Sundered, by Thunder Lotus Games, proposes a deceptively simple choice to players: resist or embrace. Players can take the time needed to hone their in-game skills in order to fight their way to the end, or embrace a corrupt yet robust power that might lead to a dark fate. This isn’t a superficial choice, either. Like the lead character, Esche, players will find themselves engrossed in a struggle that is both difficult and rewarding, calling them back again and again. Your choice to save your humanity, or strive for ultimate supremacy will decide Esche’s destiny and the overall gameplay experience.
Sundered is sparse on story, but nevertheless affecting. We are quickly introduced to Esche, a lone wanderer, as she struggles forward against heavy winds and blowing sand. She abruptly finds herself violently tugged into a mysterious world below where an entity who identifies itself as the Shining Trapezohedron offers to lend her its powers to help her escape. The agreement gives off an explicitly Faustian vibe, and it quickly becomes clear Esche’s fortune hangs largely on how much of this power she chooses to use.
The underground worlds of Sundered are both beautiful and deadly. Caverns of purple and gold, dark ruins, and crumbling research facilities slowly being overtaken by nature make up the three main realms you will explore. The hand drawn graphics are stunning. Everything from the fluid slashing motion of Esche’s sword, to the movement of enemies is both dark and enchanting. The soundtrack evokes a feeling of melancholy, perfectly matched with the worlds Esche is exploring, full of crumbling structures and old gods now lost to time. In style, it feels like something spawned from the mind of H. P. Lovecraft. And, in true Lovecraftian style, it won’t take Esche, or the player, long to discover despite the splendid façade and abandoned appearance, these realms are anything but uninhabited or safe.
Sundered wants you to die quite often, and you will. If you are doing particularly well, or have gone too long without a fight, the game will send a wave of enemies your way. These hordes will take you off-guard at first, particularly within the beginning hour or so. However, the more enemies you kill, the more small shards you collect. You can spend these shards after each death on a skill tree that will upgrade Esche’s health, shield, armor, luck and other abilities. The more you grind, the quicker you can upgrade and the more formidable Esche will become.
The cycle of grinding, death, upgrade, repeat is a large part of Sundered. The game, which harkens back to classics such as Castlevania and Metroid, is designed to force you to fight again and again until you are strong enough and skilled enough to move forward. During your journey, Esche will also gain new abilities and weapons. Some of these abilities, like the double-jump, allow access to formerly unreachable sections of the map. Others play a dual role, such as the cannon which helps make taking down hordes easier, while also allowing Esche to open certain locked doorways.
The maps for each section are vast, and it will take time to explore every nook and cranny, especially if you want to find shard caches so you can upgrade faster. You will also discover entrances to sections that are currently barred, so you will often find yourself backtracking in search of a way in or to locate the ability needed to gain access. Deaths will also set you back at the sanctuary where Esche can upgrade her skills, so you will have to retrace territory each time in order to get back to where you were.
Even though you will open doors during gameplay that will make reaching certain areas simpler and faster, you will still be forced to retrace your steps quite often. Though the map stays the same and important areas (like bosses and statue locations) stay static, the pathways between are randomly generated. This sometimes mean it will take slightly longer to get from one point to another.
I admit that even though I consider myself a fan of old-school style games, after long hours of play I began to wish for something akin to fast travel. However, the satisfaction of moving a little bit further on the skill tree, the thrill of the battle, and the excitement of finally being able to explore a new area is rewarding enough to keep you pressing on. Plus, you need to fight as many enemies as possible in order to obtain the max number of small shards before you die the next time, so having to retread ground isn’t the worst thing.
Of course, Trapezohedron isn’t simply helping Esche for her own good health. She has been given a specific task. Over the course of the game, Esche will collect Elder Shards that she can use to corrupt the abilities she acquires throughout the game, making them more powerful. Your guide makes it abundantly clear that this is the path it wants you to take. However, doing so comes at the cost of Esche’s humanity. But, she can also choose to go against Trapezohedron’s urgings and destroy the Elder Shards in a massive furnace as she collects them. There are different rewards for doing this, such as a huge shard payout and additional, upgradeable skills.
I chose to take the path of resistance. This meant spending much of my time taking on hordes and searching for shard caches. I have yet to turn down a fight. As I embraced the cycle of battle, death, upgrade, repeat, dealing with the hordes become easier, and the frantic action become more and more of both a thrill and a risk (would I have to go all the way back again?). However, Sundered still takes me by surprise. At times, the fray can become so chaotic I lose sight of Esche momentarily. This has cost me more than a few deaths. But, I press on because the battles (though intense), are fast and fun. It is both difficult and highly addicting. Even after what I think will be my last death for the day, I find myself primed to attempt just one more run, to get just a little bit further. The struggle and reward is glorious and fulfilling. Plus, I don’t like taking orders from shady, crystal-like entities that sound a lot like Cthulhu.