Let me preface this review by saying one thing; I hate rouge-lite games. The completely random generation of game elements feels too often like a lack of effort in game design. This is the main reason why I’ve sunk so much time into Sundered, the newest release from indie studio Thunder Lotus, because I’ve never found a game like it that has included those elements and been so fun at the same time.
Rather than taking the time to craft interesting levels with worthy challenges, most rogue-lite games rely on RGN so much that gameplay becomes a chore. Oh, you just want to run through a dungeon and not get murdered by clustered enemy spawns or unavoidable traps? Too bad. Better luck in the next 200 respawns. But Sundered strikes a nearly perfect balance between exploration, character progression, story presentation and fast-paced action.
Sundered places you in the hands of Eshe, a strange wanderer – and certified badass, as far as I’m concerned – thrust into even stranger circumstances. After an ominous intro, you’re set free to explore a massive, ruined world, filled to the brim with gorgeous deserted vistas, menacing machines and monstrous eldritch horrors. Thunder Lotus set a high bar in terms of visual prowess with the studio’s first title, Jotun, and Sundered does not disappoint. The hand-drawn graphics and fluid animations are absolutely gorgeous and provide for some truly breathtaking moments in both scale and detail. The darker tone of the story is immediately apparent through the art and sound design; especially when you die and are sucked through the void by horrific black tentacles (and you will definitely die a lot).
Your main goal is to collect Elder Shards for a sinister talking crystal while trying to figure out why you’re here, what happened to the world, and how to survive. Sundered‘s main mode of exploration is platforming, which feels tight and responsive from the start. The game map is sectioned off by establishing key checkpoints, like boss lairs or shortcuts similar to a traditional Metroidvania, while peppering in randomly generated segments of levels between.
This eliminates the biggest problem I have with rouge-lite exploration while enhancing their benefits. The player has clear, fixed goals on the map, meaning they only have to worry about navigating the random segments. It also fixes the boring feeling of backtracking that plagues a lot of Metroidvania games because the enemy spawns and set pieces are always different.
As you find more abandoned tech from the Valkyrie society, moving around the varied terrain of the world becomes even easier, cranking the speed up a notch. I found myself deftly wall-jumping and air dashing through even the most tricky environments. Keyboard controls feel just as good as using a controller, which is a huge plus. Mastering the game’s movement is key to surviving against the hordes of monsters thrown your way, and I really do mean hordes.
The game does a great job of naturally teaching you when to run, when to fight and when to call it quits, thanks in part to some great environmental sound cues. I know that submitting to death doesn’t sound like great game play, but I never felt that it cheapened the experience because it never halted progression. Unlike other Rogue-lite games, all of your experience from killing monsters and bashing open treasure chests is kept upon death, along with any Perk orbs that can be used to enhance Eshe. There are a ton of different ways to optimize Eshe based on your play style. I personally preferred mashing up monsters at close range with a nice chunky health bar and lots of armor.
I won’t spoil any elements of the story because part of the game’s wonder is discovering it as you explore, but it feels sinister and engaging. It also offers even more replayability with multiple endings. The boss fights also offer some incredibly memorable moments, so you’ll have to dig into this one on your own. My only gripe despite all my praise for this game is with the variety of enemies. The enemy designs are horrific and awesome, but there were several instances I explored an area expecting to see new monsters lurking in the shadows only to find the same baddies with more health and a different color scheme.
Thunder Lotus’ second title is sure to be a sleeper hit this year. I hope it gains more than just a cult following. If you’re a fan of tight platforming, fun combat, fantastic art design or anything related to H.P. Lovecraft, do not let Sundered pass you by.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.