Developed by Drinkbox Studios, creators of the rather neat Guacamelee, Severed is an unusual PlayStation Vita title that.. gasp… actually makes use of the touch screen for its main gameplay mechanics.
Yes indeed! In somewhat of a rarity for the Vita, Severed has you swiping and poking at your console with your fingers as you hack and slash your way through this RPG-meets-adventure. The action centers on Sasha, a mysterious one-armed warrior who's challenged with rescuing her family, and putting together the pieces of her story from the past, present and future. What this essentially means is working your way through a hazardous environment that incorporates dungeons, as well as outdoor sections, solving puzzles, killing enemies, and upgrading your character as you progress.
The lovely-looking, brightly-colored proceedings are viewed from a first-person perspective, and you navigate through the environment one step at a time in classic dungeon-crawling style. You can move forward and turn, but can’t move backwards: To retrace your steps, you have to turn twice to face in the opposite direction. It feels like you're on rails, which gives the game a distinctly old-school feel.
As you explore Severed's world, you encounter creatures that, like the game's backdrops, are highly stylized and unique-looking. It's here where you take your fingers into battle, swiping at enemy weak spots to deal damage, while parrying their attacks with well-timed slashes of your digits. The combat system works quite well, and while there are some enemies that do take perhaps a little too long to wear down, I found the action strangely entertaining. It's basically a test of reflexes and timing, requiring you to slash at just the correct angles to get in hits and parry enemy attacks.
Fights ramp up in difficulty as you progress, and often involve battles with several monsters at once. This is where the game begins to get challenging. Warning icons at the bottom of the screen let you know when an enemy is winding up an attack, so you can quickly turn to face it and parry its offensive maneuvers, assuming you're deft enough. As the battle rages, you have to swiftly switch between enemies, trying to get in damaging hits while defending against incoming attacks. It's essentially a juggling act of timing your turns and making well-aimed swipes – and it makes for some fast and absorbing action.
Later fights further dial up the combat complexity, with monsters that have more sophisticated attack patterns. Fortunately your offensive repertoire also grows as you make your way deeper into the game: There are magic attacks to find that you can add to your arsenal, and the main character is also upgradable. When you kill a monster – assuming you've filled your fight focus meter by successfully hitting the enemy multiple times without missing – you have a brief moment of time to sever its key body parts, which you can then harvest and trade for power-ups. These imbue Sasha with additional strengths like upgraded critical hit chance, more powerful attacking moves, and the ability to turn outgoing damage into incoming heath regeneration. It's a simple system, but it works well to deliver an effective feeling of character progression.
As well as fighting monsters, the environment itself presents challenges. There are puzzles to solve so you can access different parts of the game's dungeons. These can be quite tricky, requiring plenty of exploration and experimentation as you pull levers, bang gongs, and find keys to open up doors so you can delve deeper into the game and uncover its mysteries.
When I first started playing Severed, it didn't immediately grab me. The combat seemed to be a little simplistic, and I had to replay fights multiple times before I got the timing down perfectly enough to win. Fortunately, though, the game is fairly forgiving in these situations, and you're not sent back miles to a respawn point, but instead reappear right before where the fight takes place, allowing you to restart the battle immediately. This helps reduce the feeling of frustration, and indeed even makes the game quite addictive – you end up replaying battles in quick succession, keeping the action flowing, and downtime to a minimum.
As a consequence, the more I played the game, the more it grew on me. The action does get tough, and I got stymied a few times by environmental puzzles and a couple of particularly challenging enemy encounters. However, while it's sometimes difficult, the game has a certain logic to it that makes sense, and once you get your head around the way it works, you begin to make progress, and that feels very rewarding. That further enhanced its appeal, and by the time I was a good few hours into the game, I was really enjoying the action.
Indeed, the only major complaint I have is regarding the placement of the warning icons at the bottom of the screen during battle. When you're fighting multiple enemies, it's inevitable that you'll cover some of the icons with whichever hand you're using to swipe at the screen, potentially obscuring vital information at just the wrong time. This could have easily been prevented if the icons had been situated at the top of the screen – but unfortunately they're not, and you're forced to play the game in a non-ergonomic way so that you can see the icons at all times. This can result in some fatigue over long-term play, depending on how you hold your Vita.
That bugbear aside, though, I ended up really liking Severed. It delivers a slightly surreal experience whose exploration and combat, while sometimes a little repetitive and occasionally frustratingly challenging, is nevertheless highly compelling. It just has a quality about it that drives you to want to find out what might be around the next corner – which is exactly what you want from a game like this.
Very simple, but effective presentation and administration screens.
The game is addictive and compelling over its eight-or-so hour running time.
Great soundtrack, although the prog rock combat music can get somewhat repetitive after a while.
Bright, colorful and slightly surreal, this game has a brilliant, unique look.
Top marks to Drinkbox for daring to be different, and using the PS Vita's touch screen to create a unique gestural combat system. The action can be somewhat repetitive at times, but Severed's story is compelling enough to keep driving you on. That, combined with the beautiful-looking graphics deliver a dungeon crawler that's well worth experiencing.