A Lovecraftian Metroidvania that oozes nightmarish style.
Grotesque, horrific creatures. A grim mood of scientific curiosity and mystical fate. A corrupt hero doomed by some godlike alien deity. A once civilised race destroyed. And a pervading sense of dread.
These are some of the hallmarks of the work of H.P. Lovecraft, whose horror fiction has inspired plenty of video games. Sundered: Eldritch Edition from Thunder Lotus Games, now releasing on Nintendo’s Switch, is just one example. Where their previous game, Jotun, was influenced by Norse myth, Sundered is a love letter to Lovecraft.
Like Jotun, visuals are colourful and cartoonish. It’s stunning in motion, but the grand and intricate style masks a wealth of darkness creeping under the surface. As you explore the labyrinthine underworld in non-linear fashion, things go from weird to weirder.
Style-aside, Sundered is a very typical Metroidvania. Set in a 2D perspective, you acquire a number of standard abilities that allow you to progress further – double jumps, wall-running and powerful attacks that break specific barriers. The mix of ruined technology, mysticism and lush alien life has a very Metroid feel to it too, initially at least.
Yet Sundered has a few tricks up its sleeve that separates it from the over-crowded competition: curious design choices, for better and for worse.
While the overall map remains the same, each area is made up of small, procedurally generated rooms. It escalates the sense of getting lost in this terrifying world as the maze shifts around you each time you die. Treasures and pathways are repositioned and you may even find a few temporary perks along the way. It adds a roguelike sensibility that keeps you on your toes.
Death also takes you back to the sanctuary at the centre of the map. This is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you’ll be forced to work your way back to where you came from all over again; on the other, you arrive at the sanctuary with all your shards intact ready to level up your abilities on the expansive skill tree. Levelling cushions the blow of death and as you unlock shortcuts on the map, Dark Souls style, it’s not overly frustrating to return with improved chances.
The skill tree itself offers plenty of options. Shards, collected from enemies, are spent unlocking nodes along its branching pathways, allowing you to focus on upgrading health, armour, regenerating shields and more. Planning is needed as each upgrade increases the cost of the next. Perks can also be assigned, which come with both advantages and disadvantages, forcing you to adapt your play style.
It’s in the combat that Sundered stumbles. The creepy enemies are known as the horde, and difficulty comes from the game simply throwing more and more at you infinitely. Melee attacks with your sword soon devolve into button-mashing, so there’s not much skill in defeating enemies and with so many of them it’s all too easy to get overwhelmed by chaos to the point of barely seeing your character – especially if playing handheld.
Often the best strategy is simply to run through areas ignoring enemies and focusing on reaching your destination, though they will almost constantly follow you. Add to that the fact that checking the map doesn’t pause the game and you’ll find yourself frantically charging through areas in a panic, as opposed to carefully and methodically plotting your route. While this does keep the game fast-paced, it may put you off exploration – though the rewards for doing so are always beneficial. Plus, it’s always enjoyable to return to earlier areas overpowered and ready to finally cause destruction.
Combat does come together in the plentiful bosses, something Thunder Lotus are surely making a name for themselves with. Each of the three areas has three mini-bosses (usually larger versions of normal enemies) and a boss proper: towering, screen-filling and deadly. Besting these is always a fun test of your skills – though the third does require some grinding beforehand – and you’re rewarded with an Elder Shard. These can either be used to corrupt your abilities in cool ways as you turn to the dark side, or destroyed in the name of good. The impact isn’t initially clear, but this ties into the three possible endings of the game, making repeat plays worthwhile.
Sundered runs well enough on the Switch, though the frantic combat isn’t ideally suited to handheld mode. A few frame rate stutters break the smooth flow of gameplay, but worse, the game outright crashed on a couple of occasions – including the final boss. Not cool.
What’s really lacking is a proper narrative to provide dramatic impetus beyond the innate desire to explore. As it is, Sundered is deliciously moody but the minimal plot is too vague. It succeeds, though, on pure gameplay terms, providing an intriguing world to explore and challenging bosses oozing with nightmarish Lovecraftian style. The industry may be drowning in Metroidvanias, but Sundered does enough to stand out from the crowd with flair.
[Reviewed on Nintendo Switch]