Severed (DrinkBox Studios, 2016)
“This Old Neon strives to publish reviews with at least two opposing voices: one largely positive or sympathetic, and the other more critical and demanding” (Review Policy). Both reviewers provide honest evaluations of the game; thus, a sympathetic review may not always be fully positive, and a critical one need not be completely negative. There will be intersections, overlaps, agreements, and divergences. It is the readers’ prerogative to navigate these as they see fit. – JC
Hock and Slash
Exploring well-worn conventions is frequently a big part of the retro game developer’s toolkit. Especially for smaller studios, an established framework leaves them free to focus on the story and experience they want to present. DrinkBox Studios is no stranger to classic game design, a fact to which their Mutant Blobs series and Guacamelee! can attest. Severed continues that legacy by approaching the dungeon-crawler, a niche class of games typically so rigid in presentation as to have become stagnant. So it comes as some surprise to walk away from a new entry in a stale—if storied—genre feeling as though I’ve truly experienced something new and exciting.
You’d be forgiven for seeing Severed, at a glance, as little more than a narrative-driven capitalization on mobile darling Fruit Ninja. Eliminating on-screen enemies in a controlled-but-chaotic ballet of finger swiping is one of the primary gameplay hooks, and this mechanic has been fine-tuned to afford an immensely satisfying sense of control and empowerment. Always a frantic affair, combat nevertheless avoids devolving into mindless swiping.
Not content to present yet another rote exercise in grid-based cartography, meaningful exploration stands out as the game’s most impressive accomplishment. Five main locations are interconnected and littered with unique landmarks that integrate with and drive the narrative as much as they cement your place in the world. There is an air of defiant confidence on display here, too, as the developers employ commonly derided mechanisms such as switch puzzles, pit traps and backtracking to great effect, facilitating engaged navigation and a real sense of adventure and discovery.
Severed marries its core elements of action, exploration and character development in a way that never feels artificial. Protagonist Sasha acquires new abilities as a consequence of events in the plot rather than random discovery. The titular severing mechanic, a gruesome affair that finds Sasha amassing a collection of organs and appendages that ultimately grant her incredible power, encourages strategic play and makes every encounter important. Development of these powers is directly tied to player performance and ensures every battle is approached with a calculating, choreographed flurry of attack and defense.
Severed spins a macabre and melancholy tale of loss and revenge, of mourning and acceptance. In its vagaries and simplicity, the game is able to facilitate immediate communion with Sasha and her agony. Frequently esoteric, Severed never betrays its core focus on closure for Sasha, and indeed the player. Vibrant colours and alien landscapes evoke mystery and wonder whilst the universality of its themes drives the player ever forward. Morbid humour and shared confusion among the bizarre supporting cast provide a cold comfort of sorts, an uneasy camaraderie that develops throughout and reinforces as much as it dissolves a crushing sense of loneliness. An ambiguous final scene punctuates thematic undercurrents of unyielding fate and the illusion of choice.
Severed is a glorious oddity in spite of its familiarity. Embracing touch control for its capabilities while consciously avoiding its limitations, DrinkBox manages to vindicate a control scheme frequently derided as inferior to traditional buttons. It revitalizes a genre typically content with reiteration and tradition. It reminds us that outmoded, even despised, gameplay elements can be useful and enjoyable when applied with careful consideration.
In general, I have trouble with touch as a control method. I don’t like swiping, which feels imprecise, as though a game knows I’ve swiped and then crudely reproduces a loosely corresponding line on the screen. I don’t like tapping, which feels finicky and inexact. Rather than facilitate my action and immersion, a touchscreen tends to feel like a barrier between me and the game. I was disappointed to hear that DrinkBox Studios’ follow-up to their brilliant, revitalizing take on the exploration platformer genre, Guacamelee!, would be touch-based.
I’ve never been happier to admit to being wrong. DrinkBox has a deft understanding of the drawbacks of touchscreen controls and the limitations of the dungeon-crawler genre, and with Severed, they have side-stepped every pitfall with masterful, modern design.
DrinkBox cleverly solves the problem of lack of tactile feedback in combat. Swiping feels precise, thanks in part to generous hitboxes. Attacks derive a sense of physicality and weight from shaking visuals, solid sound effects, and immediate, unmistakable feedback from blocking enemies. Menus are also designed with the limitations of the touchscreen in mind: buttons are large and well-spaced, and upgrades are unlocked by pressing and holding for a couple seconds, preventing frustrating accidents.
Controls aside, battles are well-paced and strategic. Each enemy has unique defenses and patterns and must be hit at certain intervals to stave off their attacks. Ensuring that multiple enemies don’t attack at the same time (which makes blocking impossible, since only one monster is on-screen at a time) is a key strategic consideration. Boss fights—and some of the regular encounters later in the game—are elaborate set-pieces that require the player to balance priorities and make efficient use of all of Sasha’s abilities.
The signature severing mechanic is a brilliant reimagination of a loot-based upgrade system. Sasha literally collects severed pieces of her enemies—pieces that she actively acquires as a direct result of the player’s actions in combat rather than from a list of colourfully-named rewards in a menu. It’s another good reason to approach combat tactically, and it lends a sense of true investment when the pieces are spent to unlock a new ability.
DrinkBox’s careful focus on user experience doesn’t end with combat mechanics. Their attention to detail extends to the world itself. The various areas link together in natural and intuitive ways. The game takes care of mapping automatically, and uses distinctive and informative markings. This feature allows the player to focus on the flow of exploration rather than orienteering as a gameplay requirement. It also means backtracking doesn’t seem like a chore that’s just there to pad the game or reward note-taking. Crucially, it does this without holding the player’s hand; it’s still possible to stray from the beaten path and run into dead ends and powerful enemies without the game calling you back into line.
Severed is a rare game that gets everything right, and it does so without compromise. The art is dark, moody, and sometimes terrifying. The music and sound effects are suitably creepy and unsettling. The gameplay is tight and engaging, with no excess fat or extraneous system. Sasha’s journey is inscrutable and heart-rending, but well-paced, surprisingly touching, and ultimately satisfying. It is a worthy entry in DrinkBox Studios’ growing stable of stylish, daringly individual masterpieces.
Severed was developed and published by DrinkBox Studios. It was released on PlayStation Vita on Tuesday, 26 April, 2016, on iOS on Thursday, 28 July, and on Wii U Thursday, 22 September.
Ryan and JC each paid for his own copy of the game on PlayStation Vita. Neither reviewer was in direct contact with DrinkBox Studios.
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