The beginning of Sundered is understated, with main character Eshe wandering alone through a desert sandstorm. She presses forward, the sand destroying her visibility and clearly draining her strength. Upon reaching some ruins, Eshe is dragged down into the depths by some eldritch tentacles. Here, her journey takes on a different, darker form. These opening minutes tease the premise of Sundered, a game all about exploration and survival.
In the caverns below this planet, something happened. Eshe wanders the dark catacombs, with ancient technology covered by the growth of new plants. Shrines filled with cracked and broken offerings to gods long gone. And as you dig deeper, the world begins to get weirder, with massive crystals warping Eshe's vision and floating landmarks pulsing with dark fingers that reach for her.
Sundered is a beautiful game, much like Thunder Lotus Games' previous title, the boss rush adventure Jotun. While some of the bosses here in Sundered are as massive and impressive, this is a more robust experience than that first outing. What remains the same is the gorgeous hand drawn art that makes up the world. Eshe and her foes all animate wonderfully and the world has several different art styles, from a region of Lovecraftian horror to the cold, floating stone of the cathedral.
The painstaking, hand-drawn art is backed up by great sound design and an ambient soundtrack that mostly stays in the background. Thunder Lotus is trying to establish a tone here, an oppressive, lonely trek that can't even really be seen as an adventure. Eshe is down in these caverns with only the Shining Trapezohedron as her companion, an ancient force in the form of living crystal that speaks in a lost language. Together, the art, music, and sound design create a compelling, but quite tense feeling in the player. It's one place where Sundered undeniably works.
Eshe begins her quest with a ghostly, crystalline sword that delivers a few quick slashes in succession. She can attack upwards or downwards, either standing or after a jump. She also has a dodge roll which makes her invincible, requiring limited stamina charges. These basic moves form most of the combat in Sundered. Fairly early on, you'll unlock a shield. When Eshe takes damage, it hits the shield first and then her health. The shield recharges, her health doesn't, unless you find health elixirs off of enemies.
Sundered is a roguelike Metroidvania game, so exploration is a big part of it, but combat pushes and shoves its way to the forefront. As you wander, you'll occasionally be attacked by the Hordes, which are denoted by a rise in the ambient soundtrack. These Hordes are comprised of a region's pool of enemies and they spawn out of nowhere.
Early on, these feature maybe 10-20 enemies, but in short order the Hordes start to get real vicious. They'll throw enemies at you with reckless abandon, like a murderous dogpile. You'll think you're done, only for more enemies to spawn on the edges of the screen to test you. The Hordes are randomly generated based on how you're doing. How long has it been since you've been attacked last? Are you doing really well right now? Well, here's an extra helping of monster pile on! In fact, the Hordes can make you feel like you're playing a bullet hell game. It's viciously unfair at times, but that's because Sundered wants you to die.
The enemies have fairly simple patterns, but what trips you up is they all attack at once. A few Arenea aren't a problem, because they just run at you, but when combined with the pinwheeling Meteoroid, a slashing Panzer, and Hunters that can shoot through walls, things can get real hectic. Diving deeper into a region reveals higher levels of foes with slightly more complex attack patterns, while other regions swap things out for new enemies like the Crawlers and Screamers.
When you die, you're sent back to the sanctuary hub. As you kill enemies and break open random items, you'll acquire shards. These shards stay with you after death and you can spend them at your sanctuary to upgrade Eshe. The tree offers various unlockable points that cost shards and improve Eshe's damage, health, armor, shield, and even luck. Bigger points have a better benefit but cost more shards, and the general costs of improvements slowly rises as you unlock more.
More areas of the skill tree are unlocked by gaining Metroid-style abilities that improve Eshe combat and traversal, opening up access to new areas. The Valkyrie Cannon is used to attack enemies with powerful recoil, but it's also used to power certain platforms and doors. The Populsion Engine gives you a quick boost of speed and there's even a magical version of Zelda's trusty Hookshot in the Grappling Hook. Eventually, the tree spreads out in every direction.
Eshe's abilities are the mechanical and narrative lynchpin of the game. As you explore and kill bigger and bigger foes, you'll find Elder Shards. Offering the shards to the Shining Trapezohedron will vastly improve your abilities, but at the cost of your humanity. The Leaping Device, which gives Eshe her double jump ability, turns you into a winged demon and lets you glide if you corrupt it. Alternatively, you can incinerate the Shards, and keeping you human and upgrading many of your basic attacks. This feeds into the game's multiple endings, with Eshe's level of humanity ultimately determining which ending you see. Like another recent game, the "better" path likely means cutting yourself off from all of the much cooler corrupted powers. I haven't quite beat the game yet, but my corruption is in full swing.
You'll also find Perks in your journey. These Perks improve one aspect of Eshe's abilities, but always come with a cost. One early Perk I found offered full-time Shield regeneration instead of a short delay, but lowered my Shield regen rate overall. You can equip one Perk in the beginning and by opening up the skill tree, you'll unlock further Perk slots. Perks themselves are out in the world, waiting for you to uncover.
The layout of that world is somewhat fluid. While certain rooms are always in the same place - mini-bosses, Bosses, ability unlocks, and corridors to another region - the rooms in-between are procedurally chunked every time you die. This means you see a set of static rooms, but in a brand-new configuration each time. The system breaks down a bit when you travel through the same room back-to-back, but for the most part, it works well.
Where it breaks down for me is in the backtracking. There's no fast travel (except back to the hub), so when you die, you have to make the trekall the way back to where you were. You eventually unlock shorter paths, but man, getting to some regions can be a slog, especially if you have a few deaths in succession. It's very old school in that way, but I find myself wishing I could just port to certain rooms.
Sundered isn't the only roguelike Metroidvania; the indie space is full of them. This is one that stands out though. The art alone is worth the price of admission. While I feel the combat and movement in Dead Cells is a little tighter, Sundered doesn't let you down at all; sometimes I'd just hit that flow of movement, jumping, dashing, and pulling myself from place to place. Especially when I was running from a Horde. I'm not quite done yet, but everything I've experienced in my hours of play (the developers say there's around 15 hours total) has been great.
The indie space is full of roguelike Metroidvania titles, but no one pulls it off in the same style as Sundered. Beautiful hand-drawn animation, some cool environments, and great sound design combine to create a haunting, lonely tone for the game. It's definitely a combat-heavy game though, so if you prefer more exploration instead, this might not be for you. If you want a challenge though, pitting yourself against murderous waves of foes and giant bosses, Sundered is for you.