The work of H.P. Lovecraft had a significant impact on culture in both the literary and broader world, leading to the creation of the cosmic horror genre which focuses on a certain kind of fear related to unknowable, dark deities. Sundered: Eldritch Edition aims to capture the heart of what made Lovecraft’s work so compelling, fusing those dark themes with a Metroidvania template that uses procedural generation. Though ambitious, Sundered doesn’t fully deliver on what it promises, but nonetheless still manages to be a wonderfully enjoyable game.
Sundered sees you playing as Eshe, a mysterious woman wandering in the desert who finds herself spirited away to an intricate cavern by an eldritch being called the Shining Trapezohedron, who very clearly is not good news. The Shining Trapezohedron asks Eshe for help in regaining its original power by collecting seven ‘Elder Shards’—dark crystals being guarded by terrifying abominations—while promising that she’ll receive that power herself if she agrees. As you explore the caverns, a narrative is slowly played out through a series of fragmented voiceovers which reveal the details of a war between the Escahton (the race of beings the Shining Trapezohedron belongs to) and the Valkyries (a group of humans with access to highly advanced technology), which resulted in both races being horribly disfigured and broken. As a human, Eshe has to make the choice between siding with the Eschaton, which represent ultimate power, or the humans, of which she is one.
Depending on the choices you make, a good, neutral, or evil ending is achieved, with each one having harrowing and sometimes surprising twists that make them all worth pursuing. The Lovecraftian influences permeate nearly every element along this dark journey, especially in the disturbing and terrifying encounters with the fallen god-like bosses and in visiting concisely named places like “Wgehshtag’her’Ing Phylw’glr’ymg’aeg”. Although this is scarcely what we would call a horror game, the horror influences are strongly present, crafting an atmosphere of dread and confusion at nearly every turn. The Shining Trapezohedron’s omnipresent voice is always taunting you with the promise of tangible power, and though the plot doesn’t necessarily tug at the emotional heartstrings, its nonetheless a fascinating and engaging ride that keeps you wanting to play more.
As a Metroidvania, the time-tried song and dance of traversing hostile 2D corridors in search of power-ups and upgrades so you can search other hostile 2D corridors is present and correct, with a broad array of powers that offer up some interesting gameplay versatility. For example, obtaining the shoulder mounted cannon allows you both the opportunity to positively annihilate hordes of enemies while also blasting you well away from the danger due to the significant recoil. Unlike many Metroidvanias, most of the abilities here aren’t just one-off keys that are only used in a handful of situations; they give you new traversal, combat, and exploration opportunities that further expand the way you play.
However, Sundered is also a roguelite game, implementing procedural generation in a major way to keep the experience fresh. Big things like boss and new ability locations are fixed spots that never change, but the road you take to get there is different every time; think of the map as a sort of jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces fit together differently each time. On top of this, there are no fixed enemy encounters whatsoever; instead, you can randomly be attacked at any given point in time by a horde of enemies that can range from just a couple foes to literal dozens at once. This makes each run a considerably more tense experience than you may think; not only are you completely unfamiliar with the map layout, but you never know when that telltale shriek will echo through the air to signal that a whole lot of pain is coming your way in seconds.
Unfortunately, this procedural generation will no doubt function as the most polarizing part of the experience, but ultimately seems to drag down Sundered’s overall quality. While it is exciting at first having a different layout every time, the environments themselves aren’t terribly interesting to look at, and it doesn’t take very long until you start seeing the same assets being repeated a little too often. This leads to map layouts being different structurally, but possessing absolutely no character or memorable factors; the first steam-pipe laden hallway you traverse offers up no more challenge or intrigue than the fortieth one. Considering, too, that there are only three ‘biomes’ to explore, things get too familiar a little too fast. Now, there’s a good bit of platforming and action that happens along the way, so not everyone will be as conscious of this matter as others, but those of you that like to pace yourself in a Metroidvania and take the time to examine all the little details will likely be quite disappointed.
On top of this, the randomized horde encounters can sometimes lead to seemingly unwinnable scenarios that don’t feel entirely fair. The typical enemy encounter is simple enough; when using your dodge roll (which is limited by a finite number of regenerating charges) you’re invincible, and your basic hack ‘n’ slash attacks build up a finisher gauge that lets you unleash a powerful blow against your foes. Later encounters, however, can lead to Eshe being positively swarmed by foes coming from above, below, and every other direction, including attacks from enemies that are distant offscreen. In these encounters, it’s no exaggeration to say that there is literally no place on screen that’s safe for you; dodge rolling away from one attack plants you squarely in the range of three more. These battles aren’t always nearly as unwinnable as they may sound, but it often feels like very little skill is involved in victory or defeat for these cases; it’s really all just down to luck and how much you’ve invested into your stats.
Destroying either enemies or the countless breakable pots and crates scattered around the map yield ‘shards’ which can then be invested into a huge skill tree that constantly unlocks new branches as you obtain new abilities. It’s a bit reminiscent of the tree found in Salt and Sanctuary, in that basic things like health, shield regeneration, and melee attack damage can all be incrementally improved by spending shards. Each time you spend shards, the cost of the next upgrade goes up just a little bit more, but you also have access to new nodes that can lead to other stat boosts or to one-time unlocks that grant you stronger boons like more health flasks or ammo for your cannon.
Considering the fact that death only resets the map, you get to keep all shards collected, and this skill tree ultimately comes as a lovely way of keeping progression moving forward; no matter how many times you die, there’s always something that you can improve or buy for your next run. What’s more is that this also allows for considerable player autonomy in deciding builds; there’s no shortage of options for you to upgrade at any given point, so if you don’t rely as much on certain attack types or stats, you can usually invest more into the ones that count.
On top of all this is a perk system that grants special passive abilities to Eshe, but with a twist. Each perk has to be either found somewhere on the map or won from a challenging enemy horde encounter, and while each of them have something great to offer, they also take something away in exchange. For example, one perk makes your attacks ignore enemy shields, but at the cost of reducing your own shield regeneration. Another perk increases melee damage significantly, but at the cost of lowering your max health. Choosing which perks to equip is critical to surviving the latter portions of the Sundered campaign, but one must be mindful of what costs come attached to them. This perk system helps to drive customization options even further, while also offering up an interesting twist on the traditional RPG concept of stat gains being a good thing.
It’ll probably take you about fifteen hours to fully complete Sundered, with about another ten to twenty more on top of that if you choose to come back and try for the alternate endings, which are certainly worth it, as they each require you to play the game in a different way. This being the “Eldritch Edition” means that Sundered also comes packed with content that was originally in the PC release as DLC, ultimately amounting to some new areas, an extra boss, and the option to play with up to four players locally in co-op. Although this isn’t necessarily a go-to party game, adding in another player or two certainly does help to make the experience more enjoyable, particularly with the added wrinkle that everyone shares the same health bar and health flasks. So, if someone on the team isn’t properly pulling their own weight, everyone will suffer until they figure out a way to get past challenges together. Sundered potentially has dozens of hours of entertainment to offer, though with the caveat that much of that content is randomized.
Sundered goes for the same hand-drawn look that Thunder Lotus found success with in Jotun, offering up a game world that might as well have jumped straight off the page of the artist’s notebook. Though occasionally monochromatic, each environment is lovingly drawn and rife with detail, really hammering home the creepy Lovecraftian influences. Meanwhile, enemy and boss designs are suitably monstrous and creepy, and all characters move with smooth animation. Though the repetitiveness of the procedural generation is all too real, Sundered is still a gorgeous game in motion, with next to no frame drops to be seen.
Meanwhile, the sound design is a little less stellar, offering up a rather inconsistent mixture of tracks and sounds. Atmospheric things like the raspy, foreign voice of the Shining Trapezohedron do an incredible job of setting the tone, but the soundtrack is forgettable at best and non-existent at worst. During key moments, there’s pounding drums or emotional strings to add to a scene, but most of one’s time with Sundered will be spent running through endless, random corridors, and during this time, the soundtrack becomes a muted, forgettable collection of atmospheric sounds that don’t add a whole lot to the experience. It’s not bad, but we would’ve like more out of the soundtrack, the flaws of which are made particularly glaring when placed next to the great voice work.
On an eShop that seems to become more rife with Metroidvanias by the day, Sundered seems to fall somewhere in the middle to front of the pack. Though the repetitiveness means it doesn’t hit the same kind of highs that Dead Cells or Hollow Knight reach, Sundered still manages to offer a delightfully creepy, challenging, and content-rich experience that genre fans are sure to enjoy. If you’re not a fan of procedural generation, stay well away from this one; otherwise, we’d encourage you to give it a shot.