A little while after the Metroidvania-esque Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition, developer Drinkbox Studios has returned with its latest title, SEVERED. Released earlier this year on PlayStation Vita, does this unique title reach must-buy status on the Wii U eShop?
The story of SEVERED is light. You play as Sasha, a young lady who has recently lost one of her arms. The game immediately drops you into her world with no explanations — it's up to you to press on to find out what's happening. After a few moments you learn that Sasha's family has been taken, and she's on a mission to recover them.
Aside from a few brief moments of cutscenes, that's about all the story that SEVERED offers - thankfully, the setting more than makes up for the simple plot. As the game plays in a first-person perspective (with graphics and an art style similar to Guacamelee), you experience the terrors of Sasha's world firsthand. From her barely-standing destroyed house to the terrifying monsters you experience in combat, this game does a great job of keeping an unsettling atmosphere, with fantastic music to match it. It's worth noting that many of the monsters in this game are fairly freaky, so this might be one to skip for young children.
The gameplay style is quite unique and calls to mind the best aspects of other genres. The game must be played with the GamePad (we tried to start it with the Pro Controller and ended up having to restart the game because no controls worked on either controller).
Sasha's combat controls are via the touch screen, with the D-Pad, face buttons and control sticks moving her. You'll use the stylus to attack enemies, break open pots, grab switches and interact with the menus, while the TV shows your map. It can be a bit uncomfortable to get into a good position with the GamePad, as you need to hold it and move the control stick with one hand while using the stylus with the other.
SEVERED's genre ends up being a first-person corridor action-adventure game — with a mix between a Zelda-styled game and a Metroidvania game, with light RPG elements. Sasha can only spin left and right and walk straight through doors, and the game contains mostly temple-styled areas that act like mini-dungeons. There's plenty to interact with on the screen, and the map does a great job at showing you when there's something of interest that you may have missed.
If there's one aspect of SEVERED that warrants extreme praise, it's the combat. As you wander through rooms, you'll see white flames that represent an enemy encounter. The combat takes place in a real-time first-person perspective, with one or more enemies facing you from different directions. You attack by swiping on the touch screen to use your sword, but the methods that you need to defeat each enemy vastly differ.
The game shows you a meter for every foe you're facing — it contains a red inner circle representing their health, and a yellow outer ring that represents the enemy's attack meter. When this yellow part fills up, the enemy is going to strike you, but even this part is different for each monster. Some enemies have a meter that slowly fills, and if you don't strike them to cut it down they unleash a massive attack on you. Other enemies will have their bars fill quickly for an attack then you must then counter.
This all gets pretty crazy when you have four (sometimes even more) enemies to juggle at once — it can feel like trying to keep multiple plates spinning on sticks. Thankfully, the game does a great job at easing you into the combat. Every time you encounter a new enemy, you face them alone and have an opportunity to learn their attack patterns. It calls to mind a twist on a Punch-Out!! combat system, where it's not about just mashing buttons but figuring each enemy out as a mini-puzzle.
That's not the end of the combat, however. The game's title not only refers to Sasha's missing limb, but also what you can do to defeated enemies. As you successfully hit enemies without being blocked or taking damage yourself, your Focus meter builds. Defeat an enemy with a full meter and you'll have a brief moment to sever their body parts (again, the points where you can slice are different for each enemy). These are then used in the game's simple skill tree to upgrade stats like slashing damage or recovering magic power more quickly.
When you're not fighting enemies, you'll be navigating dungeon-like areas with some light puzzles (like hitting a switch that causes one colour door to open and another to close). Exploring a bit leads to optional hidden rooms and areas that hold health and magic upgrades. The game also introduces a few new abilities along the way that both allow you to open up new areas and use new abilities in combat.
The Devour power, for instance, lets you steal stat buffs that enemies have later on in the game, like health regeneration or upped attack. The game does a great job at increasing the challenge as you go — enemies appear in stronger forms, so what was once a simple foe to dispatch now requires some careful thinking due to requiring a charged hit or extra slashes.
Fortunately, the map isn't overly large or complex. There's still some backtracking if you want to visit all the secret areas that the upgrades let you find, but it never takes more than a few minutes to get anywhere. We found ourselves looking only at the map when quickly covering a lot of ground, and mainly the GamePad when exploring a new area for the first time.
The experience here is hugely enjoyable, with plenty of highs and few low points. One excellent part is the second boss, who spawns extra enemies throughout the fight who have those stat boosts mentioned earlier. If you don't dispose of those minions quickly enough, the boss devours them and earns their bonuses, making a harder fight for you. With heart-pounding music bringing you right into the action, and considering you gain this ability to steal bonuses after you destroy him, this is probably the best moment in the game.
We only had a few moments of frustration in our six hours or so to 100% completion. The charge slash ability you earn requires you to hold the stylus in place for a moment and then quickly slash — trying to do this in the heat of battle to counter a powerful enemy attack can end up in you taking some extra hits.
Additionally, there are a few parts where you walk into an area and take constant damage until you locate (for example) a plant that's poisoning the air and have to kill it; having to fight while being steadily hurt felt a tad cheap. A similar issue occurs near the end, where some timed battles bring you to furiously swipe on your screen to finish in time — make certain you're cautious or have a screen protector on your GamePad before you play this game.
If you do hit any tricky moments, though, dying sends you back just a few rooms, sometimes even to one step before the battle where you fell. Dropping a few items may have been a more suitable punishment, but we'd rather have the game be more forgiving than overly frustrating in this case.
Drinkbox Studios has another masterpiece to add to its portfolio. With a fantastic atmosphere, a unique combat system that never gets tedious and a perfect difficulty curve, SEVERED is a must-play for Wii U owners. Unlike so many titles where touch controls are shoehorned in, this game makes using the stylus feel perfectly natural. A few frustrating elements are only slight scratches on this feverishly enjoyable experience. This should be fun for anyone, unless you dislike Metroidvania games, corridor action-adventure, and excellent combat.