Available On: PC (Windows, Mac Linux), PlayStation 4
Friedrich Nietzsche famously said “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” In Sundered that which kills you also makes you stronger.
Sundered is a challenging, beautifully animated roguelike action-platformer from indie studio Thunder Lotus Games. With a carefully crafted difficulty ramp, Sundered excels in a genre that often teeters on the brink of frustration and repetition.
Dug Too Deep
You play as Eshe, a mysterious nomad who stumbles upon a vast cave system where bad things happened. Things that include a war between the science-minded Valkyrie and the demon-worshiping Eschatons. The result turned everyone into monsters. Naturally they want all to kill Eshe.
They will succeed, again and again. Death is not the end, however. In most roguelikes you have to start over with a newly generated world and try again. Sundered builds upon this concept and, similar to Rogue Legacy, lets you advance your character between deaths.
You start each run in a central hub where you can access a massive web-like skill tree. You’ll pump shards dropped from monsters and containers into mostly passive skills that increase damage, health, and armor. Occasionally you’ll reach a bigger ability you can unlock, like additional health elixirs or a large increase in health or damage.
Thus progression becomes a slow and steady journey as you continually learn from your mistakes, become familiar with foes, and map out the three major regions. Exploration is mostly non-linear and you’ll need to gain a few traversal abilities like double-jump and air dash to gain access to new areas, perks, and bosses.
The map’s random generation is an effective compromise. The overall structure and placement of major locations, such as bosses and ability shrines, are the same. Individual rooms in between will shift around, making each run unique. While I was incredibly thankful for the on-screen minimap, it’s just cruel that the game doesn’t pause whenever I frequently had to pull up the larger map.
Fear the Horde
The art style is the real star of the game, with beautifully hand-drawn animations and frightening alien and demonic creature designs. Minibosses are mostly just larger versions of regular monsters in special rooms, but the major boss fights are an entire experience. The camera pulls back as you deal with a visual onslaught of attacks. Sometimes I even lost sight of Eshe, which often spelled doom.
The intriguing combination of robots and Cthulhu monsters creates a fun mix of eldritch horror and sci-fi elements – particularly the creepy demon-voiced narrator that praises or chides you based on your choices.
Those choices stem from Elder Shards, which you get from defeating bosses and mini-bosses. They can be corrupted to modify new abilities, such as giving Eshe a cool-looking demon glide ability, or destroyed to unlock new abilities on the skill tree. The choices ultimately determine which end boss you face and which ending you’ll receive.
The story is mostly told through brief vignettes. You’ll find a few crystalline story rooms when your demon-friend becomes a bit more talkative, and around boss battles. But you’ll spend the majority of your time fighting hordes of monsters and trying to survive the next room.
Enemies aren’t found on the map at all. Instead they spawn from off screen and barrel towards you. This can feel a bit unfair, but also creates a sense of urgency, particularly when a horde is spawned.
Like Left 4 Dead, you will fear the cacophony of screams. It signals an incoming horde, a massive swarm of monsters that will most likely end you if you’re caught off guard. Many times I’d flee to the next shortcut or treasure room, heart beating wildly to reach my goal before I was overtaken.
Eshe’s combat options are disappointingly limited. You’ll have to find a cadence between button-mashing your single attack with dodging out of the way and using distance to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Despite the odd limitation I enjoyed the challenge level and found the difficulty ramp within each region more fun than frustrating.
Sundered has been rated T for Teen by the ESRB, with Violence and Blood. Most of the cavern areas are supremely creepy (though not gory) and filled with nightmarish demons.
If the words “metroidvania” and “roguelike” excite you, you should feel right at home in Sundered’s gorgeous world and challenging, adrenaline-soaked gameplay. I’m never been a big fan of the large Path of Exile-style spiderweb skill trees, however. It makes advancement slow and methodical, and Eshe’s combat abilities never really grow any more complex, even after acquiring a large gun as a subweapon. But her movement and controls feel satisfying (wall jumping!), and the world is fun to explore, creating an action-platformer that’s far more hit than miss.