Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Game Diary - Sundered.

Sundered's death animation.

Put simply, Sundered is a melee-centric platforming Metroidvania in the vein of Guacamelee, with Roguelite elements akin to Rogue Legacy.  It plays mostly like Guacamelee (without the grab mechanic), and its structure is a bit more Rogue Legacy

Just before Sundered launched, I told Chamberlain and Alex about an article Kotaku's Mike Fahey wrote, indicating that the game will basically make you want to put your controller through the wall.  
"The system has frustration baked right in. This often outweighs any sense of progress, especially in the first couple of hours. Making my way through the twisting passages to encounter a mini-boss gave me a sense of accomplishment. However, not being familiar with the boss’ mechanics, I quickly died and found myself right back at the game hub. Sure, I had points to spend on abilities, but I also had a long way to travel to get back to the boss, who would probably kill me a couple more times before I got it right.
 It makes my head hurt just thinking about it."-Mike Fahey, Kotaku-
In our email chain, I joked that Chamberlain should just wait for me to insist that it's really, really good despite - or perhaps even because of! - the frustrations Fahey suggests.  

Then, on Friday, I played Sundered.

And it was like... the punchline to a joke.  There are aspects, here, that I know Chamberlain will loathe.  Absolutely loathe.  The game has zero respect for the player's time, and I absolutely fucking love it. 

It reminds me of countless cherished titles, stretching back to my childhood.

There’s Metroid, obviously, with progress and shortcut and secrets hidden behind locks that only new skills and abilities will open – a door that will only open after a blast from a colossal cannon, or a ledge that’s simply impossible to reach without a double-jump – delicious. Its presentation brings to mind Aladdin for the Super Nintendo.  Its silky animation reminds me of Flashback: The Quest for Identity and (be still my beating heart) Klei's Mark of the Ninja.  It's just too gorgeous, and far too gorgeous in motion.

Eshe's idle animation.

The platforming reminds me of them, too.  It's a bit light, a bit floaty - not quite as sharp as Rogue Legacy - but it's comfortable and before long you're scampering through caverns, ping-pong wall jumping up vertical shafts and soaring out over bottomless pits with breezy confidence.

Speaking of Rogue Legacy, a huge aspect of Sundered's design can be traced to that particular modern classic.  In Rogue Legacy, you explore certain directions – down, right, left - from the starting hub, and somewhere out there past a procedurally-generated maze of rooms is a boss room for you to find.

In Sundered, there's a lot more down, left or right than a maze hiding a boss room.  There are bosses and minibosses and skill shrines and shortcuts you can’t get past without a particular skill, and the positions of those rooms never change.  They are connected by a simple network of large "blocks" which are similarly static - they never move - but what's inside those colossal blocks is a procedurally-generated maze of bespoke rooms, stitched together - so while you always need to go south and east to get to the power room, here, in order to get there you'll have to navigate a new (simple, breezy) maze every time.

I've highlighted the "blocks" green, here - entrances and exits to blocks also remain static - like the power rooms, ability shrine and shortcut rooms you see here, but the contents of a block and the route through it will be different every time.

This is where the game would lose Chamberlain.  You'll set out into the world,  zipping through a new maze from this block to that to the next, hoping to push just a little further into Sundered's world and maybe pick up this giant gun you've heard about, or a new attack or an air dash, and instead of earning that boon you'll... probably die.

You'll die because the game doesn't tell you what direction is a good direction to head.  It just says "there's a bunch of stuff out there!" and walks away (Rogueish).  So you launch yourself into this uncharted abyss and come across a bunch of enemies or a boss or miniboss that you couldn't possibly manage - and it may have taken you an hour of practicing in that region to make it that far, and discover that you really shouldn't have been wasting your time.

Every time you die, you're sent right back to the starting point with nothing to show for your efforts but some XP to spend on your skill tree (which only opens up further when you find new skills in the world). You’ve invested an hour, and you have no new abilities to open up new areas to explore. With enough time spent you can level up enough to brute-force your way through, I’d imagine, but that represents a lot of time, in Sundered.

The second reason you'll die is the swarm.

Different zones have different enemies, and the swarm reflects the area you're exploring.

Those mazes of hand-made rooms I mentioned above are not populated with enemies.  You're not going to fight This Enemy in This Particular Room because developer Thunder Lotus has designed a finely-tuned combat encounter for you, managing this foe’s skills while negotiating this particular geometry. Instead, all the rooms are actually empty, save for breakables and treasure chests.  Enemies show up... at random.

Early in a zone, you'll fight one or three easy-breezy foes.

Two or three blocks in, and you're fighting a dozen or more enemies - the same types as those you fought earlier, but bigger, with a different color palette and a more dangerous movelist (a’la Rogue Legacy, come to think of it).  Once you're past a certain point, a warning tone will sound - a great, ominous bonnnng in the western region, a sci-fi warning alarm in the south, that heralds the coming of a swarm.

The swarm doesn't have to navigate rooms like you do.  Flying enemies fly through walls and floors, snipers will fire off huge energy beams from five rooms away and if you run from them they'll just respawn somewhere else and keep shooting at you as you desperately try to stay alive against an army of dive-bombing spinny eye-things and giant ambulatory, electrified toes.

It comes randomly.  Well, there are some blocks that have a guaranteed swarm, but for the most part it's a surprise, and– if you’re in a room that doesn’t really lend itself to battling this many enemies at once – you’re free to continue forward or go back, drawing them into a space that will allow you to put your entire kit to use, and shear through them with flashy slaps of your dark power and blasts of light from your cannon. 

You’re also free to just run, but they’ll follow you.  They’ll follow you into a boss’s room, and continue to engage while the boss is smacking you around – so running is really only a viable tactic when your objective is a skill or perk just in the next block that you can grab before dying and reappearing in the hub. 

Dying is the closest Sundered gets to fast travel. 

These aspects – the new maze you need to navigate each time you die, the sheer size of the world and the distance you’ll have to go to reach the next uncharted path, the way it offers zero guidance on what objective your current toolset will permit you to successfully overcome, the way you can spend spend literal hours pushing towards an objective only to discover it’s impossible for you to accomplish it at the moment, the way death sends you right back to the center of the maze, the fact that a swarm that cannot be overcome could descend upon you at any time – combine to render Sundered as a genuine Time Thief.  Chamberlain will hate this game.  He’ll loathe it, for the above reasons. 

It’s not showing you something new and cool every time you play – it’s showing you the same mazerooms you’ve navigated a hundred times before, stitched together in a new way, and you’re exploring them because what’s at the end of all these blocks might be something useful to you.

So why do I love it?

Well, because there’s so much here that I love in games in general.  I'm going to start dropping some positives, here, and I'm not going to explain why they're positives.  You don't need it explained to you, I trust, that dashing and bouncing across platforms in a two-dimensional space is a joyously pleasurable thing - a thing to be coveted and sought out.  So what's Sundered got?

Haven't fought this dude yet.  Haven't fought any boss that's not a miniboss, yet. 

It's got the sumptuous, gorgeously-animated 2D visuals of classic Klei.  Well-animated hand-drawn 2D sprites (Vanillaware, Klei, Rayman Origins, Guacamelee) are some of my favorite things. 

It's got the snappy, quick, impactful 2D brawling of sharp brawlers.  Sharp, dodge-heavy 2D brawlers (Shank 2, Salt and Sanctuary, Guacamelee, Dragon’s Crown) are some of my favorite things.

It's got the comfy, springy platforming of classic 2D platformers.  Good 2D platformers (Guacamelee, Rayman Origins, Super Mario World) are some of my favorite things.

It's got the villainous, cruel and oh-so-satisfying challenge of Roguelikes and Roguelites.  Good Roguelikes (Don’t Starve, Darkest Dungeon, Rogue Legacy) are some of my favorite things.

It's got the sense of meaningful discovery, exploration and progression of Metroidvanias.  Good Metroidvanias (Guacamelee, Darksiders, Shadow Complex, Hyper Light Drifter) are some of my favorite things. 

It's got the satisfying, powerful-feeling wham that ends your base combo brings none other than God of War’s Plume of Prometheus to mind.  Game with awesome ‘wham’s (Bayonetta, Devil May Cry, Senran Kagura: Estival Versus, Lollipop Chainsaw, Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction) are some of my favorite things. 

Sundered is a fucking Cobb salad with like, only my favorite things in it. 

And it’s a brutal, intentional Time Thief.  Why is that okay?

Don't Starve - one of the Roguelike genre's greatest luminaries, which has no respect for your time.

There’s a certain arrogance (or perhaps simply confidence) to any Roguelike, even if it’s a Roguelite a’la Rogue Legacy or The Swindle or Sundered in which you never technically lose progress.  That arrogance is founded on the assumption that the game is fun to play.  Even when you fail.  Even when your attempt comes to nothing. 

That it’s okay or even good to spend an hour running and jumping and getting in fights with pouring, flowing torrents of eldritch foes without actually getting meaningfully closer to the end of the game, because the point of the game – and of any and every game, really – is, in its simplest terms, to have fun. 

My factory-default setting is that fun things are fun, and remain fun after repetition.  Blastin’ a fool DPS who tries to get in my face on Mercy in Overwatch is never not-fun.  Drop-kicking a zombie in Dying Light is eternally fun.  Running and jumping and getting into melee brawls with eldritch horrors is fun, and it will remain fun tomorrow and the day after, and I can return to Sundered confident that I’m going to enjoy the act of playing it, regardless of the progress I may or may not achieve.  This is why my saved game inDragon’s Crown broke 200 hours, and Darkest Dungeon’s investment has likely surpassed 400. 

It’s like Monopoly.  Or chess. There is nothing new under the Sun to discover, in these games, and they are returned to, over and over, again and again, for years – not in search of an objective, but for the simple sake of the enjoyment of play.  I don't believe this really needs to be argued, but I put to you that - for example - having sex is fun, even (or arguably, especially) when the ostensible objective and destination of a bouncing baby is removed from the equation. 

enjoy playing.  It’s fun to play, and I don’t believe this is a controversial statement. 

Put simply, Sundered is a gorgeous, challenging, satisfying, enchanting melee-centric platforming Metroidvania, with some Roguelite elements.  And it’s a lotta’ fun. 

So, dear reader, if you see what I see, if you feel as I feel, and if you would seek as I seek, then I ask you to take a moment and check out Sundered

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