Sundered feels like a game I should love. But I don’t. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great either. Issues ranging from the mechanical to the conceptual really hurt the experience of what on paper seems like it would be an engaging and fun game, turning it into a repetitive grind that isn’t compelling enough to warrant its lengthy play time.
Fundamentally, Sundered is a metroidvania-meets-rogue-like-meets-bullet-hell-meets-action-RPG-meets-Lovecraftian-horror title. On the surface, it ticks all the boxes of its various influences: Obsessive-compulsive exploration and loot gathering. Death as a fundamental part of the experience. Character progression and upgrading. Fast-paced, over-the-top combat. Bizarre, twisted, and freakish environments and enemies. It even adds in (semi) procedurally-generated environments by keeping major locations such as boss battles the same, but changing the pathways required to reach them every time you die.
It all sounds very cool, right? Unfortunately, it’s rather boring and incredibly frustrating to play. The hand-drawn environments and character models are beautifully detailed and Lovecraft would approve of them, but the story is so flimsy and intentionally vague that ultimately they just look good (in a horrifying way) and not much else. There’s a way to create intrigue, and then there’s Sundered’s narrative. There are so few scraps of narrative in this game that saying it’s “open to the player’s interpretation” still doesn’t help clarify just what the bloody hell is going on.
Even if you really must know how the story plays out, the gameplay isn’t fun enough to warrant slogging through the up to 15 hours Sundered can take to finish. To be fair, the game’s blurb openly warns that just like its rogue-like brethren, it is brutally difficult. But there’s difficult, and then there’s cheap and unfair. Sundered regularly feels like the latter. Even with its extensive upgrade system (which borders on overly complicated), you will regularly get your arse handed to you. Hordes of enemies spawn “at random” (though realistically, this is based on an algorithm that takes into account things such as progression, kill-death ratio etc.) and battles devolve into furious button mashing in amongst dozens of enemies and particle effects that almost make it impossible to even see what’s going on.
Complex upgrades and fluid controls that allow for a variety of movement and combat options are of no use when the entire screen is filled with enemies that swarm your position, can hit you through walls, and even shoot you from off screen. There’s no point in being able to add 1% melee damage or faster shield regeneration to your repertoire when fundamentally every encounter with hordes is almost unwinnable. And this is where Sundered fails to understand what makes other rogue-likes so addictive to play: Even though you need to die over and over, there is a sense of mastery that comes with it. Sundered never evokes that sense of mastery.
It also doesn’t help that even though the three levels you will traverse feature unique environments, the individual parts of these maps which change upon death often end up looking exactly the same, just moved around like Lego blocks. The result is the procedural generation counterintuitively makes the game feel more repetitive than it would if it simply used a static – but complex – map for each level. What use is an “ever changing world” if it just ends up looking and feeling the same anyway?
Although it doesn’t sound like it, there are praiseworthy elements in Sundered. It absolutely nails Lovecraftian atmosphere and tone: It’s dark, twisted, creepy, and otherworldly. It’s beautiful to look at: The hand drawn art style is full of incredible detail. Boss battles are phenomenal: Screen high monstrosities with their own unique attack patterns and weaknesses provide a rare moment where combat actually feels challenging rather than cheap, and fun rather than a chore. Those moments where you find yourself stopping to admire the bizarre statues of fallen Gods, or you deftly dodge a boss’ attack that fills half the screen feel engaging and rewarding. They just don’t come often enough.
Ultimately, playing Sundered feels like having a part-time job: You have to go through a lot of repetitive, uninspiring drudgery to get a few brief moments of excitement, and at the end of it you’re still not entirely sure why you did it. If you have that kind of patience, then have at it.
Sundered (Reviewed on Windows)
The game is average, with an even mix of positives and negatives.
A game with interesting ideas that is let down by frustrating, repetitive gameplay.