If you’ve impatiently shot to the bottom of this review already and got an eyeful of the score, allow me to elaborate; Sundered is a beautiful and lovingly crafted take on the Metroidvania formula that has great platforming, combat, player progression and hours upon hours of play to keep even the most grizzled armchair adventurer enthralled. In short, Sundered feels like the visually opulent, 2D platforming, Metroidvania roguelike that we’ve been waiting for a while now. Oh, and it’s also stuffed to the rim with an assortment of Eldritch-inspired baddies, so that’s nice too.
A visually arresting Metroidvania effort
Very much like the eye-opening Jotun before it, the latest effort from Thunder Lotus Games is a beautiful looking effort. With a bounty of painstakingly detailed hand-drawn art and animation, coupled with its distinctly alien looking setting, it’s no exaggeration to say that Sundered is quite the visual wonder to behold.
Nowhere is the talent of Thunder Lotus’s team of artists more obviously captured than in the gargantuan bosses that inhabit the game’s later areas, however. Screen-devouring titans that the camera has to pull all the way back to be properly appreciated, the big bad bosses in Sundered are among the most epic looking baddies one could ever hope to meet. One in particular looks like some horror that has escaped the realms of nightmare; a humongous spider cyborg packing a railgun cannon and a decaying giant sat in the control seat, it’s fair to say that this boss in particular is as entrancing to tangle with as it is to gaze upon.
That’s to say nothing of the regular baddies you’ll come across in Sundered, either. A veritable murderer’s row of evil doers who look like they’ve been torn from an absinthe infused, Eldritch fever dream, hulking great big tentacled monstrosities find themselves accompanied by massive, electrified upwardly walking maggots in what must be one of the grotesque ensembles of gaming baddies in quite some time. Certainly, to say that you fight against a varied cast of foes in Sundered would be quite the understatement indeed.
Cast as the enigmatic Eshe, a shrouded wanderer in a destroyed world, Sundered follows the Metroidvania playbook fairly rigidly; kicking things off in a sanctuary before you get the opportunity to proceed into the game world properly. From the first room you enter, Sundered invites you to explore in all directions, while a handy, yet simple to read map, expands outwards with the new rooms that you enter into.
More than anything though, Sundered works because on a rudimentary level, it feels just right. From the pixel-perfect platforming beats where Eshe leaps, flips and dives from and onto surfaces with balletic flair, to the ultra-responsive combat where every strike feels measured, weighty and palpably impactful, Sundered absolutely nails the core tenets of the Metroidvania template with the sort of verve and conviction that we just haven’t seen for a good while.
Sticks to the formula but packs in some surprises
This being an effort taken from the classic Metroidvania mould, Sundered unfolds pretty much as one might expect with Eshe jumping around the place, smashing up monsters, collecting experience points and getting her mitts on new gadgets to allow her access to previously inaccessible places. In terms of combat, Sundered actually takes a somewhat different approach to hostile encounters than its genre peers do.
You see, rather than having enemies show up in the same places every time, Sundered favours a more randomised form of foe deployment; opting instead to rely on massive, randomised hordes of monster that attack the player. The upshot of this relentless barrage of adversaries is that Sundered feels far more briskly paced than other similar genre entries, such as Shadow Complex or Rogue Legacy, while the presence of these hordes essentially leaves only two outcomes; you either fight your through and claim the experience point bounty, or, you die in the act of doing so.
And when the game says “death is the beginning” it really means it too. One of the biggest and most compelling hooks that Sundered can get into the player is how it incentivises repeat play. Obviously, while the notion of being able to access new areas provides its own allure, it’s really the sprawling skill trees that keep you coming back for more as scooping up those precious experience orbs and making Eshe stronger, soon proves to be its own satisfying reward in both the short and long-term. To that point, though you’ll assuredly die often in Sundered, Thunder Lotus Games has managed to deftly negate the frustrations associated with that by allowing you to make your character stronger with each failure.
An unfortunate upshot of the semi-randomised level design is that you get a lot of repetition, where, outside of functional areas such as upgrade shrines and so on, there is generally a dearth of notable landmarks or other areas of interest. Worse still perhaps, is the fact that you can very often see some rooms and areas on the map repeated; making the game world in Sundered feel far less organic and interesting than it otherwise would be.
Likewise, the constant attack by the enemy hordes can wear you down after a while, and though such incoming battles are handily heralded by an ominous gong or ear-piercing klaxon, Sundered always feels like a game that it is continually pressuring the player; rarely taking its foot off the gas and providing a pervading (though obviously deliberate) sense of unease in the process.
Another issue is that whenever the screen fills with hostile monstrosities, the camera has a tendency to zoom right out to ensure an absolute perspective on the action. While this is good for getting an idea of the challenge that is about to encroach upon our heroine, sometimes the camera pulls too far back, to such a point that Eshe shrinks to almost tiny dimensions which can make tracking her place in the middle of Sundered’s frequent violent maelstroms rather difficult indeed.
Sundered is also a substantially muscular affair, too. Clocking in at between 15 and 20 hours on the first time through, this is not a game that you’ll be able to effortlessly hammer in a single sitting, unless of course, you hate the idea of sleep and your bodily functions working as they should. Further cementing the longevity of the game is the fact that there are multiple endings that can be seen too depending on the power-ups you picked up during the game, so worry not; Sundered will definitely give you the appropriate bang (or should that be slash?) for your buck.
Not content to merely churn out any old take on the Metroidvania formula, Thunder Lotus Games have done something rather special with Sundered; neatly combining an astounding Lovecraftian aesthetic with an intriguing pressure-based encounter system, Sundered can’t help but feel a little different from its genre kin.
Though it can occasionally frustrate with its relentlessly busy battles and sometimes bland level design, Sundered nonetheless bleeds more style from one of its pixelated, pinky fingers than other Metroidvania efforts could ever hope to possess in their entirety.