Back in 2015 a small development company by the name of Thunder Lotus Games released a simple little title called Jotun. Its main appeal was that it used a cartoonish style of hand drawn animation for all of its character and their movements as well as having a Norse Mythology story that, for a change, didn’t revolve around Ragnarok. While it was no masterpiece it was a very enjoyable game with great visuals, an interesting, if simple, story and a clear application for Norse Mythology that went beyond the usual surface details. So naturally I was interested in seeing what the development team was going to do next and when I found out that it was a Metroidvania, Lovecraftian horror game called Sundered I could have not been more eager to get my hands on it. Unfortunately, I could not have been more disappointed.
Now before I go any further I do need to disclose that I did request a review code from the developers and was denied within ten minutes. Their reasoning was that they only had a limited number of review codes to give out and were saving them for bigger outlets. It was an explanation that I found understandable and I bear no ill will against them for it. While I will admit that I was disappointed I can honestly say that it did not factor into my review of the game. I am, however, bitter over the fact that I had to spend my hard-earned money over such a tedious game.
The plot of the game, (if you can call it that), revolves around a woman named Eshe who finds herself wandering a desert. Upon encountering an ancient ruin, she is yanked into a series of underground caverns, full of ancient robots and monsters seemingly left over from a war between the two. Guided by the questionable wisdom of a creature known as The Shining Trapezohodron you explore the various area of the caverns, fight creatures and robots and ultimately decided if you wish to seal the monsters away for good or let them loose upon the world through your actions.
The first major problem with the game is in how it handles its setting, story and main protagonist. While one can appreciate the fact that they made their protagonist a woman, (yes, it is still a big deal as there are not enough of them in gaming), there really isn’t anything to her. By the time the game ends we know nothing about her backstory, or how she ended up in the desert and has nothing resembling a personality or a meaningful arc. Because of this we really don’t care about her character or her possible fate which effectively renders the entire “Resist or Embrace” theme that the developers keep trying to push on us moot. Additionally, you have the setting which seems to be going for an almost Dark Souls approach. Like Eshe, we know nothing about the world outside of this place and what we do learn of the areas that you explore is vague and at times ambiguous. We get some backstory on the various bosses that are encountered throughout the game but the theme with each of them seems to be the same. Everyone either destroyed one another or went nuts due to whatever went down in these caverns while trying to beat each other and it gets old real fast. Because of all of this, its next to impossible to have any investment in the characters and the narrative lacks any real emotional tether to keep us involved. As a result, the three different endings based on your choices lack any real emotional weight. I won’t spoil said endings but when they occur they do raise some serious questions. Like why should we care if the Shard gets what it wants? Why should we care if Eshe gets out? Or why should we care if anything changes in this world at all? The simple fact of the matter is that we really aren’t given any reason to which makes one wonder what the point of progressing even is. Then you take the actual gameplay into account and you realize that the lack of a strong narrative makes everything so much worse.
From a technical standpoint, the game is very competently made. I didn’t encounter a single noticeable glitch, the framerate was consistently smooth and is full of audio ques and visuals that I just loved. The various monsters and robots that you fight all have great designs with cool little abilities that keep you on your toes. The main boss fights are epic in scope and require you to use all the abilities that you have mustered over the game to survive. The hand drawn animation style is nothing short of breathtaking and made me wish that developers tried this sort of thing more often. The problem is that we see the individual enemies FAR too often and reminds me of a problem in video games that was weeded out a consul generation ago.
You see during the 7th generation consul period, video games, particularly PS3 exclusives, developed a nasty habit that they only got out of as the generation ended. That habit was that instead of throwing a smaller number of challenging enemies at you, the developers would instead throw waves upon waves of weaker, disposable enemies at you with a stronger one occasionally thrown in to shake the combat up and became tedious very quickly. This design style was what, in my opinion, dragged down the first three Uncharted games as well as the Infamous games and keeps them from being untouchable gems in my book. As time went on, however, the practice became less and less common and today is mostly used deliberately as a big final obstacle the player needs to overcome or to make the player feel empowered or even just to show how much of a badass the main character is in games like Dynasty Warriorsor Doom (2016). The problem with Sundered is that it feels like a very deliberate callback to that earlier period of the 7th generation era and ends up feeling more like an intentional punishment on the player more than anything else.
In the 20 hours that I spent playing this game I cannot count how many times this game threw dozens upon dozens of enemies at me at once. Some enemies charged at you. Some tackle you. Some would shoot at you. Some would blast energy beams at you. Some would blast magic energy at you. And all of this would happen all at once within tightly enclosed areas greatly limiting your mobility. The things that you are expected to dodge and cut your way through in these areas are insane. The majority of the time that you encounter these waves you are going to die over and over again, sending you all the way back to the starting area with all the XP that you’ve earned. This allows you to upgrade your abilities slightly before you head back in to the area for another round of punishment until you are strong enough or lucky enough to plow through this wave. Then you explore for a little while, gain a new ability to help you move forward, maybe fight a mini boss and then the cycle starts all over again and this happens all throughout the game. The enemies may change a bit but the formula stays the same.
To properly convey just how frustrating this is allow me to paint you a picture with words. You’re walking along one of these caverns trying to find the best way to move forwards, maybe killing a random enemy or two along the way. Then you hear the gong. Within thirty seconds you are surrounded and are being attacked by enemies from every which way. The slug monsters start biting at you. The ox-like monsters ram you. Magic using priests use their spells to trap you in areas while shooting magical balls at you that send you flying to different areas of cavern where even more monsters are. Imagine pounding the attack buttons while constantly running to different parts of the map hoping to either loose the enemy or find an area that will help you beat them, praying that you can muscle through them before you run out of health. Then imagine that these monsters are so numerous that they clog up the entire screen and make it difficult to even figure out where the hell you are. Sounds intense, right? Well it is. At first. Now imagine doing this at least a half a dozen times in each new area throughout the game. Now take that number and multiply it by at least five times because that’s how often you will be dying in this game just to get past a small stretch of the map where the developers decided to randomly put a horde of enemies. It gets tedious real fast and for the first time in perhaps a decade I found myself chucking my controller against the floor and screaming at my computer screen in frustration.
In the end Sundered was not only a big disappointment but just a chore to play. The art style is great and the boss fights are cool but between the lack of a meaningful story and the endless hordes of enemies constantly attacking you the actual journey to get to any destination is just horrid. By the time I finally got to the ending I was just relieved that it was all over and that I would never have to play the damn thing again. I honestly hope that Thunder Lotus learns from all of this and that their next game will be better but this endeavor was just an utter failure. It’s by no means the worst game that I’ve ever played but it’s a prime example as to how not to do a Metroidvania game.
Trey Griffeth is the Head Writer of The Nerd Hub's Comic Book Spotlight section as well as a contributing writer to Video Game Spotlight. In addition to his work with The Nerd Hub, he is also a Staff Writer for Heroic Hollywood.