Sunday, January 25, 2015

You haven't heard of Severed from Drinkbox Studios? Let's fix that.

Yes, this is entirely a reaction to Gio's comment on yesterday's post. 
I suspect there are many who aren't really familiar with...

Before we begin, I'd just like to have a patriotic moment in which I bring your attention to the number of awesome indie game developers which happen to be Canadian.

  • Klei: Shank 2, Mark of the Ninja, Don't Starve, Invisible Inc
  • Capybara Games: Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP, Critter Crunch, Super Time Force, Below
  • Freebird Games: To The Moon
  • Cellar Door Games: Rogue Legacy
  • Tribute Games: Mercenary Kings
  • Frima: Nun Attack, Chariot
  • Queasy Games: Everyday Shooter
  • Metanet: N, N+
  • Polytron: Fez
  • Red Hook: Darkest Dungeon (which will prove awesome, I suspect)...
...and, of course, Drinkbox Studios.

To appreciate Severed, you must first know what Guacamelee is.
Toronto's Drinkbox Studio formed in 2008, when a studio called Pseudo Interactive (who made the Full Auto combat driving games) shuttered its doors.  With just a handful of members and a penchant for snagging grant money (Ontario Media Development, the Canadian Media Fund, et cetera), they started small with 2011's Tales From Space: About A Blob, which, with a metascore of around 76, was more critically-acclaimed than anything Pseudo Interactive had ever put out - but just the beginning for Drinkbox.

Less than a year later, they followed About A Blob up with Mutant Blobs Attack!!!

Mutant Blobs Attack fared better, critically, than its predecessor - it's a relatively simple platformer in which the player controls a sentient blob that grows ever larger as it eats items in the game world - but it was more a game on the cusp of brilliance than actually brilliant.
"If they keep this up, one can expect them to start making flat-out great games - but they're not quite there, yet. They're just pleasantly, comfortably close."
-from the Mutant Blobs Attack!!! review-
Then, in 2013, Drinkbox released the game that, currently, defines the studio.

 - a 2D platform/brawler Metroidvania - is incredible.  We are lucky if, once per year, a game comes along that seizes us and keeps us coming back the way games did when we were kids, and Guacamelee is an exceptional piece of work from tip to tail.  I probably played through it a dozen times, throughout 2013 and into 2014.
"The entire game looks like concept art in motion. It taps directly in to a gamer's desire to explore, to sniff out secrets, to gain strength and be rewarded for our efforts and climb ever-higher. Everything about Guacamelee is lovely. It is, in every moment, a pleasure - one of the most purely fun games I played in the past year - and the best PSN game of 2013."
-best of 2013 - PSN game-
With Guacamelee, which went so far beyond anything they had done in the past, Drinkbox had its first bona fide crossover hit.  After its release on PS3 and Vita, it would be ported to Windows, Mac, Linux, PS4, Wii U, Xbox 360 and Xbox One within the year - and everyone was salivating at the thought of Guacamelee 2: Juan's Jueturn. 

Drinkbox, though, decided on something else.  In the same way Klei abandoned 2D action-platformers when they moved from (the phenomenal) Mark of the Ninja to Don't Starve, Drinkbox struck out in an entirely new direction for their fourth game.

It would be a touch-controlled RPG.  Like, touchscreen gesture-based.  For smartphones and stuff.

Swipe at the arms to chop them off!

It would be absolutely nothing like Guacamelee, and when I saw its first trailer I literally said
"I know this is very Entitled-Gamer of me, but between Drinkbox and Klei, I'm getting tired of wonderful 2D action-platformer developers dropping one of my favourite genres and moving on.  I want Guacamelee 2 and a spirtual sequel to Mark of the Ninja or Shank, damnit."
-April 13, 2014-
I'm not alone, of course, and Drinkbox knows this.  Their FAQ for Severed ends thusly:

Actually, the entire Severed website is worth checking out.
It's gorgeous.

And, y'know, they have a point.  And when I first saw Severed's trailer, I also said
"Okay, okay. I love you, Drinkbox. I'll check it out... if it ever comes to Vita."
-April 13, 2014-
Well, it's coming to Vita, and I'm getting used to the idea. More and more, I'm liking the sound of it

The heroine.

You play as the nameless heroine, who lost her arm and perhaps her memory in an unexplained attack.  Wielding nothing but determination and a living sword with a great reptilian eye in the guard, you set out to "knit together pieces of her story from the past and the future.  Our heroine will embark on a journey through a surreal non-linear world using a gesture based combat mechanic to defeat enemies in this first person adventure. Unlock new abilities, discover secrets of the land, and grow in power as you master both offensive and defensive techniques. Let Severed be your mystery to unravel."

And the game is... beautiful and twisted.  It is, to my Canadian eye, a very Canadian game.  It doesn't blatantly use Native-style art, but it keeps some of the traits - the boldness of the lines, the psychedelic mix of colours, the romance of beauty in nature - while still feeling purely Drinkbox.

Here is Severed's first trailer, shown last summer before they'd locked down a platform.

I wish I could find a .gif of the trailer's final image - the close-up of her face, once she's donned her monstrous, living armor.  The way her eyes (or are they the defeated creature's?) tremble and glisten with all that hideous power, barely contained and desperate to erupt from its cage.

The heroine (later).

Now, if you're anything like me, your first question upon viewing that trailer (even though it answers that question right there in the video) is what is that music?!  It's Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, a Canadian experimental music collective which worked on the music for Klei's Mark of the Ninja.  Specifically, the song used here is Crystal Fortress Over The Sea of Trees from their 2011 album YT//ST.

And immediately - even with the looming sigh of touch controls hanging over it - there's a lot to love about Severed, just from that trailer.

A female hero, which we don't see nearly enough of in video gaming - though indies in general have certainly been doing their part, lately.

Gorgeous, surreal environments.  Like Guacamelee, Severed doesn't look like any other game.  You can't describe its environments using clichés because when you see it, none come to mind - it looks only like itself - totally unique, totally Drinkbox.

An enigmatic story - distant and secretive like we find in Dark Souls, Resonance of Fate or Transistor - one that refuses to reveal too much, or perhaps anything at all.  Severed looks to retain its mystery, and make one of its principal pleasures for the gamer the act of exploring it.

It's bright and beautiful, it's twisted and grotesque.  It's a game that's "dark," but not traditionally so.  It's not excessively violent or lurid or dripping in gore.  It lacks the trappings of what we usually consider dark or mature in games in favour of meaningfully dark and mature emotions - the lost family, the abandoned/mutilated hero and the terrible strength she takes for herself on her quest.

Fantastic, otherworldly music.  Yamantaka//Sonic Titan's sound is.... alien, modern and a little tribal, but it soars so high and so deep, emotionally - its spirit matches the game's romance, and its violence hammers home the terror of the heroine's trials and the thrill of her strength.

Who wants to bet me this is the combat tutorial?
C'maaan - any takers?

At PSX in December, it was announced that the game will appear first on the PlayStation Vita, with a release window of Spring 2015.  This is its gameplay trailer.

And really, what turned me off Severed in the first place was, just as Drinkbox pointed out, that it's not a sequel to Guacamelee.  If one simply removes that (admittedly, entitled) argument from the equation, what we're left with is this:

There is a game in which you lose your arm - it goes running off - and you explore a gorgeous, romantic, unreal world in a first-person perspective and grow in power with a little eye-for-an-eye action, chopping body parts off boss monsters and wearing them like armor-trophies. That, alone, sound like a pretty cool game to me.  Oh, and it's made by Drinkbox, one of the most talented indie studios in the world, whose games just get progressively better?  Well... yeah.

Sign me up.

(But dude, it's got frickin' touch controls.) 

Don't care anymore.  Sign me up.



  1. That Canadian flag is tremendous... also what's it like having the 5th season of archer on netflix? Is it grand, I bet it's grand.

    1. I need a streaming solution for season six. I can buy the episodes individually off PSN, but that ends up at like $20 a month... there's gotta' be some sort of Hulu or whatever that's got FX shows on it, right? ...'cause Justified starts this week...

  2. Thanks for the post and the hat tip, Chance! I'm a big Drinkbox fan - partly because of your recommendations - but I hadn't even heard of Severed. And now I'm pumped for it. I mean, part of me is skeptical, but look at that art! And it's Drinkbox! It's going to be great. AND THE ART!