The newly released Sundered, from Thunder Lotus Games is one of the latest entries into the beloved Metroidvania style. With a voluminous list of standout titles in this genre, Thunder Lotus has taken many of the best bits and pieces from other games, striving to create their own memorable experience. Players take control of Eshe, the game’s protagonist, in a “horrifying fight for sanity and survival” in a ruined world. So does it carve its own niche within the genre? Let’s dig into our Sundered review.
Developed by: Thunder Lotus Games
Published by: Thunder Lotus Games
Release date: July 28th, 2017
Platforms: PC, PS4 (review platform)
Price at time of review: $19.99 USD
- Beautiful hand-drawn art: Impressive amounts of detail breathe a stunning amount of life into Sundered’s hand-drawn artwork
- Procedural Chaos: Significant procedural geographical elements and random enemy spawning creates a constantly shifting world
- Player Choice: Sundered sports multiple endings and a character development centered around their tagline of “Resist or Embrace” in which players elect to make sacrifices for power (or not)
Story and Setting
Sundered begins with Eshe moving through a terrible sandstorm; every step forward a battle. Then [sorry, no spoilers here] happens, and Eshe finds herself in a ruined, underground world filled with Eldritch abominations. If it sounds a little Lovecraft-ian, that’s because it is. A mostly harmless Eshe soon stumbles upon the Shining Trapezohedron; a mysterious talking shape that doubles as guide and weapon. Though we’re far from assured of Trappy’s benevolence, it does the job of slicing hordes of enemies apart quite nicely. Side note: If you’ve read the right Lovecraft, you have more than a little reason to question Trappy’s benevolence…
Trappy provides much of the story elements, as he provides brief history lessons periodically. You begin to unravel the tale of the Valkyries and Eschatons, two warring factions that sought great power. While Trappy provides a good skeleton for this tale, the true beauty of the narrative is found elsewhere. Similar to Salt and Sanctuary, the skill tree has embedded clues and information for those willing to piece things together. Environmental storytelling comes through brilliantly in the hand drawn art. The industrial themes of the Valkyries and their relics contrast to the more eldritch and ethereal Eschaton counterparts. Entering a city with a name that would make Lovecraft proud is accompanied by wagging tentacles for decoration.
The game takes place in three primary regions, which need to be conquered to access the final approach. All contain a unique aesthetic, and elements that enrich the world Thunder Lotus has created in Sundered.
Sundered is a creative and robust title that uses elements from some of the best entries in the Metroidvania realm. While it doesn’t truly break new ground, this can hardly be seen as a dig for this style of game.
Character progression uses a skill tree that bears a striking resemblance to a certain Soulsvania title that most FextraLife readers will recognize (hint: it’s Salt and Sanctuary). Some branches remain locked until specific relics are obtained, or other conditions are met. Supplementing this are “perks” which function like accessory slots. They allow you to choose advantages like health regen, increased critical chances and more. However, most come with an attached disadvantage; so players must choose carefully. Is that extra damage worth lowering your HP pool? That’s your call.
Central to the plot of the game is the concept of “Resist or Embrace.” As players defeat bosses and mini-bosses they collect Elder shards and fragments. These can be embraced, which will corrupt and greatly enhance an existing power. From a narrative perspective, this comes at the cost of some of Eshe’s humanity. They can be resisted by incinerating them, which unlocks unique parts of the skill tree. And yeah, whatever you choose to do with the shards will determine which ending you receive.
One of the items our FextraLife preview covered heavily was the procedural generation within the game world. Sundered uses the procedural generation in much the same way as Rogue Legacy. Regions remain static to their orientation to each other, and the general layout remains intact. To visualize, each region has a set grouping of fairly sizable boxes/segments. Within these large segments is where the procedural magic occurs. Each contains a number of smaller segments that will change every time you die or return to the Sanctuary that serves as your base of operations. The end result is that you will always know the general direction of where your goal is, but there’s no point memorizing an exact path. Quick note, like most games with heavy procedural elements, expect somewhat long loading times when entering new regions or after dying.
Enemies spawn randomly in what Thunder Lotus refers to as “hordes.” This is apt, as you can find yourself swarmed quite easily as you progress. In addition to the random nature of the enemies, each swarm is harder than the last. Until they kill you and reset everything that is. This creates an internal ticking clock for explorers as eventually you’ll be overrun by enemies. Make no mistake: The game is out to kill you, and it’s only a matter of time. This works splendidly within the Lovecraft-ian world, but can be frustrating if you haven’t found the right shortcuts.
Combat and character skills run the usual gamut of Metroidvania abilities. Slash, shoot, double jump, air dash and more. There is no strict order for finding many of these, though some areas are inaccessible without the right skill. This also provides the standard fare of combat strategy. Stamina has become a developer favorite. It makes an appearance here and governs how many times you can rapidly do things like dodge through danger. To supplement the HP pool, Eshe gains a shield which eats a set amount of damage. Unlike HP, the shield regenerates over time; which is a necessary aspect for this title. You will be taking hits.
So then, how does this all come together as far as being a game? Mostly well. The depth of combat and strategy is as robust as Metroidvania fans have come to expect. When dealing with the first horde after a reset, you have any number of ways to move around and handle the relatively few enemies that come to gnaw your face. However, successive hordes become more difficult primarily due to the volume of enemies. While harder enemies will appear the longer you explore without a reset, it’s the mass of little guys that drive a horde. Inevitably, the number of moving pieces will eventually render it impossible to actively strategize more than “oh crap, I’m almost dead…better run around and wait for my shield to regenerate.” The largest hordes feature the least enjoyable combat as they devolve into button mashing and ultimately your death.
Mini-bosses aren’t immune to this either, with creative enemies taking a backseat to the necessity of scrambling around the horde of tiny ones. Bosses, while quite few in number (six total, but only four in any given playthrough), are grand spectacles that take place in arenas where the effort and love put into them are clear to see. Bosses aren’t free of adds, but rather than just throw the same old enemies at you en masse, they’re implemented with much more thought and feel better balanced than the large hordes and mini-boss swarms.
That video is me. That’s pretty early in the game with somewhat weak enemies. That is not even close to the largest horde I encountered.
Some players will likely be prone to frustration with Sundered. The cycle of death means returning to areas you’ve already explored to attempt to push just a bit further. Coupled with this, the inability to effectively strategize against the largest hordes means progress can be difficult without grinding some levels first. The most sure path to victory is adding levels. This too fits in thematically with the narrative, but is something to look out for regarding gameplay.
Audio & Visual
Sundered’s presentation is nothing short of awe inspiring. Music is subtle and unobtrusive. The soundtrack is gentle and calming and provides a nice contrast to the chaos and ruin of the visual realm. Sound effects telegraph events such as obstacles or ranged attacks at appropriate times and distances. Similar to Dust, combat sound effects sometimes blend into the overall auditory experience, and could be mistaken at times for added notes. Ambient noises are present and add richness to an already sound filled world. Notably, auditory cues give an alarm that you’re about to see a horde, which adds to the tension of the experience. If you survive long enough, you will hear a deep and resonating gong. There is no mistaking this sound. It means trouble. And it has found you.
Aesthetically, the game design hovers in an area somewhere between Symphony of the Night and Guacamelee. A dark tone and monstrous abominations dominate the various regions, but as told in a hand-drawn and uniquely stylized way. In recent years, developers have more routinely emphasized background scenery. Sundered carries on with this tradition in spectacular fashion, with backgrounds that might get you to stare long enough to be caught by another horde. There are “vistas” scattered around the game, the primary function of which is to get you to look at something while Trappy tells you about them in his weird Trappy language, using his ominous Trappy voice. This could easily be seen as a gimmick, or footnote at best; but top notch presentation makes each Vista a true destination.
Despite a cartoon like appearance, the amount of detail is astounding, and it’s always painfully clear what’s happening. Animations are fluid and well designed. As you progress, you get the feeling that the design choices are for the best, as various atrocities play out in front of you.