her to make an offering. A weapon, a sword with an eye in its hilt, to bring about her vengeance and find her family. Severed, within a matter of moments, establishes a tone that is striking, macabre, and so very fascinating.
It reminded me of Grant Morrison’s pitch-perfect opening to All-Star Superman in offering a retelling of the Man of Steel’s origin story with a scant four panels. A confident step forward into the story that did so in such an economical way that made each panel sing all the more. Severed’s opening moments are the same. The dark and sometimes horrific tones of this game are made apparent within seconds. The croaking vocals of the demon offering a chance for vengeance and to give her slain family peace are ominous despite their words. This is a game that strides forward, room by room in near Wizardry-esque fashion, and never looks back. It employs the brightly colored aesthetic DrinkBox became known for in Guacamelee and refines it further. This is a world of intense hues, simple geometric shapes, yet the vibrant colors hide a sinister world for Sasha to explore. This is a world that is harsh and unrelenting, full of creatures that are grotesque with fungi sprouting from their backs, extra eyes and arms, and so forth.
Economical design permeates everything about Severed. There is a decided lack of exposition, and what dialogue that exists in the game tends to be four to five-word bursts. Sasha is a sufficient blank canvas for players to project themselves onto as she moves through this nightmare of monsters and death. The game will often expect the player to intuit what is happening around Sasha and why it is happening. It is a bit nebulous at times, yet makes perfect sense as the game rolls on into the six or so hours it will take to see it through. This a tale of grief and transformation and DrinkBox navigates these waters with expertise.
Severed was developed specifically with the Vita in mind and utilizes its toolset marvelously. The touch controls on the Vita are often ignored, yet DrinkBox leverages the oft-vilified means of control to great effect. The combat is immediately reminiscent of something akin to Infinity Blade or, dare I say, Fruit Ninja and some will dismiss it for that. Swipes across a touchscreen are required to make attacks and defensive measures taken by the enemy in your sights mean altering the angle of the slash. Parrying incoming attacks can be accomplished to then unleash a flurry of attacks. Most encounters will involve multiple enemies and it is there that the rhythm of combat becomes clear. Icons on the screen indicating each enemy are wreathed in a meter that will fill as their attacks draw closer. Combat evolves from simple quick slashes for easy damage to a rhythmic bouncing back and forth to parry incoming blows, apply more pressure, then hop around to keep other enemies at bay. Once the feel of combat is acquired, it isn’t long before Sasha is transformed into a whirling murder tornado. The more enemies in the fray the more fun it becomes, dancing between each with a single touch, parrying, slashing, and then on to the next one.
Damage dished out fills a meter on screen that, once full, allows for finishing blows to pause time temporarily. The enemy in question will have its limbs spread out and cuts can be made to sever them completely. The same goes eyes and other such savory bits. Once an enemy (or set of them) is dispatched, those parts are collected to enable upgrades. These range from greater damage on strikes, higher defense, more time allowed for severing limbs, and so on. Health and mana can also be upgraded by finding pieces of heart and brain as well. Five of each piece will complete a heart or brain and present it for the player to tap on. Sasha then consumes the organ bit by bit until her health or mana are upgraded.
The marriage of the grim setting, well-designed dungeon crawling that is Wizardry-lite meets Metroid, deceptively deep combat, and gorgeous presentation is made all the better by the soundtrack. The OST, composed by Yamantaka // Sonic Titan with Pantayo, is a wonder. Easily one of the best things to hit the gaming landscape this year and well worth a listen
DrinkBox Studios were initially going to release Severed in 2015. Early hands-on impressions and feedback gave the Ontario-based studio more ideas and another year of development time. The result? A definitive experience on the PlayStation Vita. Owners of the “legacy” handheld can attest that if you aren’t into the myriad JRPGs the system has on offer, then there aren’t many “must own” titles within its library. Severed stands alongside Tearaway, Gravity Rush, and Danganronpa 1 & 2 as titles that every Vita owner should have in their collection. Buy this game. Right now.
Severed was reviewed on the PlayStation Vita. A review code was provided by the publisher.
Severed presents a grim tale of grief and vengeance that offers deceptively deep combat. This is a great example of touch controls done right and the presentation is top-notch. This is a must-own Vita title.