Severed Preview: DrinkBox returns to Vita with dungeon swiping

PS Vita’s Severed is a pretty big departure for developer Drinkbox Studios, whose previous outstanding effort, Guacamelee!, was a charming mix of luchador aesthetics, Mexican folklore, and Metroidvania platforming. Severed, on the other hand, is described as a touch-based dungeon crawler, and the moniker fits. Everything from the open-ended grid layout of its levels to the way you face enemies head-on resembles classics of the genre, but a number of interesting ideas make it both accessible and exciting.

For example, there’s no party to manage or character classes to juggle—the entire game is controlled from the first-person view of a yet-unnamed woman. This is one girl’s personal quest for revenge at the murder of her family. That’s what I was able to garner from the demo’s context clues. As I approach a ruined house and start to explore its interior, I encounter a mirror in which I see myself, the girl, for the first time. A sudden flashback shows three silhouettes being murdered and a fourth losing its arm. Back in the present, she clutches the bloody bandage that wraps her severed left arm. Moving forward through dilapidated rooms, fighting the occasional monster, I encounter a family portrait. Much later, I retrieve the body of what could be her sibling, punctured by a strange coral substance that has been a motif throughout.

I’ll come back to that moment and its boss fight in a bit. Severed’s dungeons are divided into rooms that house groups of enemies or single foes. Graphically, these rooms are two-dimensional artwork wrapped in a cylinder to encompass the player. When you look around with the right analog stick, the scenery rotates and appears three-dimensional, but transitioning to other rooms merely entails the smooth loading of another cylindrical room. It is elegant design that allows impressive detail to be packed into the environment, but very little of it can be interacted with. The scenery, at least in the early section I played, seems more interested in telling a story or evoking certain feelings—in this case, sadness and the loss of lives once lived.

In terms of enemies, Severed sports an eclectic bunch. Demons of all configurations appeared, from hairy beasts to floating eyeballs and several in-between. Each brings unique behavior to combat, which plays out much like Infinity Blade. In fact, Severed is probably best described as Infinity Blade meets Dungeon Master, or Legend of Grimrock, or whatever first-person RPG you fondly remember. Moment-to-moment, you’re swiping the touchscreen to damage enemies, parry their attacks, and the like. With every monster sporting very specific attack patterns and weaknesses, every new encounter feels threatening. Mistakes can be costly—though timing was extremely generous in this early demo, I noticed that a knockback effect from hitting a shielded enemy could prevent me from parrying its next attack, yielding unavoidable damage.

Things get even more interesting with multiple enemies. Here, Drinkbox uses your perspective to change the dynamic of combat. You can only face one enemy at a time, but a row of cooldown timers along the screen’s bottom show a countdown to the next incoming attack. This makes combat immediately accessible, despite the trickiness of each new enemy, because you always know when something damaging will happen or how big your offensive window is. All foes strike independently, creating a combat “rhythm” of sorts. For example, you might have to parry the foe you’re facing but immediately turn away to interrupt another, yielding a scant few seconds to damage the first monster. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in the section’s closing boss fight. The monster appeared humanoid, but was actually a set of eyeballs hidden beneath a body of crows. These crows would attack me in waves and distract me from parrying the main body’s attacks, but after clearing a wave, the eyeballs were briefly made vulnerable—though hitting one of the many crows darting past would stun me. The fight was equal parts measured, frantic, and careful, with just about every touch-gaming skill tested in one go. Thankfully, being able to tap the cooldown timer of a demon to instantly face that foe made the action easy to manage.

Defeating this monster cleared the way to the aforementioned corpse, which could be the heroine’s dead sibling. The narrative is purposefully vague to leave room for interpretation. By my eyes, the heroine is exacting revenge on these demons for the death of her family and doing so in the most badass way possible: wearing their body parts as armor. Part of this boss’s head became a helmet she equipped with grim determination. I’m told that other body parts will function in the same way, feet being equippable as boots and so forth. In fact, body parts feature prominently in the game at large—this is Severed, after all. Bosses drop body parts as equippable items that bestow certain abilities and bonuses. These action-centric changes aren’t yet known, but they won’t be mere stat boosts, so body parts acquired early in the game could still make viable equipment down the line. Stat boosts instead come from upgrades purchased with smaller body parts dropped by normal foes. Health, damage, and the amount of time you can spend in a super-powered freeze-frame mode can be increased in this manner.

As an RPG, Severed has enough depth to support different playstyles and encourage the player to think critically about their equipment beyond mere numbers. As a touch-based action game, it keeps things fresh with monsters that behave very differently and configurations that require handling them in unique ways. All of it is wrapped in a minimal aesthetic that boasts vivid colors and sharp lines, which only hooks me on its mysterious story even more. Severed is my surprise hit of PlayStation Experience and a game I can’t wait to play in 2015. If the buzz on the show floor is any indication, you’ll be hearing a lot of PlayStation fans say the same in the coming months.