Sundered: Eldritch Edition
Playing Time: 23 hours
I like Metroid-style games. I likes roguelike games, too, as evidenced by my first game review. Despite both of those facts, though, I was skeptical about a game claiming to combine those genres. A large chunk of the fun of Metroid games is finding hidden secrets and cool shortcuts as you get better, both by getting new mobility options as a character and by learning to spot hints of secrets as a player. Procedural map generation can lead to inspired designs on occasion, but it's far more likely to fall into senseless weirdness and/or repetitive patterns. Those two things are pretty much directly at odds.
Well, Sundered didn't implement some secret formula to resolve that conflict. Exploration is pretty much a non-factor in this game. The map is made up of large sections that have fixed entrance/exit points, with the occasional persistent rooms (mostly things like boss fight arenas or power-up locations). Those sections are then filled in with smaller rooms, with maybe a dozen different templates per area. There are spots where random treasure can be hidden in certain small room templates, but that's a pretty minor thing since it's not really a major problem to miss out on them.
Sadly, room designs are not the only place where the game is lacking in variety, even despite its short length. There are only about a dozen different types of enemies (not including bosses), padded out artificially by having palette-swapped versions with boosted stats. This might not have been a terrible problem were it not for the fact that the game throws massive hordes at you regularly. I didn't count exactly how large they were, but I wouldn't be surprised if a typical horde numbered in the area of 30-40 monsters, usually of only two or three different types. Sure, you can just run by most of them, but the game also requires a lot of grinding to get higher ranks of the various perks.
I'm really off to a positive start, aren't I?
Let me pile on a little more: look at that playing time. That's including some 8-10 hours of grinding horde-spawning treasures for perks. That's also including playing on both hard and very hard modes, since there are two paths to be seen. This is a pretty short game, at least by the standards that I'm used to. Granted, Metroid games do tend to be short, but I think my first playthroughs of the likes of Super Metroid or Metroid Zero Mission took around 15 hours each. More recently, Hollow Knight took me 38 hours. I'm sure a large part of that is because those games gave an incentive to be thorough with exploring previous areas multiple times as you get new toys to play with. The small room templates in Sundered do spawn obstacles that need certain abilities to get through, but with a couple of fixed exceptions, they're all abilities which you get in the same general area, so it's nothing like combing back through early parts of Super Metroid after getting super bombs or Hollow Knight after getting the rocket jump.
And yet, this was a fun game.
Let me rewind a bit and talk about the basics. You play as Eshe, a woman who was wandering through a wasteland when she gets pulled into an eldritch location. In there, she begins to receive aid from a sentient artifact calling itself the Shining Trapezohedron. Those familiar with Lovecraft's "The Haunter of the Dark" may recognize that name. Yes, this game has Lovecraftian window-dressing. Aside from certain names and aesthetics, though, it doesn't run too deep, so don't expect much in the way of cosmic horror here.
As you explore the location, you find certain abilities (such as a regenerating shield, a double jump, a hookshot, an airdash, etc.) as well as items known as elder shards (these are mostly from bosses, though there are a few that are just hidden in fixed parts of the environment). The Shining Trapezohedron will encourage you to use the elder shards to corrupt your abilities, allowing it to infuse them with the power of the lower deities (i.e. upgrade the abilities to add a backlash to the shield, enable a hover, add a secondary lunge to the hookshot, change the dash into an 8-way teleport, etc.). That is the core split in the game's paths: embrace the forbidden power or resist its temptation.
Quite nicely, resisting has benefits, too. Instead of gaining levels like in the Metroid-inspired Castlevania games, there's a sphere grid system for advancing. In addition to the scaling cost of each successive upgrade, each part of the grid aside from the initial area is locked behind needing to get more abilities, so you can't just grind forever. If you embrace, though, there's a portion of the grid that stays locked forever. It gets opened up by destroying elder shards, with further steps for each shard. Admittedly, the stats that you gain there don't make up for giving up the improved abilities, though there are some unique passive abilities in that part of the sphere grid.
There are also three slots that can be unlocked to equip perks. Perks come in three levels, providing successively greater benefits and drawbacks (well, "drawbacks" in most cases, because the benefits of the good perks far outweigh their drawbacks). There's a limit to which perks can be found in each area, so as with the sphere grid, you have to keep progressing to keep advancing.
Once all three of the main bosses are killed, the endgame gauntlet ("area" would be too generous, since it's a series of rooms followed by one or two final bosses) is unlocked, as is a bonus boss fight with the Magnate of the Gong. Defeating him gives a perk which essentially makes all of the enemies stronger and respawns the main bosses in return for unlocking a chance of getting even higher-level perks.
There's always something fun about exercising some system mastery, and it's definitely satisfying to have a set-up that does something like give you a 40% chance of doing critical hits for 600% damage with 30% shield recovery upon killing an enemy. Most games don't actually require that sort of effort. Thankfully, Sundered makes an effort to do so.
Those who resisted only need to fight one final boss. It starts out easy enough, but then the boss starts pumping out attacks that either deny large portions of the screen or sweep across the entire area. I'm probably making it sound harder than it actually is in saying it like that, since Eshe's dashes have a decent chunk of invisible frames, but it certainly does put up a fight.
Those who embraced get two final bosses, although it's a little misleading to say that. The first one is simple to chip away with hit-and-run tactics...as long as you spend a perk slot on bypassing enemy shields. It's possible to beat that boss without using that, but it's a massive headache. Following that is the real final boss, which is a really cool fight because it forces you to make extensive use of many of your corrupted abilities. Now, admittedly, the real final boss has far more health than it really should for no good reason other than to make the time limit seem important. Once you know what to do, it's an execution challenge where failure will kill you far faster than the time limit will. Not the greatest design, but it was fun to play.
On the graphical side of things, Sundered is gorgeous. Color contrast between decorative elements and either enemy sprites or environmental hazards isn't always great, which can lead to some "what the fuck just hurt me?" moments, but that's not really a huge problem in general. Otherwise, it's incredibly smooth and detailed, perhaps not quite as much as Hollow Knight was (which I'm drawing a comparison to only because both games had very small developer teams), but it more than holds its own on that front. I'm not someone who gets sold on graphics easily, but this game can be a real work of art at times.
The music isn't nearly as strong. Honestly, I can't even say for certain if there was constant music or if it played only during combat and the few cut scenes. The music that is there does an adequate job of supporting the mood, but it's nothing special.
The plot is...well, it was there. It's more Abrahamic than Lovecraftian, but it's not deep enough to really care about it much either way.
I opened with a lot of gripes because it's easy to dislike this games based on early impressions. Most of the early game consists of moving around rooms that are easy to navigate and just doing quick pokes dodge-canceled into backing off to slowly whittle down waves and waves of the same two or three enemies. It really only starts to pick up when you get enough abilities and perks to start actually being able to do more without it being suicidal (disclaimer that I was playing on the highest difficulties that I could, so the experience may not be such an early slog on lower settings). If you can endure that start, it ends up being a nice little game. It's nothing that I would've regretted missing, but it was enjoyable enough that I'd recommend it for someone looking for something that won't require a major time commitment.
Playing Time: 23 hours