Sundered is Bleak, Brutal and Utterly Brilliant

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Sundered

Jotun, Thunder Lotus Games’ first foray into game development, was a remarkable one. A slow, almost melancholic trip through Norse mythology interluded by gargantuan boss fights. Their sophomore endeavour, Sundered, looks like it will be even better.

To fans of their initial experience, Sundered will seem instantly familiar yet feel entirely different. The stunning, hand-drawn art returns but, unlike Jotun, whose visuals were drawn back to create a sense of scale and wonder, here, they are overbearing and oppressive. The once grand, orchestral soundtrack has been replaced with dark and brooding strings. Perhaps the biggest change of all, however, is the gameplay.

Jotun’s boss fights were special. Not just because they intertwined the gameplay with some much-needed action, but because of the build-up to that action. Immediately from leaving the hub area, Sundered will launch shadowy, corrupted monsters at you. Whereas Jotun gave you time to think, in Sundered it’s all about the hack’n’slash. Eshe already knows how to double jump, dash and ground pound; all you need to do is fight. Sundered doesn’t build-up. From the get go, it is brutal.

At its heart, Sundered is a classic metroidvania game. Combat is quick and often; platforming is abound and secrets are hidden around every corner. Thunder Lotus also introduce three interesting mechanics into the fray. The first is the almost roguelike use of procedural generation in the map. While procedural generation certainly has a stigma at the moment – even more so if done by a developer with such artistic talent – my time with the game so far has shown me there’s no reason to worry.

The final edition of Sundered will have three worlds, and they are absolutely massive. While each is procedurally generated, the general layout of each dungeon stays the same. Looking at your map, you can see the location of bosses, ability rooms and, most importantly, shortcuts – these are always locked in place, but the various rooms and corridors you blast through to reach them are always different. They change when you die, too.

In Sundered, death is part of the experience. It’s tough, continuously so, and the bosses are worse. It would be frightfully hard to beat the game without dying, partly because you need to die to progress. Everything you find, from enemies to pots to secrets, will drop shards you need to level up and improve your abilities at the hub. You can only return to the hub by dying, and leaving it means you lose all your shards.

It’s an intriguing mechanic, and mixes well with the size – and difficulty – of the areas. The further into each area you stretch, the tougher it becomes; but if you want to level up, you’re going to have to go through it all again. That may sound tedious, but it’s where the procedural generation comes in: the next run will be distinct from the last. Die too swiftly on the other hand, and it’s wasted shards. It creates an interesting mix of mechanics that are so disparate from many other titles where you can only succeed through sheer grit, determination and brute force.

It’s not all perfect, however. The procedural generation does mean that, along with the amount of rooms, areas are often repeated and, while still good-looking, the truly striking visuals are more few and far between. Luckily, you’re often going too quick – and being swarmed by so many enemies – to notice or care. And trust me, swarming occurs often.

Thunder Lotus’ final unusual mechanic is dynamic spawning. Enemies don’t have set spawns; instead, they randomly spawn whenever they like – gradually becoming more numerous as time goes on. Every so often, you’ll come to recognise a chime in the soundtrack, indicating a swarm of enemies just spawned. It’s equally exhilarating and terrifying.

The spawning is the final departure from Jotun‘s mechanic’s. Whereas Thora would often pause to smell the flowers and take in the sights, Eshe is always moving, pushed forward by ever-spawning enemies and the threat of death. Every step of the way, Sundered is overwhelming; ominous strings rise and fall in the background, the sinister visuals constantly feel foreboding; rarely can you even pause to look at the map!

This, simply from atmosphere and gameplay alone. The couple-hour preview I got to try features nothing on Sundered‘s story or lore. It promises a post-cataclysmic story of eldritch proportions. A society turned mad, insane cultists and gothic horror. The fact Thunder Lotus Games didn’t need to include a narrative to already hook me in is an achievement in itself. With the story however? Sundered is looking to be absolutely outstanding.

Sundered is set to release in July 2017 on PC and PS4. Thunder Lotus Games have just launched a Kickstarter project to support development.