Metroidvania’s are a dime a dozen on the Steam store and don’t get me started on roguelikes. So what does Thunder Lotus Games’ Sundered have that can stand out from the crowd? Well, initial impressions are understated. At its heart, Sundered is a Metroidvania. Its key concepts are exploration, combat, and a dose of survival. You play as Eshe, a lone woman wandering through a perilously heavy sandstorm. Stumbling upon some ruins, Eshe is grabbed from the floor and dragged down to the deepest darkest depths of Sundered’s world.
Once down there, she awakens to find the Trapezohedron overlooking here. A vast floating shape, it is the focal point for all your adventuring. It is here where the world splinters off in every direction, and here where Eshe must come to upgrade her abilities. And so begins her adventure.
What’s immediately arresting is just how damn good Sundered looks. We knew Thunder Lotus had some artistic chops with Jotun, but Sundered is absolutely gorgeous. Everything has a crisp, yet hand-painted aesthetic. The character models are remarkable, whether simple blob creatures or Eldritch horrors that are all teeth and gaping maws. It’s a true feast for the eyes.
Sundered is set in a pretty gargantuan 2D world, one which is a fusion of procedural generation and hand-crafted environments. At the start of the game, all of the hand-crafted areas are placed in fixed positions that never change, although they will change up on another playthrough. It’s in these rooms where Eshe can find vital skills, shortcuts and bosses. Connecting these points is a randomly generated level layout. Each time she dies, she respawns back at the Trapezohedron, where she can spend accrued wealth in a sprawling upgrade tree.
There are literally hundreds of upgrades to choose from, spirally out from a central point. It’s in this tree where Sundered graduates from a basic hack and slash to a game with genuine depth, but you will have to work at it in order to unlock the skills necessary to give combat and traversal a good flow. Up until that point, Eshe’s lumped with a basic attack and a dodgy button; a repetitious combination that doesn’t much to highlight the strengths of Sundered’s combat system. Plenty of players may bounce off Sundered far before they can get to the juicier bits. Once her skills are upgraded a bunch though, things really begin to open up. There’s a ridiculous screen-searing cannon, double jumps and a hookshot, all of which serve to add some much-needed variety to Sundered’s moment to moment play.
The early slow-paced crawl, combined with the randomised level generation, are Sundered’s two glaring weak points. The essence of a Metroidvania is of exploration, of unwrapping the secrets of a strange world. The very best in the genre can have you poking around your starting point 20 hours later, realising you can use a bomb blast to duck down into a pipe and discover an entirely new area. Sundered doesn’t really have any of this. The illusion of exploration dissipates within a matter of minutes, around the time of Eshe’s first death. Everything has been reset, aside from a few key rooms, and it becomes a task of working through a slightly different layout in order to get where she was earlier. Perhaps most egregiously, even the simple act of warping to the Trapezohedron resets the level layout, much to my chagrin. Within the first hour I’d restricted myself to mainlining the routes. Exploring was rendered pointless as there are no secrets worth hunting for or upgrades to uncover. Environments also repeat themselves; odd little layouts that you’ll recognise from earlier. It makes Sundered’s chops as an explorative Metroidvania a little on the flaccid side. In making up for this, Sundered leans a little into the roguelike genre. More specifically, Sundered is a rogue-lite - abilities can be upgraded and kept between deaths, while certain map elements will remain the same. The only thing it’s really got in common with the genre are the randomly generated room layouts and being forced back to the start upon death.
The over-riding theme while playing through Sundered is often one of repetition, but it can be overlooked thanks to those special moments that Lotus Flower has cooked up. The screen-filling bosses can be truly unforgettable, the combat turning into a fizz of projectiles and acrobatic movement. Some parts of the world can also look absolutely magnificent, aided by gorgeously animated movements and exquisitely detailed architecture. The art team are an immensely talented lot, which sort of made me all the more wistful that this couldn’t be funnelled into a tighter more focused experience, rather than something oh-so-obviously cranked out by a machine.
Which leaves me in a bit of a conundrum, and Sundered with a name that couldn't be apter. The core of Sundered is fundamentally flawed from the outset, and randomly generated levels are often a bugbear of mine. But layered on top of this is a fantastic, gorgeous action game with heaps to do. All told you’re looking at a good 15-hour run through, and those whose thirst is still not quenched as the credits will no doubt be pleased that each playthrough is different. If the thought of eating a beautiful crunchy red apple appeals to you, and you don’t mind the worms wriggling inside, Sundered might be worth a shot.