DrinkBox Studios’ Guacamelee! was one of my favorite indie games of recent years – fun, fluid, and full of zany luchador humor, it was a Metroidvania well worth the time. So when I heard about the company’s next endeavor, I assumed it would be a similarly light hearted, theatrical romp.
Needless to say, I was mistaken.
Severed is a dark, twisted tale of a one-armed girl seeking revenge. Traversing a nightmarish realm filled with alien horrors, the title combines dungeon crawling, puzzle solving, and intense touchscreen combat to form a wholly unique experience, one that is just as great as – or perhaps even better than – the studio’s previous efforts.
Severed’s narrative follows the story of Sasha – a young warrior whose family has gone missing in a world of horrors. Given an incongruous blade by a mysterious figure, she sets out to explore the land and find her family, slashing through any monsters or beasts that might stand in her way.
The premise of the game is relatively simple, but the intricacies present throughout form a fairly compelling plot. Sasha, despite being a silent protagonist, is able to express a great deal of emotion and motivation through actions and facial expressions alone. There are few other civilized denizens within the mysterious world she traverses, but those she encounters are interesting and memorable in their own right. Dialogue is sparse, but the writing is quite solid in its own right. And there were numerous moments of legitimate emotional impact throughout the game.
What truly makes Severed’s story tick is the world and the mystery. This is not a game that spells out much of its lore, but rather one that drops a cryptic hint or two to leave you guessing along the way. The true nature of the realm Sasha’s exploring is never really explained, but it’s still full of intrigue and personality all the same. Trying to decipher the various environmental clues in the quasi-Aztec landscape is half the fun, and the lack of firm answers leaves much of the world up to the player’s imagination. This may or may not be liked by some, but I personally enjoyed it.
While the plot of Severed is not the game’s strongest point, it’s more than adequate enough. Sasha’s motivations aren’t entirely complicated, but they’re filled with enough pathos to make you care; and the world is unique in both design and atmosphere. The game may not be text-heavy or filled with a particularly deep narrative either, however, the game in its entirety will provide you with an experience you’ll certainly feel invested in.
The most standout aspect of Severed – much like Guacamelee! – is the art style. Full of varied colors and jagged lines, it’s reminiscent of construction paper art kids make in elementary school, albeit much more detailed. But even more impressive is how the game retains the art style of Guacamelee! while also striking a completely different tone and atmosphere. There are many different hues in play, yes, but the tones and shades all strike an otherworldly nerve. Pinks feel fleshy, greens look toxic, yellows have the appearance of somebody with jaundice… the ways the colors mingle to form a sort of bilious feeling is masterful. Most when trying to inspire a dark atmosphere simply rely on poor lighting and dark shades – it’s amazing to see a game try out a completely different aesthetic that conveys just as much creepiness.
The monster and environmental design is also superb. From the first enemy to the last, nearly every bad guy Sasha encounters is grotesque and uncanny, from monstrous crows, to eye aberrations, to horrors that can’t properly be described in words. Every foe simply looks like some creature that shouldn’t exist, immediately conveying danger and an unease that few other monster designs can. Environments, meanwhile, are appropriately gloomy and desolate, accompanied by moody tunes and numerous wreckage. There’s never a whimsical or relaxed moment in the world, as every second of the game is spent looking at something wrecked, twisted, or otherwise unsettling.
Praise must also be given to the soundtrack, a fair mix of unnerving exploration tunes and headbanging battle music. Songs that play in the overworld tend to hold a melancholic, yet slightly unhinged air to them, as if some unknown cosmic horror is forever lurking in the shadows of Sasha’s journey. The fight music, meanwhile, is high-tempo, high-octane rock music that conveys the intensity and chaos of of battle, making you swipe and parry with greater force than you might have normally. Even the sound effects are fine tuned, with sharp sword clangs, hideous screeches, and livid chewing. (When Sasha eats organs, you feel it.)
From an aesthetic standpoint, Severed earns full marks. Not only is every aspect of its artistic design creative and unique, it all serves to further the game’s macabre atmosphere. It’s the sort of look and feel that makes you realize how great graphical fidelity is far from a necessity – sometimes, all it takes it a great style.
Severed’s gameplay is separated into two portions: exploration/puzzle solving and battles. Exploration is a mix of old dungeon crawler RPGs and Zelda – Sasha walks around in the overworld, occasionally coming upon an obstacle in her path or a puzzle that needs to be solved to move forward. Some areas are blocked off until you find the item or skill that allows you to progress, meaning that you’ll occasionally have to come back later to find secrets. There are a multitude of goodies and secrets you can find around in pots or elsewhere, and exploration feels organic and natural.
There’s also an occasional side puzzle room (marked by a question mark on the map) that, when solved, leads to treasure – usually a piece of heart (or brain) that boosts her health/mana when enough are collected. These puzzles arrange from simple “tap the shiny object” to more complicated affairs involving parallel dimensions and code deciphering. With a couple exceptions, the puzzles are never too challenging, though the majority are fun to play with.
The meat, however, comes in the battles. Severed plays like a touch-screen version of Punch-Out, consisting of skillful battles against a variety of Lovecraftian nightmares. Sasha’s has only one form of attack – slashing her foes – but she has to do so carefully, as she’s usually facing multiple enemies at once. Enemies’ attacks occur when their gauges fill up at the bottom of the screen, and many can be parried with a swipe in the opposite direction. Thus, it’s a matter of balancing who you fight first, and whether you take an offensive or defensive approach to each enemy.
There’s a huge variety of enemies in-game, all of which require different tactics to take down. Some are the sort you’ll want to patiently wait and counter against; others you’ll want to furiously slash to take them down before they can commit grievous harm. The name of the game is timing and accuracy. Wild swinging will often get you nowhere, as will waiting for absolutely every foe to attack. Taking the time to learn enemy patterns will get you far in the long run, so observing is key upon seeing a new foe.
This is especially true when taking the game’s namesake into account. When you rack up enough combo hits against a single enemy, your Focus Meter will fill up. When maxed, killing enemies will slow down time and allow you to sever their body parts – arms, eyes, tentacles, spleens and so on. These parts can be used to upgrade Sasha’s abilities, giving her everything from more damage to better spellcasting (more on that in a moment). It’s an excellent system that rewards player skill and proficiency, encouraging you to master fights against specific enemies in order to get their parts.
While fights start relatively simple, they become trickier later on with the addition of a couple spells and new enemy variations. Sasha gains abilities such as blinding her foes, which in turn get numerous buffs and bolstered forms that make fighting a much more interesting affair. There is never too much going on, yet Severed strikes a good balance between simplicity and complexity in the way fights work, and most offer a reasonable challenge.
I’d like to point out that there’s one thing the game lacks: a sense of punishment. Losing a battle will only set you back a screen, with full health and mana to boot, thereby not really punishing the player much for failing. While Severed was indeed designed as a mobile experience, it definitely takes away some of the tension of battle to know that losing will only set you back a little. It also made recovering health between battles feel superfluous, as it would seem quicker to just charge in and succumb to blows rather than carefully explore for replenishing fruit. This isn’t a massive detriment, but it definitely hurts an otherwise great system, with the exception of boss battles.
Speaking of, the bosses – while few – are fantastic. Notably longer than the normally brief battles in dungeons, bosses have both emotional buildup and clever strategies employed. Their designs are appropriately gigantic and menacing, and they all include flunkies of their own to boot. Each one is distinct, and every one slain has ramifications for the story as a whole.
Despite that, battles in Severed are undoubtedly intense. The visceral sensation of frenzied slashing eldritch abominations in rapid succession can’t be denied, and unless you absolutely detest touchscreen based games, this one is guaranteed to get your blood pumping.
As a whole, Severed is a rather short game, perhaps a bit too short. It took me a little over five hours to complete the game 100%, and much of that was backtracking to previous areas to find new secrets. Not to mention, the game doesn’t have much replay value. While there are multiple endings, it’s not that hard to immediately get the “good” ending after the “bad” one. (I didn’t even see the latter on my playthrough.) It definitely felt as if there could’ve been another dungeon or two, but what game that is there is great for what it is. At $15 – coupled with cross-buy between Wii U and 3DS – it’s well worth the price.
Severed is many things – a powerful tale of searching for loved ones, a wonderful use of aesthetic and atmosphere, a fierce display of bloody battles. It’s not a life-changing experience, perhaps, but a very good one nonetheless, and one that should be considered for any Wii U or 3DS library. Severed may not have been the game I expected, but that only meant it was able to surprise me in ways I never thought possible.Leave a Comment
System: Nintendo Wii U, Nintendo 3DS
Release date: September 22, 2016
Categories: Action, Adventure, Role-playing game
Publisher: DrinkBox Studios
Developer: DrinkBox Studios