Cut my life into pieces / Slash into me
When Drinkbox Studios' Guacamelee! came out three years ago (blarg), Jonathan Holmes called it a "sugar skull-covered playground to delight in and devour with mucho gusto," and I'd agree with that assessment. Vibrant colors, a wonderfully Mexican theme, and solid action/exploration gameplay made Juan's journey towards becoming the ultimate luchador a memorable affair. More than anything, I was excited to see what Drinkbox could do with something that relied less on borrowing from other games' mechanics.
Severed is exactly what I was hoping for.
Severed (PlayStation Vita)
Developer: Drinkbox Studios
Publisher: Drinkbox Studios
Released: April 26, 2016
Severed doesn't waste any time. The "Start Game" screen shows the flaming ruins of a recently destroyed home, and when you begin, there's no opening cutscene to explain what happened. You just awaken in a wind-swept canyon, smoke visible in the distance. Your health bar shows that you've taken some damage, but why?
Still unaware of who you are due to the first-person perspective, you have no choice but to follow the smoke into the smoldering remnants. As you rummage through the remains, you find a full-length mirror that reveals all. You're a young woman named Sasha, and your right arm has recently been forcibly removed. A tourniquet has been placed over the wound, but it's clearly a recent injury. Sasha closes her eyes, briefly remembers glimpses of a great beast. Of her mother, father, and brother. Of her arm being sliced off. When she opens them, she sees a demon behind her, who gives her a sword, telling her that though this looks like her home, it isn't. She has to find her family.
Those are the first, oh, 100 seconds of Severed. There's no fat to trim here.
Navigating this Mexican/Aztec-inspired hellscape is done by way of a first-person dungeon crawling. Instead of only being able to look in four cardinal directions, you can use either the d-pad or face buttons to turn left and right in 360°, or go forwards. It's a tad awkward at the start and can lead to hand cramps, but I quickly acclimated. You can't sidestep or backpedal, which is tough to get used to if you've played other dungeon crawlers, but there's really no need. Whether you're traversing through coral-colored wilderness, the bellies of giant subterranean worms, or through decrepit temples, this isn't the type of game to throw floor traps at you. Staying vigilant will reward you with secrets hidden throughout. Every so often, a white flame will sit, tantalizing you, begging you to come closer. When you do, demons will slither out and it's time for your blade to do the negotiating.
Sasha's lost limb is not the only reason for Severed's name. When facing these beasts, the Vita's touchscreen is used to make small and long slashes to wound them. If you attack vulnerable areas enough, a focus meter builds up. When dealing the killing blow, a full focus meter initiates a brief window in which Sasha can sever the arms/tentacles/wings/eyes of her opponents. It's possible to wiggle your finger all over the screen and cut off a couple appendages, but dexterously slicing is both more fun and more reliable.
I came into this game thinking it would be a more colorful Infinity Blade, and while that comparison isn't completely without merit, I found this much more engaging. Combat starts off simple enough when fights only have one enemy at a time, and their patterns are easy to recognize, but the difficulty ramps up quickly in a satisfying manner. Before long, enemies approach from all four sides, and determining which monster to prioritize first becomes just as challenging as the individual fights. Each demonic entity has its own pattern, so there's never really a dull moment. Later on, they also start to get buffs (speed, damage, defense, and health regeneration) which complicate things even further.
To counter this, Sasha can use the remains of her enemies -- and small "giblets" found in breakable objects -- to strengthen herself. Abilities such as increased slash damage and critical hit chance are basic yet useful, but defeating bosses gives her all-new abilities like charged slashes and magic. This all comes together to make an incredibly engaging fighting system that I never grew tired of. The cherry on top is that even though this still has a certain gamey feel to it, the idea of Sasha taking parts of the awful creatures attacking her and either ingesting them or adorning herself with their now-unused parts makes a pleasant amount of narrative sense.
The dungeons themselves are as beautiful as the rest of the game, all looking like pages ripped from a storybook. There are some light puzzles, most of which are of the "find the properly colored lever" variety. I didn't find this to be a problem since the locations all feel so diverse, always giving you something new to look out for.
One area tasks you with destroying small fleshy pustules that are emitting toxic gas before progressing. Another features doors that will destroy any keys you hold if you pass through their thresholds. A zone I thought was especially clever was a crystal cavern, which occasionally gleamed so brightly it was difficult to fight. I had to wait in between flashes to time the perfect strike, and I loved it.
Even after initial passes through places both wondrous and terrifying, there are reasons to return. After gaining new skills, going back to use them in old, previously-explored locations can lead to rewards in the form of extensions to health and magic meters (by eating demonic hearts and brains respectively, yum). There's also three hidden items that you can't reach until late-game that are hidden by slightly more challenging puzzles.
My first playthrough took about six and a half hours to 100% the game. I thought I was done with it, but then I started playing again about an hour ago to check on something for the review and ended up playing for twenty minutes because I enjoy it so much.
There aren't many songs, but what's there is as lovely as it is melancholy. The somber thud of low piano chords perfectly accompany the harrowing dive into the depths of hell. Some of the later reveals are horrifying, and when DrinkBox instead chooses to opt for silence...brr.
The Mexican aesthetic is even more effective here than it was in Guacamelee!, and the Aztec influences absolutely shine through. I love the designs of the bosses in particular, I just greedily wish there were more of them. Every bit of Severed looks gorgeous, and the unique setting is an enormous factor in that. Up-and-coming developers, take note: taking inspiration from new sources and cultures can be awesome. More, please!
Really, it's hard to find anything wrong with Severed. It obliterated my conceptions of how a touch-based game can play, it looks breathtaking, and it gave me a reason to break out my Vita. It hurt my hand a little bit when I was trying to figure out the best way to control it, but since the face buttons and D-pad do the same thing, I just learned to switch hands. I also wish it were longer, I guess?
When that's the worst I can come up with, it's clear to me that DrinkBox Studios knocked it out of the park. I'm glad the team took its time.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Severed reviewed by Zack Furniss
A hallmark of excellence. It may have some flaws, but they are negligible to what is otherwise a supreme title.
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