Review: Severed22 Dec 2016 3
Released 28 Jul 2016
What do Imperator Furiosa, Kūkaku Shiba, Misty Knight, Maika Halfwolf, Alain Vian and (spoiler) Huckleberry from Shutter, and Sasha, the protagonist of Severed have in common? They’re all one-armed women who could kick Mad Max’s ass without breaking a sweat.
The first thing I ever read about Severed compared it to Epic’s Infinity Blade series, and that unfortunate analogy led me to ignore this beautiful, disturbing, otherworldly dungeon crawler for far too long. Credit where credit is due: one can see the influence of Infinity Blade’s swiping swordplay on the combat mechanics in Severed, and combat is a large part of Severed. However, unlike Epic’s over-rendered and stunningly superficial slash-em-up, Severed contains a complete game world, a subtly executed and heart-rending plot, and a balance of combat with exploration, puzzle solving, and resource management.
It also has a “casual” mode for the sword swiping, which I found to be challenging but not frustrating… the precise opposite of my exasperation experience with Infinity Blade. Without that option, I might well have been out-twitched and had to give up. I’ve been there before.
Severed opens without explanation in an alien landscape, a beautiful, colorful world that nonetheless drips with otherworldly menace. After so many dark dungeons and intentionally-underlit 3D landscapes, Severed is like a burst of blacklight and gamma rays, a glowing, mutant world. It looks like a Samurai Jack episode mashed up with the witches’ labyrinths from Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Maybe you’ll hate the “flat” look or find the colors garish - that’s okay, not everyone has good taste or an artistic sensibility.
Severed has a simple, minimally represented but moving plot, kicked off when you wander into a ruined house and find a mirror: that’s the first time you see Sasha, her brown face gaunt, her clothes torn, and her arm a bloody stump. The iconic art makes every detail pop: she looks like she’s about to succumb to exhaustion and never get up again. Encountering items in the house reveal fragments of a life: a happy family with a chubby father, hyperactive little brother, and a warrior mother, then some mysterious catastrophe involving clawing arms and fanged maws.
Sasha isn’t in Kansas any more, and when a figure I’ll call “the blood devil” offers her cold comfort and a blood-red sword with an eye, the player is left to guess whether her blase acceptance comes from recognition or shock. This all happens in the first few minutes of the game, and with only the shortest of cut scenes, setting the pace for the rest of the game’s storytelling and cementing the game’s themes of Nietzchian void-gazing and Faustian bargains. Progress in the game brings occasional reassurances from the blood devil that everything will be alright, amidst copious evidence that no, it won’t.
Severed is a turn-based, move-one square at a time dungeon crawler with a classic set of features including doors that need keys, poisonous atmospheres, and “oh, I’ll have to come back here when I can do ‘x,’” moments. Clever puzzles, tight level designs that minimize empty space and travel time, and environments that look and feel like they are “in use” keep well-worn RPG mechanics fresh.
Combat is the heart of gameplay, and it takes place in real time, as you swipe to attack and swipe against incoming attack. The monsters in Severed mostly appear as flares of white light, stationary and harmless until you approach them, a very good call for a mobile game. Those pale fires are alluring, and burst into a range of brilliantly varied but stylistically consistent range of terrors, from clawed predators to stalks that grow fungal masses to spheres with spinning metallic shields. Always there are the eyes: eyes in every wrong place, staring, blinking, studding wrecking-ball like appendages. Each monster has its own attack pattern, and learning those patterns and taking advantage of them becomes essential as you start facing multiple monsters at once, flanking and eventually surrounding you.
The tap and swipe mechanics of Severed are nuanced: longer swipes do more damage, and there is a cumulative bonus for multiple hits in a row, but hitting a monster’s guard or trying to attack one while it is invulnerable rests your bonus and partially empties your combo gauge. Winning isn’t everything: you have to win with a full gauge in order to dismember your foes and keep their claws, tentacles, wings, and other bits to spend improving Sasha’s abilities.
Severed learned a lesson or two from the highly tactile quality of horror games like the Amnesia series. You have to sever those monster bits yourself, place angry starfish-thing keys on sphincter-doors to open them, swipe to pull chains, and when you find a piece of restorative spiked fruit, each tap is a single juicy bite.
The immediacy of Severed’s control scheme and it’s play-don’t-show storytelling blend sensory immersion with narrative transportation to give one not just a sense of being in its world of unnatural forms and aposematic coloration, but also of being Sasha even as she may be losing herself. It’s not a system-rich open-world RPG, like The Quest, and it’s emphatically not a twitchy grindfest like Infinity Blade, aiming instead to be a hallucinatory crystal prism, tight and purposeful, but refractive and colorful, with motes of contemplation and heartbreak amidst it’s broad strokes of action and exploration.
So yeah, I’m in love with Severed. I even like the fast-paced combat… y'know, on “casual” difficulty. My only regret is that I didn’t get to this one in time to put it up for consideration for the PT Action game of the year, though with Apple’s iPad GOTY award in their trophy case, Drinkbox probably doesn’t need the publicity. Recommended in the strongest terms possible for everyone but young children, people with dismemberment squiks, and the kind of people who are boycotting Rogue One.