Sundered is contradictory. First and foremost, the game is Lovecraftian, following protagonist, Eshe, as she enters into a dream-world full of mystery, strange gods, and old relics. Areas in the environment change after every death so players encounter locations entirely foreign each time they play a level. Eshe, as the servant to a crystalline god, appears as an almost insignificantly small part of this large, complex, and dark world. However, Sundered is also a combat platformer, where Eshe has to clear a wide variety of enemies, learning their weaknesses and upgrading her skills to become the best fighter in a place filled with hostile killers. This part of the game is genuinely fun to experience, and players will be able to lose themselves for 10 or even 20 hours exploring and fighting through the eldritch caverns and ruins. Nevertheless, the game lacks the fine minutiae to bring the two main parts together for a satisfying overall experience.
The title features an eye-catching and invigorating art style. Hand-drawn video games have come into vogue lately, with titles such as Cuphead and Forgotten Anne coming out later this year, and Sundered is a key example of well-used traditional animation. Not only will the visuals age far better than the CGI equivalent, but everything, from the movement of Eshe’s robes as she runs and jumps to some of the many varieties of comic book-like explosions players see during combat, is a pleasure to gaze upon. The enemy designs are distinctive and as enjoyable to watch as Eshe. Even after hours of playing, the game holds up and players will find Eshe’s movement from place to place as arresting as they did in the beginning.
Sundered also utilises one of the same techniques that Thunder Lotus used in its previous game, Jotun, in that the playable character occupies a minuscule part of the screen. Whereas Jotun used that difference in scale to emphasise the sheer size of the enemies (similar to Shadow of the Colossus), Sundered uses the technique to emphasise how small Eshe is in the dreamworld she inhabits. This revamp of the developer’s old approach perfectly suits a deeply Lovecraftian combat experience. The goal of the game is not to slaughter a succession of gigantic enemies, but to defeat the very world Eshe occupies, which is, essentially, an impossible undertaking, even with fully upgraded weapons.
Furthermore, Sundered is not afraid of filling the entire screen with adversaries to the extent that Eshe more or less vanishes into the crowd. Initially, players may find themselves button-mashing to fight through a horde of enemies before they realise Eshe is fighting an entirely different set of foes on another part of the screen. Regardless, players will, after a time, become more practiced at following the character’s movement as they gain familiarity with the gameplay, and, overall, her miniature size does not remain an ongoing hindrance. Players will grow familiar with the mechanics to overcome the initial difficulty. Scale is thus one of only a couple game aspects that seem to merge combat and Lovecraftian themes together well.
The soundtrack is perfectly pitched for a Lovecraftian horror game, creating a lingering and foreboding atmosphere. At no point can a player feel at ease with the soft, ominous music or the blaring of alarms in certain sections of the game. A horde of enemies or, worse, boss battle always feels a couple dozen feet away, and, if players do not keep their wits about them, they will quickly become overwhelmed and die. This aspect is both terrifying and challenging, but the game makes clear that every obstacle can be overcome as Eshe’s skill improves.
As players gain experience, the atmospheric music begins to feel irritating during the combat sections. Throughout the initial stages of the game, the soundtrack emphasises how small and powerless the character is, especially with frequent deaths, but after a couple of hours, at which time players are much more competent in various acts of conflict, the slow soundtrack is more than a little frustrating. A soundtrack that is essentially a Gregorian chant does not make the experience of wiping out two dozen opponents at all exhilarating. Players cannot feel a sense of accomplishment after slaughtering a large group of enemies since the music usually peters out to silence after battles, without so much as a couple of air-horn blasts to acknowledge victory. As a result, combat seems like an irksome and thankless chore that must be endured to get to new locations rather than something to enjoy.
The music conveys the existentialist and deeply Lovecraftian theme that the actions of a human matter little in the scheme of things, but is out of place in a game about fighting waves upon waves of adversaries. In Sundered, the most successful player is whoever can fight through enemy hordes best, given that Thunder Lotus has not provided a stealth option. The developer’s choice to stubbornly stick with the atmospheric and insubstantial score rather than a pumping punk rock track to make the combat fun is mystifying.
Music aside, the act of fighting is fast-paced and engaging. Combat never becomes too complicated, as players only have the option to jump, dodge, and hit enemies. Combo attacks cannot exist within such a system, so success depends on a combination of upgrade choices and an understanding of enemy attack patterns. Enemy design is one of the stand-out aspects of the game, with each creature type exhibiting distinctive combat skills. Players initially encounter a black and blue crawling being known as the Aranea, which scurries across floors, walls, and ceilings, before charging at Eshe with an electric attack. The Aranea are essentially the goblins of this game, difficult for beginners to kill, but uncomplicated in their attacks and easy to defeat once the player is used to them. The next enemy type that players encounter is the polar opposite of the Aranea: a light blue, flying landmine known as the Meteoroid, which jets across the screen, damaging the player as it passes and exploding when it stops. An entirely different strategy is required to overcome this new foe, so whatever players have learned goes entirely out the window as they develop a new playstyle along the way. This process largely does not stop throughout the game.
The cyclical process of 1) dying repeatedly while panicking, 2) learning the enemy’s attacks, 3) overcoming that creature type, and 4) starting from square one when encountering a new foe is oddly satisfying. As long as enemies are present to defeat, players will always have more things to learn and relearn. Even as gamers become comfortable with all of their current enemies, they will come across bosses that are even more varied than regular foes, with powers not found in any other critter. However, protagonists in Lovecraftian stories do not learn about their enemies, nor do they become particularly good fighters; if they are lucky, they will passively observe a group of monsters from a safe distance, before going insane and retreating to Rhode Island for indefinite medical leave. Thus, even though overcoming foes is entertaining, the process of learning enemies’ attacks and gaining an affinity for fighting runs contrary to Sundered’s Lovecraftian themes.
Furthermore, the title’s upgrade system does little more than improve the player’s ability to take and deal damage, along with a handful of other perks. Nonetheless, this system is intrinsically tied into how the plot plays out in Sundered. The essential problem is that the game does not explain how upgrades impact the story—barring the vague tag-line “Resist or Embrace”—until quite late, and some players might find that vexing. For example, users can choose to gain new abilities after defeating bosses and gaining elder shards, which provide the ability to walk up and down walls, glide for long distances, and teleport. Alternatively, players can destroy the elder shards—along with regular shards that have been collected—using a furnace to unlock a new skill tree on the upgrade screen, thus providing the ability to damage foes while rolling, deal extra damage, and triple jump, among others. These upgrades are not as useful or interesting to look at as the alternative, and players will lose shards to obtain them. Decisions made in these moments factor heavily into which of the three endings the game runs to, despite the upgrades being clearly skewed in favour of a particular outcome. Still, players will probably not understand this mechanic until late in their first playthrough, after which time, they will probably have used and become familiar with the abilities gained from the elder shards.
The overall story and Lovecraftian themes, for the most part, inform little of the gameplay experience because, confusingly, combat fills most of the play time. Besides an opening, which explains how the protagonist entered the world and the rules the environment obeys, Sundered does not have much of a narrative to enjoy. Players will have to open doors, kill groups of enemies with their improving skills, defeat bosses, and continue progressing until the game ends, which may create difficulty in emotionally connecting to a character that does little besides hack, slash, unlock things, and respawn.
The developers focused on Sundered’s Lovecraftian elements in the marketing campaign, which makes the undue focus on combat all the more disappointing. Early on, Eshe comes across a crystalline object called the shining trapezohedron, which gives the character a weapon to defend herself. Players familiar with the Cthulhu Mythos will get a chill running down their spine at this moment, as within Lovecraftian literature the shining trapezohedron was an artifact used to summon the dark messenger god Nyarlathothep. The moment fans encounter that object, they know that Eshe is likely fighting for the wrong side: the hordes of enemies they are slaughtering could be the good guys doing their best to repel an enemy agent.
While an interesting and engrossing idea, this premise is not expounded upon or examined for much of the game. Again, the payoff does come into play towards the end, but if the narrative and Lovecraftian theme bring a player to Sundered, then finding that most of the game involves grinding combat with almost no narrative rewards is disappointing. However, the lack of story does not make Sundered unplayable. The focus of Sundered is clearly the combat mechanics and difficulty progression, and the story largely exists to direct the player to more action rather than to weave a substantial narrative. As players have seen with recent hit Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, great battle mechanics, enemy variety, and engaging difficulty progression can overcome a lacklustre story . Players looking for a great action platformer to get lost in for many hours will find Sundered is what they are seeking.
For gamers who need more depth, this title’s potential is not fully realised. Basic tasks such as puzzle solving and platforming can add much to a game’s story, as evidenced by the likes of Deadlight and Inside. If Sundered’s story is just the player-character moving around and facing enemies, then the developers have missed the potential of the game and the Lovecraftian genre.
While Sundered is enjoyable, the individual parts do not add up to a satisfying whole. The story only exists to frame the combat, then the fighting sections feel exhausting with the chosen soundtrack. The two distinct genres that Thunder Lotus attempts to tie together do not gel. Nonetheless, players can get lost for hours at a time in this action game thanks to an interesting variety of enemies, a beautiful design, and an engaging upgrade system, if they are not concerned about the lacking story.
Reviewed on PC