Sundered Review - Eldritch Insanity

Sundered

The concept of eldritch horror is something that games don’t explore often enough. Whether it’s dabbling in the Cthulhu Mythos or dusting off that old monster guide from Dungeon’s and Dragons, Eldritch horror offers some of the most unique creatures and locales this side of an H.P Lovecraft story. Enter Sundered, a new Metroidvania title from Thunder Lotus games. This PS4 horror games dares to dive deep into the realms of science, madness, and pure horror.

In it, you play as a wanderer named Eshe. She is trapped in the caverns of a world that defies everything we know. It’s an ever-shifting maze of madness where she must choose if she will embrace the power it offers, or resist and find her own means of escape. Does this game provide a fresh and exciting experience, or does it drive you crazy? Read on and find out!

A Taste of Insanity: Sundered’s Story

Sundered has a phenomenal setup. It takes place in a world that was once the homes of two groups: the Valkyries and the Eschatons. Some time, long before the events of the game, these two people went to war over a stone called the Shining Trapezohedron.

During their conflict, they tore open the fabric of reality, releasing eldritch energy into the caverns below the surface. This horrible energy turned the people into grotesque monsters. Now, hundreds of years into the future, a nomadic mechanic name Eshe is forcibly pulled into this place.

Here, she meets the Shining Trapezohedron for herself and quickly realizes that she will need its help to escape. Once the brisk opening is complete, the rest of Sundered’s story comes in short bursts throughout your exploration. The Trapezohedron offers narration throughout, with a voice that sounds like molasses mixed with gravel, thrown into a blender for good measure.

It’s suitably gritty and thick. While subtitles give you the actual text, the Trapezohedron also speaks in its own language that feels like it was ripped straight out of a Lovecraft story. Further story can be found at lookout points and within crystal-filled rooms. In these crystal rooms, you can strike black spots that play a short clip of lore.

Beyond that, Sundered’s story sticks to the periphery. It lets the environments, enemies, and bosses do the talking. This is par for the course when it comes to these types of Metroidvania titles, but Sundered really manages to nail the sense of mystery and intrigue in its four vastly different regions.

Other small touches like fictional quotes on your abilities in the skill tree add some more lore to the proceedings a well. What’s here is excellent and very befitting of the eldritch horror genre, but I really wanted more.

Eshe, for example, never speaks, and the story that we get from the crystal rooms and narration still leaves me with hundreds of questions about the people who once inhabited these caverns. Perhaps they are mysteries best left unanswered, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to know as much as I could.

Whether it was the strange machines of the Valkyries or the cultish feel of the Eschaton, everything in Sundered is dripping with intrigue. Furthermore, Eshe herself is someone shrouded in mystery. Where did she come from, where was she going? So many questions and so little answers make Sundered’s world an incredible one, but it almost feels like you’re just getting a taste of the full picture.

That’s not to say that Eshe herself doesn’t evolve, however. As you collect elder shards from discoveries or bosses, you can use them to corrupt your abilities and embrace their dark energy, or resist by destroying them. These choices will influence the endgame and ultimately the game’s resolution as you’re quite literally playing with Eshe’s humanity.

Given the genre, Sundered provides one of more compelling worlds and stories that I’ve seen from Metroidvania titles. I would have loved more lore, and a deeper look into Eshe’s character, but what is here is extremely compelling and downright terrifying when you think about it all.

The Ever-Shifting World of Sundered

Sundered

Sundered’s gameplay mixes a healthy dose of Metroidvania style exploration, with a helping of roguelike elements and procedurally generated areas. Top this off with randomized enemy encounters, and you have a world that is always out to get you.

Certain aspects of the game’s map are set in stone, but the rest are procedurally generated each time you die. This is interesting as it represents the madness of Sundered’s world, but it also means that you’ll have to refer to the map almost constantly with the L2 button. Doing so pulls it up to the full-screen, but does not pause anything.

The random enemy attacks range from frantic battles to hordes of creatures that cannot possibly be defeated, so you will find yourself overwhelmed in many situations. I found this to be frustrating more often than not, but as I got more powerful, these hordes became more manageable. That being said, there were still plenty of times when the enemy count was just insane and I had no choice but to run or die.

I chuckled to myself the first time I died. The loading screen taunted me with the phrase “death is only the beginning.” I didn’t know how true that statement was back then, but I do now. The first several hours I had with Sundered were an exercise in frustration. While it has no qualms with being difficult, too often you will find yourself drowning in enemies.

In these situations, your only choice is to retreat, but even then, they will follow you for a good long while. Long range enemies also possess the ability to fire at you from several screens over. Thankfully you can see their lasers when they aim, but it’s still frustrating when they shoot through walls and corridors to hit you.

When you die, the game brings you back to the main hub, where you can spend your experience points in a massive skill tree. You can also switch out perks that you find at the base of this tree for excellent advantages. They do come with disadvantages too, but the balance is worthwhile.

These permanent upgrades represent the roguelike elements in the game, offering you the chance to make your deaths mean something. In a game this difficult, that ray of hope is exactly what I needed to keep pushing forward.

Thankfully the roguelike elements stop there, so you don’t need to worry about any permadeath. When you’re not fighting off hordes of enemies, Sundered offers some great traversal and combat mechanics.

Among the first abilities you get, one of them is a double jump that makes some of the intense platforming a little easier. There were still moments where timing was an absolute necessity and failing would result in having to start again, or even death in some cases where environmental hazards block your path.

The basic combat offers you a variety of directional slashes, including an up attack that can give you some extra lift on your jumps and offer the option for airborne attacks on a flying enemy. The combat, along with the traversal is smooth and feels great. Shortly into the game, you’ll also get a Valkyrie cannon that can be a lifesaver during intense encounters.

Sundered

This massive weapon propels you back as it fires a gigantic ball of energy. With the right upgrades, it can clear out a room of enemies like Sundered’s version of the BFG from DOOM. The only complaint I have from combat and platforming perspective is a performance issue I encountered.

Every so often, I would hit micro-stutters where the game would lock up for 1-2 seconds. This wasn’t consistent, but it would happen every so often during each play session. It wouldn’t have been so annoying if it didn’t tend to happen during combat encounters or in the middle of jumps. Coming out of a stutter like that can complete disorientate you, and while it never directly killed me, it certainly didn’t help.

I’m not sure what triggers these stutters, but I’m hoping they’re addressed in a future patch. Ultimately, while the roguelike elements and constant deaths can be frustrating, these things are exacerbated by the game’s tendency to spawn insane numbers of enemies at random.

Once you get over the initial hump and start spending serious points/unlocking better perks, these problems become less of an issue. I wish that the enemies weren’t quite so overwhelming, but it does certainly add tension and horror to the game’s already dark and mysterious atmosphere.

Beyond this, it’s also worth mentioning that the game has a very relaxed approach to progression. You can skip over the mini-bosses entirely if you want, and you can access the other areas at any time, by finding entrances within the first zone.

The only requirement for finishing the game is fighting the three main bosses in each zone before unlocking the fourth zone and final boss. The ability to wander like this makes Sundered’s world feel more cohesive and keeps repetition from setting in since the three areas are vastly different in their look and feel. Enemy types also shift drastically as you explore.

I recommend seeing as much as possible in Sundered. The main bosses are incredible encounters that fill the screen with their presence and attacks, but the mini bosses also offer some challenging encounters and exquisite designs. Fighting them will also yield pieces of Elder Shards you can combine to further your corruption or resistance of the abilities you have.

Beyond combat, Sundered rewards exploration through caches of EXP and ammo, along with perks you can find that turn the tide of the gameplay. For example, one perk I found allowed me to gain back 10% of my shield for every kill. The downside? I had to add another second to my shield recharge delay.

I was more than happy to make the trade-off, and it made the next combat encounters far more manageable as a result. The thing you need to understand is that Sundered is going to chew you up and spit you out, more than a few times, but if you keep coming back and getting stronger, you’ll eventually break free of these challenges.

At least, until the next time, a ridiculous amount of enemies spawn. When that happens, you’re better off just running.

Stunning Hand Drawn Graphics Make Sundered’s World Come Alive

Sundered

Sundered’s world is all rendered in glorious hand-drawn graphics. This makes for incredibly detailed enemy designs, bosses, and animations. While the environments themselves have standout moments, the procedural generation often makes them repeat their aesthetics, which takes away from the unique presence of the rooms that always stay the same.

The flashy combat and intense boss encounters are truly stunning to watch in motion. The main bosses of the game are a high point especially. Your character becomes tiny in comparison, as they fill the screen with horrifying attacks and a gargantuan form.

Eshe herself also has some stylish attacks and combos that look excellent in motion. The aforementioned stutters I encountered were the only low point in an otherwise stellar presentation.

Now, let’s talk about this soundtrack, which I’m currently listening to as I write this. I always feel that a game’s soundtrack can truly speak volumes when done correctly. Sundered employs an appropriately haunting set of tracks that have a sort of morbid echo to them. It’s fitting, given the yawning caverns and dark secrets of the game’s world.

The use of deep strings like cellos combines with the shrill piercing sounds of violins to switch the tone between thoughtful exploration, and nail-biting combat encounters. A smart and subtle use of percussion also lends a heavy hand to the soundtrack, which can really get moving when the situation calls for it.

The soundtrack sits in the more guttural tones of its string instruments but leaps into higher octaves to accentuate adrenaline-fueled moments. It’s the perfect pairing to a horror game like this, invoking the dark and derelict, while not forgoing the moments of insanity that eldritch horror is known for. An excellent musical pairing overall.

As I reach the end of this review, I look back on the numerous hours I spent with Sundered, and the hours I will no doubt continue to put into it. The game is unapologetically difficult, and at times, truly unfair, but it knows that I won’t leave, because its world is just too damn interesting, and its boss encounters too epic to deny.

Sometimes you’ll love it, and sometimes it will drive you crazy, but if you’re aching for a good Metroidvania that delves deep into eldritch horror, I cannot think of a better title than Sundered. Just be ready for the learning curve. This unspeakable horror doesn’t hold back.

Final Score: 8.0/10

A copy of Sundered was provided to PS4 Experts for review purposes

Article by - Bradley Ramsey
Insert date - 8/7/17

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