Review

Severed Review – Stairway to Heaven

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Drinkbox Studios’ Guacamelee! was one of my favorite games of 2013 – the art style, the simple yet effective game design…the chicken jokes. At the time, I said it was one of the best games on the PS Vita, and I’d stick by that assessment to this day, even if the much improved Super Turbo Edition skipped the handheld.

I’ve been waiting three years to see what DrinkBox would come up with next, and Severed is exactly what I was hoping for, taking their love of South American culture, beautiful art, and knack for telling a solid narrative via play and melding it all together. It appears that DrinkBox have struck gold again, as Severed is easily one of the best games on the Vita. Sony’s struggling handheld is at an all-time low (at least in the west), but this is a refreshing reminder of why the Vita is such a great system in the first place.

Severed cuts right to the chase. The game opens with the flaming ruins of a recently-destroyed home. No opening cut scene. No framing whatsoever. You simply press start and begin.  You’re transported to a desolate canyon, with a pillar of smoke rising in the distance. Your health is low, and there is only one option: to follow the smoke and (hopefully) find out what is going on.  Eventually, you strike upon a homestead, still smoldering from a recent fire. The place is trashed and there are no signs of life. As you explore the remnants, you happen upon a full-length mirror that reveals you to be playing as a young Hispanic woman named Sasha who has had her right arm amputated.

Briefly closing her eyes, she remembers a terrifying beast, her family, and her arm being severed from her body. Returning to the present, she finds the horrible visage of a demon behind her (who could be Mictlantecuhtli, though this is never confirmed). He’s not there to harm her, however, and instead warns her that this place is not actually her home, presents her with a demonic blade (that looks a hell of a lot like Soul Edge), and sends her out into the wilderness to find her family.

Like Guacamelee! before it, Severed takes players on another trip into an underworld based on Mexican mythology. However, while Juan’s journey to Hell was mostly played for laughs, Severed tells a much darker and brooding tale based on the Aztec underworld known as Mictlan.

As a first-person dungeon crawler, you use the left stick to control Sasha’s movement – or the face buttons if you’re left handed (though as a leftie I don’t understand why, since there’s a perfectly good analogue stick on the right). Other buttons are used to either fight, move, or use one of your unlocked abilities, but not necessarily at the same time (more on that in a minute).  It’s a fairly basic setup, but doesn’t let you sidestep or backpedal, which can be a little off-putting if you’ve played similar dungeon crawlers recently (like Stranger in Sword City, for which the review is coming soon).

The pace of Severed is surprisingly sedate. While you journey through coral-hued forests, ransacked villages, desecrated temples, and even the belly of a giant subterranean worm, you’re not forced to rely on reflexes while exploring the environment. Staying vigilant and paying attention to the environment will reward you with lots of additional loot, though not everything that catches your eye will help you.  Every so often, you’ll see a white flame barring the path in front of you, just daring you to step into it. When you do, a host of demons will spring out of the shadows for a conversation, and it’s at this point you ought to let your sword do all the talking.

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Combat in Severed feels like a strange cross between Fruit Ninja and Infinity Blade, using the Vita’s touchscreen to make short and long slashes to wound enemies. Successfully attacking vulnerable areas builds up your focus meter. Once full, when dealing the killing blow, Sasha is given the opportunity to sever her opponent’s appendages, which are then used to power up her own growing arsenal of abilities. Though it’s possible to randomly jab at the screen and maybe get the occasional hand, attacking each area with precision is much more fruitful, and you’ll want to get all the bits you can as (at least in the early stages of the game). Body parts are a valuable and finite resource.

Combat starts off simple enough, facing one enemy at a time, which attack with easily-recognized telegraphed attacks, but as Sasha gains more abilities, so too do the enemies that you encounter, and the difficulty ramps up quickly as a result. Before long, every encounter sees our heroine being surrounded on all four sides, and gives enemies with increasingly complex attack patterns, differing speeds, and eventually buffs (as if things weren’t already complicated enough). Success depends on your ability to not only hit each monster in the right place, timing your defensive swipes correctly, but also prioritizing when to strike each monster and what order to defeat them in. By the end, fights transform from fairly sedate and methodical battles to incredibly tense and frantic affairs as you desperately attempt to defend yourself from attacks on all sides while trying to counter-attack at the right time and turn the tide of battle in your favor.

By using the body parts of defeated foes and giblets (which can be transformed into other more useful body bits) found in breakable pots found throughout the environment, Sasha can level up her abilities, such as improving the amount of damage her sword does, increasing the amount of time she has to severe opponents limbs, and improving the chance of landing a critical hit.

Each of the game’s bosses you defeat unlocks new magical abilities, like the power to stun enemies by blinding them and stealing their buffs. These disparate elements all work together to create an incredibly engaging fighting system that, though tricky at times, I never tired of.  The grim reality of Sasha wearing the dismembered limbs of her opponents and literally consuming their hearts and brains (in order to extend her health and magic meters respectively) fit the tone of the game as well as the mythology from which it was inspired.

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The world of Severed is a beautiful place. It features the same Papel Picardo-inspired art style as Guacamelee, though the world constructed this time is a much darker place. Each of its dungeons are suitably desolate yet colorful. Likewise, the game’s host of twisted monstrosities are vibrant and grotesque at the same time. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, and one that further refines DrinkBox’s sense of style.

Each Dungeon is laid out well and has its own sense of place in the world, from the Temple of the Crows to the bowels of a giant worm, all the way up to the citadel where the final boss lurks. Each contain simple puzzles and secret paths opened by use of Sasha’s powers and while a few are genuine brainteasers, most are basically a case of finding the right colored lever to open a nearby gate.  There are some interesting facets specific to each locale, however, like having to destroy the tonsils of the giant worm you find yourself in before you die of toxic gas poisoning, and a crystal cavern which blinds you as you travel through it, forcing you to wait and regain your vision before you can attack enemies.

It also pays to return to earlier dungeons once Sasha has unlocked new skills, as they will open up new pathways leading to extra rewards. Most are caches of entrails and pieces of heart and brain to extend your health and magic meters, but there are also three hidden items which you can’t reach until the late-game. these require solving some tricky puzzles to obtain and reveal some pretty interesting plot details.

All in all, it took me about eight hours to do everything in Severed. That said, I’ve since returned to the game for a second playthrough simply because it’s such a fun journey, and with details in the background revealing extra tidbits of information with each go around.

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The soundtrack is simple yet effective, combining somber, plodding low piano chords and a melancholy melody to punctuate Sasha’s doomed voyage through the underworld. However, the sound design really shines when the music stops, and some of the revelations as the game progresses are especially chilling, punctuated further by the way the game shows us these things without any kind of musical reference.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the bosses, in which the Aztec influence shine through strongest. Fighting a multi-coloured Quetzalcoatl (in everything but name) was thrilling, and a real sight to behold. Which brings me onto my only real complaint: I wish there had been more bosses, and that the game were longer.  It seems such a shame to breeze through the world so quickly, and I found myself aching for more. That and the ending, which…I’m not sure how I feel about, actually. I have a feeling that people who enjoyed the game are going to be discussing it for a long time.

Really, it’s hard to find much wrong with Severed. It’s simply one of the best games on the Vita, hands down, and a masterclass in what can be achieved with touch controls if you actually take the time to look at the strengths and weakness of the input methods. If you needed an excuse to dust off your Vita, I can’t think of a better one.  When the only real problem with a game is that it ends, you really are looking at a classic.

Severed was reviewed on PS Vita, with a copy provided by the publisher

Publisher: DrinkBox Studios| Developer: DrinkBox Studios | Genre: Dungeon Crawler | Platform: PS Vita | PEGI/ESRB: 12+/T  | Release Date: April 26, 2016

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