Show me your kung fu!
As a teenager in high school, I had a pretty big fascination with martial arts films. Being introduced to the genre with Master of the Flying Guillotine, I started to research different kung fu actors and directors and learn more about the philosophy behind martial arts. Before that, I had actually taken classes in karate (stopping short of a black belt), so I sort of understood what these people were doing.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve maintained that interest in fighting philosophy. Games that try to incorporate the legacy of these different styles and create unique gameplay scenarios around them are usually some of my favorite, so Absolver definitely had my interest when I read its description.
Sadly, the game lacks the punch to really be something great, instead opting to launch with barely any content and relegating the most interesting battles to PvP encounters with single opponents. Let’s back up a little, though, and try to figure out what this game is all about.
As for what the plot of Absolver is, you’ve got me. I’ve “finished” the campaign and I still don’t really know what was going on. The official descriptions read that your character is attempting to become the great martial artist in the land and apparently that requires you to defeat the “marked ones” and fight off specific bosses.
If you want to be reductive with game comparisons, Absolver is the martial arts Dark Souls. That does a disservice to the unique aspects of this game, but the comparison to FromSoftware’s now classic series is not too far removed. Absolver has combat with a lock-on camera and all actions being governed by a stamina meter. If you try to attack or dodge too much, you’ll soon be unable to do anything else.
The game begins with you creating a character from a few pretty basic options. You’ll start off with three martial art styles, a gender selection and then hair choices. After that, you’re thrown straight into the game with an almost silent cutscene.
With the wordless plot propelling you into action, you’re set off into some unnamed land to seek out specific enemies and defeat them. While the game world seems boundless at first glance, it is actually rather small. I think my house is actually larger than Absolver, but it certainly isn’t comprised solely of linear paths.
The trick Absolver uses to mislead you into believing the world is vast is that it locks off a lot of the pathways with things like collapsed stone or bottomless pits and asks you to walk around and find the intended path. While I suppose you can’t really get lost, it ends up making your traversal through this world feel utterly pointless. If everything is linearly connected, why even bother putting up an illusion of choice?
You’ll soon run into some NPC’s that will bring up a few text bubbles to try and explain some of the fighting mechanics to you. I’ve got to say, this is the one aspect where Absolver absolutely nails it. The combat oriented gameplay is rather complex, but you’ll eventually get the hang of its different styles and stances.
Basically, you have access to a light and heavy attack that you can mix-and-match into your own combos on the fly. Along with that, certain moves in your repertoire will alter your stance, meaning you’ll be standing facing to the left or right or even potentially have your back to your opponent. This doesn’t mean you can’t attack; it just changes what attack will happen when you press the right button. You can also manually change your stance before performing a move by holding R2 and pressing the right stick.
Along with this, you can also specify which moves happen based on which stance you’re starting a combo from. I’ve heard some people refer to this as “Dial-a-Combo,” and I definitely agree. You are the one picking which moves you want and the game gives you all kinds of information about said moves (like damage output, duration, etc). It makes for a very customizable fighter that is a pure joy against human opponents.
Sadly, the “campaign” mode of this game does nothing to actually utilize these different moves. A run-through of all the marked opponents and bosses in this game will take you roughly 3-5 hours and any of the people standing in your way are complete pushovers. You can get away with spamming heavy attacks all the time along with literally pushing enemies off of ledges, which kind of feels like cheating.
The other big concept that Absolver touts is your ability to learn moves from opponents by being on the receiving end of attacks. If you want to master any of the four martial art styles present in the game, you’re going to have to get your ass kicked a bit. While I can understand that from a philosophical standout, where it stops working is that losing a battle sees you lose your experience points.
So, you have this system that is trying to emulate old-school kung fu films where an instructor would kick the heck out of the hero until he was a god, but then punishes you for not being good enough to win fights. It’s not like you can spontaneously change your combos or fighting style on the fly to combat different foes, since that requires you to fiddle with menus to select what moves you’re performing. As such, you end up wasting time on the braindead AI just holding block and letting a bar fill up until you’ve “mastered” the move and then proceeding to lay waste to them without much opposition.
Then there is the problem with the lock-on targeting. Fighting multiple foes in Absolver can be a nightmare. You’ll have one enemy selected, but your moves will commence in the direction you’re holding. I suppose this is to let you tackle someone behind you quickly, but often you’ll be striking at a person behind the target you’re focused on and just wasting a lot of stamina. You also cannot manipulate the camera while locked-on to an enemy, since the right stick performs a parry action while locked-on. Switching foes also requires you to hold R1 and then use the right stick, frustratingly ignoring the other buttons on the controller.
Really, the combat only comes alive when you’re digging into the PvP that is available in the game. Much like Dark Souls, Absolver has checkpoints you can rest at during your travels that will allow you to look at a map and select some other options. One of those is PvP and you’ll be thrust into a 1 on 1 arena where you can trade blows with someone at random. It certainly gives you an excuse to actually learn different moves, since human opponents are typically challenging.
Sadly, this is extremely limited in the amount of content available. While it looks like there are other options on the menu screen, leveling up to reach them requires a tremendous amount of experience. Since I wasn’t good enough to be constantly winning, the points I was amassing hardly made a dent in the experience bar, so I lost a lot of interest in trying to see what else the PvP might contain.
You can randomly attack people in the game world, which is sort of neat. You also tend to do this accidentally since the lock-on system is pretty poor. To circumvent that, you can ask other players for “cooperation,” but that mostly eliminates your ability to deplete their health bars. You can still attack them, which makes me question what developer Sloclap’s definition of cooperate means. At least you can quickly traverse through the more densely packed areas. The AI is so easy to deal with that you probably won’t need to, though.
Then there are the schools you can join. Schools are basically player created guilds where people can learn the three styles from the beginning of the game (along with a fourth, hidden one). A person will select which discipline they are and can then train other players in that. It is sort of neat, but the game never actually explains how to join these schools.
I had to look up through Google what the schools even were. My only hint was through the trophy list on my PS4, which has two trophies related to joining and creating a school. I figured that, since I finished the campaign, I could create my own, but I still haven’t discovered how to do that. Joining one is also just as obscure, but once you’re in, you automatically acquire the style of the master. Then it just falls on you to tediously “unlock” moves by fighting other people and praying you win.
As for performance, I played the game on a regular PS4. I had a lot of choppy framerates while character models and textures loaded along with some poor connections to the servers. There were about five patches during my weeks of playing, so I would expect the game to eventually get better. That being said, my experience wasn’t exactly smooth.
The game is locked to 30 FPS, which just feels kind of sluggish for the action Absolver wants to have. It also fails to remain at 30, though I can’t say I noticed any dips during combat. Going into PvP online brings you to a completely separate arena, so the framerate tends to smooth out entirely during those bits.
Presentation wise, I can’t say I was that impressed with Absolver. I get that Sloclap was going for a minimalist approach, but the textures and art style look way too simplified. A lot of the geometry of the game world just looks bland and doesn’t really have much going on. Leaves and branches don’t sway in the wind, water looks like it is being cast in another dimension and the character animations are incredibly stiff. The music is also lacking in any distinct themes, mostly relying on atmospheric noises to fill in the emptiness. Again, I understand the minimalist approach, but I don’t think it does any favors for Absolver. This game is lacking in so many areas that you’d figure maybe the presentation would pick it up.
I think that is really the whole issue I have with this game. It feels like an early access title that was released far too early. The combat is excellent, but there isn’t a real campaign to put it to use with. The PvP is exciting, but there aren’t really any other modes to try out. The experience concept is cool, but its punishing execution makes learning new things tedious.
I get the feeling that Sloclap just wasn’t sure what they should do with Absolver. I like that this is a different spin on Dark Souls, opting to not just blindly copy the same mechanics like Lords of the Fallen, but for everything different that Absolver tries, it fails to nail basic game design elements. Even if the $30 asking price isn’t that steep, you’ll probably see everything you want with Absolver in a weekend. Hopefully some more content updates come to this game, because having a sprawling martial arts inspired action RPG world would be excellent. Having that same world be driven by other humans instead of AI would also capture the same philosophy that real life martial arts encapsulates.