A brutally beautiful adventure that will test your abilities - and your patience
A lost soul wanders through a barren desert. The wind picks up, and with it, a nigh-impenetrable wall of sand threatens to overwhelm the mysterious figure. Yet, the lone stranger continues to push forward on a quest that has not been defined. Before our protagonist, who we eventually learn is named Eshe, can reach her destination, she’s pulled under the ground by a dark force. So begins Sundered, the latest effort from Thunder Lotus Games, the team behind 2015’s Jotun. It’s an experience steeped in mystery, and one that is not easy to expel answers from.
Taking inspiration from the haunting works of H.P. Lovecraft, Sundered is an adventure filled with grotesque creatures and otherworldly locations. After being pulled into the underworld, Eshe must do battle with monsters with complicated names like Phaztu Othaloth and Medusozoa. Along the way, she is in touch with a higher being known as the Trapezohedron that is attempting to influence her decisions. Depending on how she chooses to traverse this journey, she will either be lead to salvation, or will be doomed to madness.
There’s a good amount of story to be found in Sundered, but it’s not always at the forefront of the action. A lot of the background content on the world Eshe is exploring is handled with expository dialogue and optional bits of story that can be skipped entirely. It’s content to be kept in the background, which is an approach that I think works best here. Time isn’t spent with cutscene after cutscene, and instead, the game lets you focus on the primary goal, which is survival. It would be easy to want more from the story, but I think that, in this case, what you don’t know adds even more intrigue to the adventure.
Gameplay wise, Sundered is a metroidvania with a dash of rogue-like elements thrown into the mix. The world you are trapped in is sprawling and dangerous, but it is also one that is frequently changing. While certain elements of the map, such as boss locations or shrines, will always stay in place, the area around these rooms gets switched around every time you die. While these interconnecting rooms pull from the same group of assets every time, there is enough variation to keep things fresh. And you can look forward to seeing the many variations the game has because death is a constant, but necessary, presence in the game.
As you make your way through the world, Eshe will collect shards by killing enemies or breaking objects. These shards can then be used to upgrade Eshe’s stats, such as her shield or her strength. However, the quickest way of getting back to the Sanctuary so you can get these upgrades is by dying. While you can technically find your way back once you unlock additional abilities, such as a double jump, you’ll mostly end up there once you have been stricken down once again.
Unlike some games where boosting stats can sometimes feel negligible, you can really notice Eshe becoming stronger the higher her stats get. Enemies that used to be too strong became child’s play over time, and sections that felt overwhelming were easily overcome. The cycle of “live, die, repeat” could have been extremely annoying to deal with, but Thunder Lotus Games did an excellent job of making it not too frustrating. As long as you’re willing to grind for shards when you need to, you’ll be able to get the strength you need to succeed.
As mentioned already, Sundered is brutally tough at times. Thunder Lotus Games throws Eshe to the wolves almost immediately, and you have a limited amount of time to collect yourself before enemies start attacking. It can be extremely overwhelming, and after my first few hours with the game, I was struggling to make real progress. The ominous gong that symbolized that a wave of enemies was heading my way became anxiety-inducing. And even after I built myself up into a more efficient killing machine, that disruptive tone still got my pulse going.
I welcomed the challenge that was being offered, but I do think how the game is difficult is slightly misleading. Not including the boss battles, the basic enemy encounters aren’t difficult due to smart A.I. or anything of that sort. They are merely difficult because you are overwhelmed by so many at a single time. They come from all over the place, sometimes in seemingly infinite amounts, or from rooms you had literally just cleaned out. Running away won’t help you either, as the monsters will not only continue chasing you, but more often than not, the next room will see a completely new group of enemies spawn. When you’re getting targeted by enemies from three rooms away, it’s hard not to feel like the game isn’t playing fairly.
If the regular grind of Sundered is a little too punishing, then the boss battles do a better job of straddling the line between challenging and cheap. Sure, there are going to be hordes of enemies spawning during these large-scale encounters. However, the sheer scope of these daunting duels is enough to compensate for that. I can’t think of the last time I have seen boss battles in a game that have felt as epic or awe-inspiring as the ones here do.
Conquering bosses also unlock Elder Shards that can be used to augment your abilities. Depending on whether you choose to resist these crystals, by destroying them, or embrace their corruption will determine what type of powers you unlock. I personally went down the corruption path, because why wouldn’t I use their evil powers? I was willing to lose my humanity for the sake of power, but I’m not going to lie: the power was worth it.
With gorgeous hand-drawn artwork, Sundered is one of the prettiest 2D games I have seen in quite some time. The environments constantly provide a hauntingly beautiful background for you to gawk at, even while you are struggling to keep pace with the action. I mentioned it when talking about the boss battles, but the game has a phenomenal sense of scale. Even when you’re walking around a deserted jungle, you tend to feel small compared to the world around you.
I also really liked the look of Eshe, which is kind of like a badass version of the wanderer from Journey. She is not your traditional female heroine, which is a refreshing thing to see. The enemies look great too, and are almost all detailed with vibrant, eye-catching colors. It would have been nice to have a little more variety with the amount of enemies in the game, as opposed to just color-swaps, though. I don’t want to hype the bosses too much, but again, they just look phenomenal. They tower over Eshe, and each of the main region bosses has their own unique look that makes them memorable.
Although Thunder Lotus Games has released a few patches for the game already, there are a handful of technical issues found in Sundered. Most frustrating is the lag that arises when too much action is going on. For a game that is relentless in pumping enemies at you, this is a pretty critical issue. The combat is reliant on timing, and even the slightest lag can get you trapped in a severely dire situation. The load times for the game are also surprisingly lengthy, particularly when you are entering a new region. It’s especially noticeable when you are respawning, which again, is something that happens quite a bit in the game.
Sundered is a beautiful, brutal challenge that will test the skills of any gamer. The adventure Eshe undertakes is one of the more memorable journeys I have experienced in recent memory. While gorgeous graphics and a haunting setting can cover some flaws, all is not perfect with Thunder Lotus Games’ latest effort. The repetitive, frustrating enemy encounters are more of a hindrance than they should be, and the technical hiccups the title experiences only exacerbate the difficulty problem. The game would have been better served with specifically crafted enemy encounters, rather than random horde rushes. With that said, if you’re willing to suffer through some rage-inducing difficulty spikes, the Eldritchian horrors of Sundered are worth experiencing.