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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (359)

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Sundered 3/5
Iconoclasts 3/5
Divinity: Original Sin 2 4.5/5
Heroes of the Monkey Ta... 4/5
Lands of Lore III 2.5/5
Lands of Lore II: Guard... 1/5
Lands of Lore: Throne o... 2/5
Rage 2 4/5
EnHanced 3.5/5
Blossom Tales: The Slee... 3.5/5
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 2.5/5
Far Cry 5 4/5
Jotun 2/5
Armada 4/5
RiME 2.5/5
Song of the Deep 4.5/5
Shadowrun: Hong Kong 4/5
Destiny 2 4/5
Shadowrun: Dragonfall 4/5
Shadowrun Returns 3/5
Kirby Star Allies 3.5/5
Dark Quest 2 3.5/5
Never Alone 3/5
Octopath Traveler 3/5
Guacamelee! 2 4/5

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Sundered   PC (Steam) 

Maddening    3/5 stars

“Sundered” is the second major release by Montreal-based Indie developer, Thunder Lotus Games. Their first attempt, “Jotun,” did little to impress me outside of its visuals, so I was hard-pressed to find a reason to give their second game a shot… but with the state of local cooperative multi-player gaming, the MJ Crew was casting about in desperation, and “Sundered” was really cheap during a Steam sale, so I bought it for us.

Presentation
Like its older sibling, “Jotun,” “Sundered” features absolutely gorgeous hand-drawn cartoon visuals that look like something out of a parallel universe where CGI didn’t completely take over the commercial animation space, and companies like Disney, Don Bluth Productions, and Warner Bros. continued to churn-out traditional animation after the 1990s. Environments are appropriately bleak and haunting, while enemy designs run the gamut from wildly creative to hauntingly familiar.

Audiowise, “Sundered” is likewise frighteningly competent, with an appropriate soundtrack, eerie sound effects, and occasional spurts of foreign-language narration (I’m not sure if it’s Icelandic again – as it was in “Jotun” – or not) that go a long way in cementing the game’s creepy and Lovecraftian atmosphere.

Technically, “Sundered” is a likewise polished piece of software. We never experienced any glitches, hitches, or bad behavior, outside of a certain player mashing his Start button a little too quickly and assigning himself the wrong player number (which can be manually changed in the options). “Sundered” supports Xinput controllers natively out of the box and features the increasingly-rare feature of 4-player local cooperative play for the entire story.

Story
“Sundered” tells a tale of eldritch horror and madness, with characters and concepts ripped straight from the pages of H.P. Lovecraft, uncomfortably stitched-together with a variety of sci-fi elements.

Our heroine is Eshe, a mysterious hooded woman who finds herself trapped within a sprawling underground complex with little explanation of why or how. A voice in the dark speaks to her, which is soon revealed to belong to the Trapezohedron, a living weapon that promises Eshe great power and a way out of the dark below.

As Eshe makes her way through the vast underground, the Trapezohedron occasionally narrates tales from past events that lead to the underground being in the state it is, with eldritch abominations (some of which greatly resemble No Face from the Miyazaki anime film, “Spirited Away”) and out of control machinery. The Trapezohedrod urges Eshe to collect lost fragments of itself, called Elder Shards, but accidentally lets slip that invading technological forces built a blast furnace underground with the express purpose of destroying those same shards.

Thus the player – as Eshe – must make a decision: Go along with the Trapezohedron’s plans to repair itself or destroy one-or-all of these mysterious artifacts that come across as very obviously Not Nice. This decision will lead, ultimately, to one of three different endings.

As far as excuse narratives and premises go in Metroidvania games, the push to explore in “Sundered” could be a lot worse. However, due to the game’s non-linear nature and somewhat strange pacing, the player can go a long time between lore-dumps. Moreover, the “good” ending, which the MJ Crew strove for, since we all are very good people, is kind of a let-down, with no real summary explanation for what the eff just happened. Even though “Sundered” only clocks in at about 15 hours for a very thorough playthrough, I can’t say any of us felt compelled to start over in order to go for the other two endings.

Gameplay
“Sundred” seems, at first, to be a very by-the-book Metroidvania title. It features a fairly large, interconnected side-scrolling map for the player to explore, with numerous blocked passages and seeming dead-ends that can, in fact, be traversed later on, upon acquiring one of a variety of new abilities. But that’s really where the standardization ends.

“Sundered” features a single save point at the center of its world map. As the player(s) ventures out into the world, they will accumulate a currency called Shards, which can ONLY be spent at the central save point. Shards provide the player with the vast majority of their new capabilities, as they can be spent to unlock nodes in a skill tree that expands with each boss defeated and each Elder Shard acquired. While most of the nodes on the skill tree are triangular motes with three levels of upgrade for a generic stat (like Health, Shield, Melee Damage, Luck, etc.), following the various branches of the tree also leads to more significant upgrades, including major skills (which, as mentioned, only appear after defeating the connected boss) and significant upgrades to basic gameplay systems, like the number of dodges a player can perform in a row, how many healing potions they can carry (these are always refilled at the save point, but also drop randomly from slain enemies), etc. As the player spends Shards on upgrades, every other upgrade’s Shard cost increases, creating an inflation-based leveling system that requires the player to do ever more grinding in order to afford new skills and stat boosts.

More importantly for character customization, though, is the fact that the player can equip incredibly powerful items simply called Perks to their character. The player starts with a single Perk slot, but gains a maximum of four by the end of the game. Perks basically allow players to come up with character ‘builds,’ oftentimes to game-breaking effect. Unfortunately, Perks drop randomly from slain enemies or opened treasures, making them incredibly unreliable in the early game. Furthermore, each Perk has four possible upgrade levels… each attained by getting another copy of said Perk as a random drop.

While it may seem incredibly annoying that the save point is in the center of the map, there’s a shortcut from the main menu that teleports the player back to it from anywhere, and death, naturally, sends the player back as well. One of the main points of exploring the game’s environs seems to be unlocking shortcuts and new routes that make getting around the map less time consuming and tedious… but that never actually happens because of the game’s odd inclusion of procedural generation. Every time the player dies and returns to the home base (though not when they choose to teleport back from the menu), every room on the map gets shuffled around a bit. That isn’t to say that the map actually changes – it doesn’t. However, the paths and tunnels within each static room on the map will change themselves around, which only serves to make returning to a boss room after failing a more time-consuming and attention-demanding process than it really needs to be.

Each of the world map’s three major regions hides three mini-bosses, a main boss, and a hidden elder shard fragment, along with numerous respawning, procedurally generated bushes that poop treasure (and rarely Perks). Each region also hides a number of secrets for the player to uncover, which are tied to additional new skills on the skill tree. Lastly, there are a handful of temporary buffs that procedurally appear around the various regions, but they are not only very short-term in duration, thus largely useless.

The basics of gameplay in “Sundered” therefore involve traversing the map in search of ways to make Eshe powerful enough to take-on the pattern-memorization-based bosses in each region. Hindering the player in this goal are standard enemies. However, these enemies don’t just populate the map in static locations, but can appear anytime, anywhere, and often in ridiculously large numbers. The game refers to this as the ‘Horde System,’ and I found it to be generally quite annoying. When enemies present a challenge to a player, Hordes are essentially a free trip back to the save point. They hinder exploration through their dogged persistence, and generally make it a miserable experience. Even after the player has out-upgraded the Hordes in a given region (each region, naturally, features stronger enemies), they still appear in numbers to harass and distract, and they succeed because combat is almost entirely melee-based, making it necessary to get stuck-in with the Hordes in order to deal with them, in most cases.

Finally, “Sundered” loves to talk itself up as a ‘non-linear’ game. And it kinda-sorta is. The player(s) will frequently hit a wall where they can’t proceed without a certain ability and can’t defeat a certain boss without dumping more Shards into stat boost, so instead of mindlessly grinding, the game rather opaquely encourages players to head to other regions to see what’s there, even as they passively accumulate Shards from the constant Horde-based enemy spam. However, the player does have to clear the three regions of the game in roughly the correct order, as ‘end game enemies require end game stats,’ according to one loading screen tip, and the fact that defeating bosses and acquiring their Elder Shards it tied to new ability acquisition and further expansion of the skill tree.

For most of the game, “Sundered” feels uncomfortably difficult, though is suppose that could have been due to playing it multi-player, with three characters all sharing the same health bar, but taking damage individually. However, by the end, with a great Perk build and all of the upgrades unlocked, it becomes comically easy. Thus the balance of the whole thing feels really out-of-whack.

Overall
“Sundered” isn’t the worst modern Metroidvania I’ve ever played, but I certainly never found myself looking forward to a session. From the Horde System, to the procedural generation, to the grindiness of gathering shards and hunting for Perk drops, “Sundered” seems like it’s just trying to push all of my buttons and piss me off. But it’s really pretty and has local coop, so “yay,” I guess.

Presentation: 5/5
Story: 3/5
Gameplay: 3./5
Overall (not an average): 3/5

 

 


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