Power corrupts. It’s a simple premise, and one that will keep getting aired out and reused until the likely heat-death of the universe. While we wait for the universe to end we will continue to consume this premise over and over and over again, because deep down there is something satisfying about watching others struggle with the morality of power. Will they wield this power like a shield, protecting those less fortunate? Or will they use it like a blade, cutting down those in their way? Whether we look down our noses at those who abuse their power or secretly plan out what devastation we would cause if power fell in our hands, most of us are simple bystanders to narrative corruption.
Enter Thunder Lotus Games with their newest release, Sundered. Sundered is a platformer in the Metroidvania fashion, which is to say you will do a lot of exploring and fighting to unlock new gear. This in turn unlocks more doors so you can do more exploring and fighting. Rinse and repeat, applying plot where needed.
In Sundered you play as Eshe, described by the team at Thunder Lotus as “a wanderer in a ruined world, trapped in ever-changing caverns filled with hordes of terrifying enemies.” At the very beginning of the game you stumble upon an ancient shrine to an elder god, who prompts you to seek out its Elder Shards. Defeated bosses will usually drop a fragment of these shards. Upon collecting three of such fragments you can reforge the shard. A reforged elder shard can either be purified in flames (destroyed) or consumed to corrupt (upgrade) a piece of your equipment. It’s the good gamer’s ultimate dilemma: take the morally righteous, conscientious path, or get the upgrade and face the consequence of corruption. As several loading screens have informed me, “The choice to resist or embrace is permanent,” which means that each playthrough could greatly change based on your decisions.
Speaking briefly of loading screens, Sundered does not have many, but boy is each loading screen long. Load times of over a minute are not unheard of when starting a play session, especially given that all of the game’s procedurally generated maps must be made somewhere. It seems a fair trade-off, as the alternative would be a brief loading screen every couple seconds, which would obviously hamper the smooth transitions from room to room. But it is still irksome when you’re all revved up to slash through endless hordes, only to walk through a door and find yourself with ample time on your hands.
Sundered is a gorgeous game. The spectacular, hand-drawn art stylings that helped Thunder Lotus Games make a name for themselves are once again strong and present. When I got my first weapon I gave it the necessary couple of swings to get the feel for it, but then I swung it a bunch more because the animations were so smooth. The weapon design was so fascinating that I needed to further scrutinize it.
Regrettably, the finer details of Sundered‘s high artistry falls under the “blink and you might miss it” category. On the one hand, it’s impossible to miss the magnificent terrains and caverns you find yourself exploring, but in your time leaping over enemies, you might miss the clean shifts in shadows as their heads follow your flight to better aim their lasers at you. I didn’t notice this until I was about four hours in, and I briefly paused to appreciate the effort behind even the simpler enemies.
But then I killed them, because no one shoots lasers at me and gets away with it.
Except, that’s just not true. Enemies get away with a lot of stuff in Sundered. They charge into you while pulsing electricity through their bodies, shoot lasers at you, swing their flying sword-arms in your direction, and so much more. The mobs are a mess of enemies, sirens, explosions, and death. Mostly their death, but eventually yours. That’s alright though, because death is a key mechanic of the game. When you die you’ll end up back at the elder god’s shrine, ready to spend the experience you accrued from the previous run to hopefully achieve a better outcome next time. And you usually will.
It’s relatively simple to dodge the attacks and whittle down any regular enemy in Sundered, even the ones quadruple your size. With that in mind, Sundered never sends you against a single enemy. As you explore the caverns looking for Elder Shards, listen for the sound of alarms followed by what might be described as the insane screeching of suicidal grunts. This is the signal that you are about to fight another group of insane, screeching, suicidal grunts. Conveniently straightforward, right? Eshe has no problem out-pacing and out-damaging most enemies in the game, but with an exception for a powerful—but ammo-scarce—cannon you unlock around the game’s 20% complete mark. The enemies have a distinct edge in the ranged weapons department, and they normally outnumber you twenty-to-one.
There is something immensely satisfying about cutting through massive waves of weak enemies, but even that satisfaction begins to wain after a while. Once that novelty wore off, I turned to the map in hopes that I was closer to the next objective. Unfortunately, the map is so oversimplified that I could only make general guesses as to the route I needed to go. There are several “ability locks” located on the map at any given time, but the map does not distinguish between the different types of ability locks present or whether or not they correlate with abilities you have acquired.
The map does, however, distinguish between open and shut pathways—though the distinction is not made on the map’s key. Sundered’s map is not as user-friendly as most video game maps these days, but once you get past the UI’s weird learning curve the map becomes a more functional tool.
The bosses are where Sundered shines brightest. Again, the high quality artwork allows Thunder Lotus Games to do what other game studios could only dream: in this case, let players fight bosses so large that Eshe appears no bigger than an ant on the screen, all without sacrificing character control or precision. The battles are truly epic in scale, and as breathtakingly beautiful as the rest of the game.
On the surface, Sundered is a game of jumping, shooting, and slashing. But underneath, it is a game about corruption. The culture that came before struggled with the corrupting force, and now history is repeating itself in miniature with you. For my first playthrough, I gave into the corruption and acquired all the upgrades I could. But I did feel torn at points, wondering if I doomed Eshe in the process, but that’s the good thing about games with choices—I can shoot for a different ending next time around.
PUBLISHER – Thunder Lotus Games | DEVELOPER – Thunder Lotus Games | ESRB – T | PLATFORMS – PC / PS4
Consider – If you are a fan of Metroidvania games, Sundered is a great example of the genre. It offers beautiful graphics, plenty of character customization, grandiose battles, and a solid in-game history to piece together. With that said, the constant grind can get repetitive, the map tool is sub-par, and the procedurally generated bits of terrain lack the stylistic flair of the preset parts.