Death is only the beginning in this atmospheric rogue-lite.
Sundered has a great understanding of H.P. Lovecraft, which by all appearances is the main literary inspiration behind this semi-roguelike 2D platformer in the tradition of Metroid and Castlevania (or Metroidvania). In the 1930s the horror writer claimed atmosphere and mood were the great aims of his “weird fiction,” and Sundered delivers both in bundles, weaving that evenly into the minimalist, Limbo-like music or the occasionally stunning hand-drawn set pieces that define this world. Smart sound cues impart tension before trouble arrives. Throughout it all a being speaks with the hero in a voice that sounds like Shakespeare spoken through cabbage with a sore throat, suggesting a Cthulhu-like presence but leaving its form to the imagination. Mood, in fact, is often strong enough here that it can prop up Sundered when it sags.
The austere story itself works well in part because it keeps its details close to its chest. Much like Journey, it starts with a lone, hooded wanderer among sandy ruins, but the massive dark arms that pull her down to the underworld hint at encounters with more sinister powers than what Thatgamecompany showed us. Eshe, as she’s called, becomes trapped in this strange land peppered with consonant-fetishist names like Klir’luiph’tag’echt Ph’aeshaeglehwgaeyah. It’s a similar tale of possible redemption, but one centered more on escape than pilgrimage. It’s not always silent—sometimes the Cthulhu-like voice advises Eshe or relates the story’s details in cryptic, poetic language whenever you whack glowing black spheres in crystal caves—but it wisely keeps these moments brief. Mood rightly is the star here, and it follows Eshe as she completes the classic Metroidvania tasks in the vein of unlocking shortcuts or encountering shrines granting new abilities like gravity boots and grappling hooks.
Sundered can turn heads when it wants to. Its visual wonders range from the towering statues of wispy robed aliens to the fine details of the hand-drawn smoke from explosions. Yet the bosses steal the show. They’re monumental: you’ll face foes like dudes on giant tentacled thrones and ghoulish robotic spiders taking up so much screen space that Eshe seems barely bigger than a stack of pixels (and it’s a testament to the strength of the platforming that she’s still easy to control).
If only there were more screenshot-worthy moments like these. Sundered takes an uncommon approach to procedural generation in that rooms for bosses, shortcuts, and new abilities remain static while the passageways connecting them randomly rearrange themselves after every death. The idea seems sound, but the downside is that these humdrum collections of ledges, tunnels, and pitfalls lack all the personality of their planned counterparts, and the contrast is glaring. Rarely did I sense I was traveling through new territory on second visits, save when the realignment made the trip to a boss take three times longer than it did on the previous attempt. And that’s no fun.
Each zone serves as a welcome break from the previous one.
Fortunately, there’s some visual variety – you end up working your way through three major zones that differ widely in their aesthetic, ranging from an underground research facility reminiscent of Shadow Complex to a towering cathedral and an underworld where dark tentacles slither from ledges. Each zone serves as a welcome break from the previous one, thanks in part to the environmental quirks in each. In the facility, you have to unlock gates with a massive energy gun, and in the cathedral you parkour up spires while struggling against strong winds and rising putrid clouds threatening to pull you into oblivion.
According to the loading screens, you’re supposed to be able to work through these levels in any order you choose, save for some spots that are locked behind ability gates requiring discoverable items like the gravity boots, dash, and grappling hook before moving onward. (Annoyingly, Sundered’s map doesn’t hint at which abilities the locks require, which means you could make the long trip to try out the lock for nothing if you’ve forgotten the layout since your last play session.) I found, though, that there’s a clear progression in difficulty from the facility to the Cthulhu caves to the cathedral, and I wasted many hours preparing to fight one tough boss because I kept missing the passage to the easier “first” one.
Sundered is a hard game, to a degree that isn’t apparent at first.
Yes, hours. Sundered is a hard game, to a degree that isn’t apparent when you make your first forays into the depths and slice individual monsters. But that illusion of an easy fight shatters quickly. Enemies spawn randomly in Sundered, which means you’ll withstand everything from long periods of comparative silence to harrowing battles with hordes that unrelentingly swarm you from all directions. This constant threat keeps Sundered at once exciting and frustrating. Forget the individual monsters: the gongs and screams that herald a horde’s approach deliver Sundered’s true moments of horror, particularly when you’ve spent 10 minutes on a precarious climb up a cliff and are many minutes away from the safety of the central hub. “Not now,” I’d find myself pleading. “I’ve come so far.”
This chaos of combat can be fast-paced and frantic fun. Fully upgraded, Eshe can both dodge enemy attacks and harm enemies by rolling, and Sundered offers few greater pleasures than lining up a row of monsters and blasting them with a huge cannon. But it can also be a little too chaotic. In the thickest hordes, the animations and effects fire off so closely that it’s hard to tell what’s happening, which gets especially annoying when cultists cast floating bombs near you when you’re already practically buried under baddies. The battle covers them so completely that I often didn’t even see them at all until they went off. At their worst, horde fights essentially devolve into blind button mashing.
Inevitably, I died in some of these pileups, and it happened more often than felt entirely fair. That said, the only real punishment for death is the often long trek back to the spot where you were, if you want to return at all. All enemies and treasure pods drop shards that you use as an upgrade currency, but you keep them at death rather than dropping them as in Dark Souls. Death, in fact, is a convenient way of getting back to the hub so you can use the shards in the ability tree, a sprawling affair which branches leading largely to passives for everything from greater melee damage and stronger shields. The skill tree is also where Eshe can equip up to three perks dropped from bosses and mini bosses, which generally provide situational advantages and neatly allow for shifts between shard farming and other combat modes. Some are better than others, of course. One, which restores Eshe’s precious shield each time she kills an enemy, seems all but indispensable. I like the design, as I found it always made those less-than-fair failures a little more bearable since I knew my next trek through would be a smidge easier from the upgrades. At the same time, unfortunately, the approach allows Sundered to devolve into a bit of a grind in its comparatively weak middle hours.
Sometimes, as in the hidden floating bombs, Sundered can feel a little unfair, but it’s never unmanageable. But Sundered offers another option to make things easier: a chance to use the Elder Shards that drop from bosses to exchange part of Eshe’s humanity for augmentations to her core abilities. One mutation harms enemies that hit her shield; another lets her drift across long spaces in the guise of a gargoyle. It’s both a roleplaying hook — the ending changes depending on how many shards you destroy or consume — and an interesting decision that alters gameplay, in that destroying the shards keep things more challenging.
Someday I may even replay it to see what happens if I destroyed all the shards. After 20 hours of this madness, though, it’s time for a break.