After a time, I had lost count of how many monsters I had killed. A quick flick over to my character screen revealed the truth of it – the toll of such actions was most definitely not lost on Severed’s protagonist. A scared and wide-eyed little girl in the beginning, she had morphed into something unspeakable; a crimson mask adorning her pockmarked face, her sole hand now clutching a serrated blade forged from the depths of nightmare and finally her eyes, those bright colourful eyes that were once the domain of innocence, now narrowed into a cold death stare, the numbing end result of constant slaughter and brutality.
So it is then that, outwardly at least, Severed is a world away from Drinkbox Studios’ beloved platformer Guacamelee!, trading in the side-scrolling, charmingly goofy lucha-libre platforming beats of the latter for a first-person dungeon crawler that is utterly devoid of comedy and cheerfulness but which is no less charismatic, or indeed engaging than its predecessor. Putting players in the role of a one-armed girl named Sasha, Severed whisks us away to a colourful nightmarish otherworld where our heroine must utilise her considerable sword-swinging skills to rescue her missing brother and parents from the clutches of a mysterious horror.
The manner in which this odyssey takes place is from the first-person, as the player explores Severed’s pastel coloured, yet grim looking realms by moving in one of four directions using the left analogue stick, while tilting the right stick allows Sasha to examine the environment around her. For folks who have never played the likes of Legend of Grimrock on PC or iPad, this sort of ‘cell-block’ style of movement will seem a little off-putting at first simply because you can only move in four directions without being able to freely explore in 360 degrees as is typically the case elsewhere. After just a few short minutes though, any sort of jarring sensation is quickly drowned out by a warm familiarity that soon sets in, making you blissfully oblivious to any problems you had to begin with.
Away from the fashion in which you traverse Severed’s litany of impressively nightmarish worlds is the combat which ostensibly sits at the beating black heart of Drinkbox Studios latest effort. Utilising the touchscreen of Sony’s muscular handheld to great effect, your finger effectively becomes your weapon as swipes onto the screen create slashes and cuts that inflict damage upon the horde of hellish foes that you come up against, with longer drags of your digit causing more damage than quick touches of the screen are able to achieve.
And what a horde they are too; you end up facing monsters with multiple clawed appendages, crows that have enormous teeth where their faces should be, massive rock golems with crazed eyes set in the centre and gigantic multi-body bosses that look like they took a wrong turn on the way to their audition for boss encounters in Dark Souls III. In gameplay terms, the varying bizarreness and grotesquery of these creatures has a real impact too since each monster will have a different weakness to be exploited while also unleashing very different attacks from their fellow ghoulish brethren.
As you become more powerful, weaker enemies adapt to your newfound strength later on too; foes whose weak spots used to be brazenly exposed might now be covered in thick rock and so require a special attack to shatter such protections before you can start dealing damage to them. On top of this, you often find yourself fighting more than enemy at once too, meaning that you need to work on prioritising your kills while preventing and blocking incoming attacks; a handy circle for each monster gradually filling until they are ready to strike. In short, you are always being tested and while you feel powerful and capable, your opposition is right there alongside with you, providing you with a perfectly judged challenge.
Helping to level out the more troublesome battles is Severed’s wonderfully constructed progression system that allows you to put points into varying skill trees to increase your damage, the amount of damage you take and your critical attack chance to name just a few. This system actually loops back into the combat side of things too, since if you’ve maxed out your focus by not fluffing any of your strikes and defending those of your opponents, you get a brief chance to sever the limbs of your foes once you’ve reduced their health to zero and then ingest their bodily bits and pieces into yourself to progress your respective skill sets. Make no mistake however, ample skill is required here since slicing body parts proves to be a precise endeavour and you have very little time to get it right with each cut demanding care and precision to be successful.
The ability to use various spells to freeze your enemies in place or strip them of their buffs layers things yet further still, a slowly recharging mana bar forcing you to decide when the best time is to use such magic to your advantage. Ultimately, all this ties into the overarching strategical imperative that sits at the core of Severed’s fighting system, meaningfully advancing touchscreen combat out of stigmatised gimmickry and into something truly substantial for the genre. Excellently, folks who find the combat too difficult at any point can take solace in the fact dying causes only the most temporary of setbacks, with Sasha immediately resurrecting a single space away from her cause death. Top stuff.
When you’re not hacking monsters to pieces or stuffing your face with the anatomy of your disposed opposition, Severed manages to compel on a whole other level as well. While the game is certainly different from Guacamelee! In a multitude of ways, one aspect of design DNA that two games share is their lovely metroidvania esque approach to world creation. Every area that you walk into in Severed will have areas that are tantalizingly out of reach – whether it’s a wall that requires a special power to open or set of coloured gates that need to be triggered in a particular order, Severed’s map design is equally as accomplished as its combat. Ostensibly, it doesn’t take long before an irresistible obsession over collecting each and every secret upgrade soon takes hold.
As much as all this metroidvania flavoured dungeon crawling and monster hacking is a hoot, it’s Severed’s grandly bleak narrative that drives things along to their inevitable conclusion. Indeed, it speaks to Severed’s especially compelling brand of nihilism that rather than coins and cartoony chicken legs you instead find yourself collecting giblets, eyes, hearts and the detached limbs of your eviscerated enemies, floating the very Nietzschan notion that over the course of the game that you end up becoming just as much a monster as those horrors that you face. Oh and the ending will resonate with you long after you put your PS Vita down – that you can be assured of.
If there a single chink in Severed’s twisted and malformed armour it would be that the whole affair is over much too quickly. With around eight hours needed to see the game through from start to finish, which includes time for scooping up most of the secrets along the way, it’s certainly possible to have the whole affair done in well under a single day’s worth of concentrated play – a matter which isn’t improved by the absence of additional modes and scenarios to get stuck into.
With more character in its little finger than most big budget, multi-game franchises have in their entirety, Severed is undoubtedly a landmark title for PS Vita. With a hugely imaginative world, a wonderfully innovative take on touchscreen combat and the same metroidvania style mechanics that made Guacamelee such a hit, Severed is at the very zenith of must have games for Sony’s handheld.