While playing Jotun, one thought that crosses the mind is “Man, these guys really have this aesthetic thing figured out”. After finishing that game, it was clear that the developers at Thunder Lotus Games set a high bar of expectations for their future projects. Therefore, it was with high anticipation that I went into Sundered,. What I discovered is an incredible and fun experience where the gorgeous art is only the icing on the cake of beautifully executed gameplay.
Sundered follows the story of Eshe, a nomad woman that gets lost in the desert during a sandstorm. She ends up entering in a giant labyrinth of underground caverns where she finds a relic named the Shining Trapezohedron. The Trapezohedron is sentient and helps Eshe finding a way out while also giving her the power to fight the unspeakable horrors that lurk the caverns.
Sundered plays like a classic Metroidvania. The rooms of the map are connected to each other with no transition between them (except when going to a different region) and the purpose of the game is to explore, looking for ways to open the closed paths in order to advance. Of course, the entities that live in the game world will have any of that and will try to stop our heroine with every tool at their disposal.
As mentioned earlier, the game world consists of three regions: The Valkyrie Base, The Eschaton Holy City, and The Cathedral. The goal of the game is to defeat the boss residing in each of them after dispatching a unique set of enemies that will reflect the theme of the place. You’ll find yourself fighting mechanical foes in the base, ritualists and eldritch horrors in the fallen Holy City and flying sentinels (and more horrors) in the Cathedral.
Each kind of enemy has differing abilities and attack patterns. but they’re all pretty simple in the end, with only one or two attacks for each foe. Taken on their own, no single enemy will be a problem for a moderately experienced player. That’s why they’re never alone. Eshe always fights large groups of enemies, at times so large that it’s not difficult to lose our character in the mess on the screen. When confronting so many attackers at once, managing the fight is a challenge even with their relatively predictable attack patterns. This is particularly true when being attacked by a horde. If you hear a gong or an alarm siren, you have to prepare for a horde of enemies that suddenly flood the screen. This is why finding and making the best of Eshe’s abilities is pivotal to any sustained success.
There are seven abilities in the game that can be unlocked by finding ability shrines around the world. These abilities go from the classic double jump and shield to the ability to climb walls or use a grappling hook. Aside from their importance in combat, the abilities are also a way to gate certain paths until you gain the right skill. Most of the abilities are movement focused while the meat of the combat mechanics is done by using a single attack button. This makes the combat feel a bit mashy at times, with the player having to mind positioning while dealing with the monsters rather than executing on attacks. Needless to say, a more fleshed out combo system would have been appreciated.
Despite the toolkit at Eshe’s disposal, you will inevitably be dying. A lot. Sundered is a difficult game but it offers a stimulating challenge. After every death, Eshe returns to the Sanctuary, the central room of the map between the three regions. Here, she will be able to spend the shards dropped by fallen enemies to upgrade her abilities on the Trapezohedron’s tree. The progression system of Sundered is pretty similar to Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid system. You will be able to invest the shards dropped by the enemies to purchase nodes on this graph that will increase one of your stats. Once a node is purchased, all the nodes connected to it become available. There are some nodes that are more desirable and costly and give Eshe more substantial benefits (like the ability to carry more health elixirs or equip an extra perk). You really want to prioritize these and plan accordingly.
The Trapezohedron’s tree is pretty vast but not all of it is available right away. Sections of the tree are grayed out at the start and they will unlock once you find a particular ability. On one hand one would wish to have as few restraints as possible. On the other hand, even with only a couple of branches unlocked there’s a lot of room to develop your character. Besides, gateing some of the branches with this method is a good way to set the pace and prevent the player becoming too powerful too fast.
One other thing that you can do on the tree is equipping the perks that are dropped by elite enemies or are found in some rooms. As one could imagine, these perks grant passive benefit to the main character but also have pretty big drawbacks. One, for example, will greatly raise your crit chance but also lowers your health by 25%. Perks are a high-risk high reward way to customize your playstyle and a good way to spice up the game.
The main focus of the game is the exploration. Sundered really encourages you to roam around the big map, find secrets and, generally, take advantage of its nonlinearity. Exploring the setting allows players to discover the backstory of the game thanks to rooms which reveal the events that led to the destruction of the Eschaton City and the corruption of the Valkyries. While not all that original, the story is told in a way that helps to put all the events of the game in context, resulting in a very enjoyable, although limited, narrative experience.
Exploration is made much more fun by the fact that the map is partially procedurally generated. The layout of the rooms is fixed and so is the position of the important rooms, but the corridors that connect them are randomized after every death. This mix between handmade level design and randomization manages to keep the player on their toes while striving to make the navigation less confusing. The flip side of this kind of approach is that, while the manually placed rooms look great, the randomly generated tunnels that connect them are generally pretty empty and bland, looking pretty similar to one another. You won’t have much time to notice it though considering that you’ll constantly be fighting bad guys by the dozens while moving in them.
Every region has a boss and several mini bosses to fight. Mini bosses are bigger, sturdier versions of regular enemies with slightly different attack patterns. While still challenging to fight, they usually don’t take more than 3-4 attempts to defeat. Bosses are way tougher than that. Fights take place in huge arenas with the enemy filling a good portion of the screen. It will take some attempts to memorize the patterns and kill them.
Bosses drop Elder Shards while mini bosses only drop a fragment. You’ll need to find and combine three of them to obtain a full Elder Shard. These artifacts are one of the main focus of the game. Once obtained an Elder Shard, Eshe has the option to use it to corrupt one of her abilities, transforming it into a much better version of itself, or destroy it in an incinerator, gaining some shards and upgrading the Trapezhohedron’s tree. During the game is implied that using the shards to corrupt Eshe’s abilities has consequences on our heroine. Indeed, the choice of Embrace or Resist their power will have an impact on the ending of the game.
In a Metroidvania game, controls need to be smooth and precise, and Sundered has absolutely no problem in that regard. This is a game where a badly timed dodge roll means the difference between victory and a good deal of backtracking from the Sanctuary. Feeling always in control of Eshe’s movements is of major importance. The game is playable with a keyboard but gives its best when played with a gamepad.
As expected in a release by Thunder Lotus Games, the aspect that really makes Sundered stand out is its presentation. Beautiful handcrafted art and amazing animations make Sundered a real joy to look at. The art truly manages to convey the theme of each distinct region with the help of a great sound direction and the excellent character design on both Eshe and her enemies. You can really feel the mechanical coldness of the machinery in the Valkyries base and the ominous intent of the fallen Eschatonian Holy City.
To wrap it up, Sundered is as awesome to see as it is wonderful to play. If I had to point out a flaw, I’d say that sometimes the game throws more at you than you can handle. Also, there are points in the game where the enemies spawn indefinitely and you’re supposed to get to the end of the room instead of fighting them and the game doesn’t really make it clear. Aside of that, Sundered is definitely the game to play for people who like Metroidvanias and are looking for a challenging yet rewarding title.More About This Game
Sundered is an interesting take on the Metroidvania genre. Eshe's journey to collect the elder shards is adrenaline fueled and challenging. While the game is not free from flaws, it more than worthy of a spot in most collections.
- Stunning Visual Direction
- Frenetic and Fun Combat
- Great Boss Design
- Clunky Story Exposition
- Constant Mobs of Simplistic Enemies