Absolver is a game that requires patience. It's a fighting game on a technical level, but not a fighting game in the ways you'd expect. It's sort of a brawler, if brawlers were more carefully measured in every approach. It's a complex game about melee and martial arts, with stances, seamless multiplayer, customizable moves, a vast Metroidvania-esque world to explore and backtrack through. It's also tough, but that's where patience comes in.
As such, I'm slowly but surely punching and kicking my way through Absolver. I'm also readily awaiting when the game goes live today for all players, where I assume the random drop-in, drop-out multiplayer experience will feel a little less vacant, and maybe I'll run into more cooperative players rather than the ones who just want to beat me to a bloody pulp. In the meantime, I think the best way to illustrate this odd game is to recall some of my experiences with it so far, contained in those vignettes alone.
A Wild Chase
I felt like a newborn baby at the start of Absolver, but instead of learning how to crawl, I had to learn how to fight. Out of the three classes available at the start, I opted for "Kahlt"—a method that nets me the ability to absorb some attacks. I ended up regretting it, but being too lazy to start over (and it seeming like I'll eventually be able to change to the other two options, Windfall and Forsaken, at least according to the pause menu) I opted to stick with it, and force myself to learn the class' strategies.
Absolver doesn't waste time getting me into the thick of things, as I quietly maneuvered through a linear environment, learning how to fight before taking on a stronger fellow Prospect (the player is too a Prospect). Then I was in its semi-open world, my main hub in a cathedral-like setting. There's no world map as far as the eye can see, except for a slab of cement telling me where to go. The glowing spots are masked foes I need to defeat, and their lights fade when I overcome them (though, as a nearby NPC tells me, they always respawn after I leave).
The first area I enter is a bleak shoreline. There's no sun shining here, only gray skies and enemies awaiting to throw punches at me. This is where the game truly opens up, where there are other players now sharing this space too (as indicated by a text box in the lower right corner). I wondered how the game would indicate that a fellow player was in my midst other than a slight notification and chime. I wondered if the game would even indicate it at all. Then I found out the hard way.
I found another player. But they didn't want to fight with me, they wanted to just fight me. Nervous about this offensive drive, I ran away.
They chased me.
It was legitimately frightening, to be perfectly honest. Here was this well-equipped player who obviously wasn't just starting out in the game like I was, chasing me through narrow alleys, never letting up. I eventually halted, panicking and tapping the "no, no, no" emote to signify that I didn't want to fight. They didn't care, and only punched me. I tried to hold my own, only to be pummeled into a corner I couldn't side-dodge my way out of. Then they revived me, only to start fighting me again. Worried that I would be trapped in this cycle, I quit the game, leaving it for another day.
A Bond Is Formed
Luckily, my second hours-long outing in Absolver proved itself to be more fruitful. I found myself alone in the game, which felt almost lonely until I came across someone in another grassy area, en route to a nearby masked boss. I saw them fighting random AI-controlled foes in the distance, I decided to jog over to help them out (it was three versus one, a probable losing battle if I'd ever seen one). After we took all three out, the other player bowed at me. I bowed in return. They requested that we work together in cooperation, officially, and I accepted. Together, our names turned green. We were now temporary allies, despite never uttering a word to one another.
Some will compare this online system to others—Destiny or Dark Souls—essentially games with similarly unique visions of multiplayer. I see it as mostly like Journey, where you stumble into players almost accidentally, and wordlessly share a bond. Only in Absolver, they might not always want to be your friend. Sometimes they just want to chase you into a fight, some want to fight to prove your worth as if to measure if you're worth teaming up with. For this random player, I helped them unprovoked in a time of need, and they appreciated the selfless effort.
I remained with this player for hours. We took on two bosses together, our victories felt good. Then they peaced out of the game with one final thumbs up emote, and I was alone again. It reminded me of completing the entirety of Journey all those years ago with a complete stranger; where we danced across glittering sands until we completed our journey together silently. I was sad to lose my companion in Absolver, and unfortunately, haven't had a similar experience ever since, even if I've met a few friendlier folks along the way.
A Harsh World
Absolver takes place entirely within the world of Adal. Adal's a grim place. Everything's in ruins, bridges are falling apart. There's no civilization here. No one even shows their face, only their magical, faceless masks and accompanying fists. It's also an easy world to get lost in, but not in the good way.
Progressing through the land of Adal requires a lot of backtracking, usually to catch a glimpse of the larger map in the primary hub. It's where I pinpoint where I once fought tougher foes, seeing where their lights once shone and were now gone, and which ones remain. I wish there was an easily accessible world map so I could continue on my journey without constantly running back when I forget how many bosses are within the span of a broader area, but I suppose that might break the illusion of the natural world in a way.
In Absolver, there's also dozens upon dozens of clothing items and accessories to collect, moves to learn, fighting styles to master. It's a dense game, with customizable decks constructed from the moves you learn across your journey. The moves you learn come naturally: the more moves you successfully dodge or absorb from foes, the closer you inch to learning said ability. As such, your combat deck grows over time; stronger abilities join your arsenal, and eventually, you're able to craft and experiment with different sorts of moves according to the four stances at your behest.
I've since gotten more comfortable in my personal fighting style—a fast-moving character that's quick to dodge and slide kick foes unexpectedly. It's apparent that other players I've stumbled across have (mostly) grown more comfortable too. I've partaken in fights (I never initiate... unless someone denies co-op), only for the winner between the match to revive the other and initiate cooperation successfully. Sometimes it feels like a mentor is carrying me, or sometimes it's the opposite. I'm the temporary mentor, teaching a new player in tattered rags how to fight, hoping they may even learn a lesson or two from yours truly.
I think that's Absolver's greatest potential as its player base grows this week outside of those of us with early copies (and likely developers). In the players who want to not only fight others, but help them too, whether that's in training or taking on big bads together as equals. There's still some low points, like grinding the same routes many, many times in a row when trying to take on a boss, only for that boss to beat you to the ground and send you back to the last checkpoint. At least, I hope the player encounters stay as varied as they have been during my time with the game so far. Even now, I never know when a player wants to hug me or punch me, and I like that element of surprise.
After nearly a week spent with the game post-launch, we have updated this review-in-progress with our final thoughts and score.
Absolver has all the makings of what could be a superb game: a deep unique combat system, a wonderful multiplayer system, seemingly endless playability. It's a shame that its clunkiness and so-so world design—and over the past week, less than stellar servers—can't seem to hold it up.
At the very least, Absolver is at its best when it's 1v1, throwing fists at only a single combatant rather than like, three or more. This is where partnering up with people helps the most. In skirmishes with multiple other AI (or people), players can square off singularly against the person punching and kicking in their direction. The fights feel a whole lot more balanced this way, and are less clumsy in action rather than the alternative option: a flurry of fists and feet flying in every possible direction.
After beating the main campaign, I realized that one of the most disappointing things about Absolver was its world. Even though it's populated by fellow Prospects (both players and AI) ready to fight you, it still feels remarkably empty. There's hardly any loot to discover, and when you do find it, it often doesn't feel worthwhile enough. While the game's setting is interesting in theory and the characters themselves having distinctive flair, trotting through lackluster decrepit environments quickly became bland. (Especially revisiting them over, and over, and over again.) The one spot where the art direction spiced up was at the final area; a sprawling tower that opens up after beating the game's multiple masked bosses.
Even so, after beating the primary game and then some, I can see Absolver growing into something better if it garners the right sort of community. With the possibility to house schools of thought (or rather, hitting) once you're strong enough, the plethora of collectable gear (even if it doesn't litter the world as much as it should), and lots of room for leveling up and blending combat styles, I can see the players upping the longevity of Absolver.
Absolver comes extremely close to being an amazing game with its deep 1v1 melee combat and unpredictable player encounters, but where it falters is in, well, nearly everything else. The world feels lifeless. When more than one fighter joins a battle, battling becomes frustrating and clunky. There's a lot of potential with Absolver. But unfortunately, it's not 100 percent of the way there yet.