Developer: Drinkbox Studios (Guacamelee, Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack)
Release Date: April 26, 2016
Available on: PlayStation Vita (reviewed)
In a Nutshell: Fruit Ninja, if it were made by Guillermo del Toro.
While many on social media are convinced that the Vita is dead, developer Drinkbox doesn’t seem to think so. After their insanely popular luchadorvania Guacamelee took PSN by storm in 2013, the team decided to tackle Sony’s handheld and develop an exclusive title for its small, yet rabid fanbase. Was it worth the gamble? That’s entirely up to Drinkbox to decide, but after spending a chunk of time with their new first-person dungeon crawler Severed, I can say with confidence that it’s definitely worth playing and could very well be the last great exclusive the Vita will ever see.
In Severed, you play as a one-armed warrior named Sasha who explores a haunting world in search for her missing family members. Along the way she’ll take on challenging bosses, adorn their armor to gain new abilities, and use her living sword to sever (hence the name) the limbs from defeated enemies in order to empower a variety of offensive and defensive skill trees.
Though she’s missing one of her extremities, Sasha is more than capable of holding her own in battle. Using the Vita’s front touch screen, you’ll swipe and slice monsters in one of the most engaging combat systems I’ve had the pleasure of playing in an RPG — especially a dungeon crawler. There’s no combat menu to flip through, just you and the tip of your finger delivering well-timed parries, charge attacks, and activating in-combat spells and abilities.
Every grotesque enemy has their own combat patterns to learn, be it keeping an eye on their attack meter in an attempt to parry, or knowing which parts of their body are even vulnerable at times. It’s not uncommon to find yourself surrounded in battle either, but thanks to Severed’s excellent pacing I was more than up to the challenge. I had learned that a certain four-armed monster could take 3 slices to each side before they switched their defensive position. I knew that another needed to have their fungal armor removed in order to reset their attack timer. It was just a matter of juggling all of their nuances simultaneously, and doing so was exhilarating.
While it was simple enough for me to memorize basic attack patterns, I didn’t grasp the benefit of patience and turtling in the early goings. Landing a series of successful attacks without interruption fills Sasha’s focus meter, and defeating an enemy while the meter is full allows you a brief moment to sever their limbs and use them for extremely valuable upgrades. If your focus meter isn’t full, you’re essentially defeating enemies with no real purpose. There’s no EXP system or level gains, after all. That being said, it’s important to strategically direct your attacks at multiple targets in order to reach maximum focus, and then deliver the killing blows.
Severed doesn’t shy away from overwhelming you in battle with multiple enemy types — all of which can vary in attack speeds and appear with all sorts of nasty buffs that made my hands sweat. And although Severed is, indeed, a challenging game, it’s a fair one. The more I battled an enemy, the more I understood it. The combat is so fine-tuned that I knew every mistake I made was my own. It wasn’t a cheap attack, or a subtle tell, it was me not switching targets in time or getting too cocky for my own good. Was I frustrated at times? Sure, but never once did I feel overwhelmed to the point where victory seemed unobtainable.
Even after succumbing to the same boss fight a handful of times, I came back with a better understanding of its attack patterns. For instance, the first boss is a crow golem that’s invulnerable while in its golem form. Once that became apparent, I hung back and parried attacks until its weak spot became exposed. Ah ha! Gripping my Vita as tight as I could, I used this opportunity to swipe as wide and as fast as humanly possible, delivering a barrage of slashes before it assumed its golem form once again. Just when I thought I had it figured out, it summoned a flock of crows to the battle in an attempt to draw my attention away. Contending with the golem and his pals simultaneously was a rush, and I eventually got him down on the fourth try.
Outside of combat, exploration is done in first-person, which is an aspect widely used in popular Japanese dungeon crawlers like Etrain and Stranger of Sword City. Where others in the genre use dungeon crawling as a way for players to grind EXP and strengthen their party members, Severed breaks it down to its most basic functions: exploration and puzzle solving.
There are plenty of unique corridors to wander, but many of the game’s secrets were hidden down alternate paths that required abilities obtained later in the game. I’d see the same star shape etched on walls time and time again, and when I eventually acquired blind magic to see beyond them, I immediately felt the need to backtrack in search of hidden brain and heart pieces (consumed to increase maximum health and mana pools).
Improving upon the recognizable art style used in Guacamelee, Severed is absolutely gorgeous. The world is described by the developers as nightmarish, and after battling strange creatures in poison filled rooms capped by orifices adorned with teeth, I’d have to agree. There’s monsters with multiple appendages, swarms of floating eyeballs, and some really crazy (and shocking) moments that far exceeded my creep-factor expectations. It really is a beautiful game, and the vibrant visuals work wonders in tandem with Severed’s dark themes.
There’s very little Severed does wrong. The combat is engaging (although tiring at times), Sasha’s tale is brooding, and its world is imaginative and memorable. The only thing working against the game is the Vita itself, though not from a technical standpoint — don’t worry, Severed runs great. I mostly play my Vita laying down, but since the handheld has a bit of weight to it I found it near impossible to hold the console above my face in one hand, while using the other to furiously slash and swipe my foes to tasty wet chunks. It just wasn’t happening. I had to either set the Vita down on a flat surface, gripping it in my left hand while slashing with the right, or find a comfortable spot on the couch to sit and play as I imagine normal people do.
Even then I could only play in short 1-hour bursts to avoid rubbing my fingertip raw or getting motion sickness from the first-person exploration segments. I’m not sure if it’s the transition animation from room to room, or the simple act of spinning around in first-person, but it definitely brought about a sense of nausea or a minor headache if I tried to press beyond the 1-hour mark.
This may seem like a mindless complaint to some, but it’s a sentiment echoed by Polygon’s Justin McElroy in his review and IGN’s Miranda Sanchez in hers. Like me, these are people who play a lot of video games. This rarely happens, and it’s a shame that it did with Severed because it’s such a fantastic game. I wanted to see where the game went next, so I was okay spending a week on a shorter 5-6 hour game I’d normally smash in one session, but I felt these were complaints worth mentioning.
Nausea aside, Severed is an extraordinary game that I can’t recommend enough to the Vita crowd. And although I enjoyed the way it used the Vita’s touch screen, this is a game I can easily see transitioning to mobile devices, or even PC using a mouse. Drinkbox deserves the widest audience possible, after all.
*So where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I did spend a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if it’s worth playing.
Full disclosure: This review was done using a PlayStation Vita copy of Severed provided by the game’s developer, Drinkbox Studios. I pride myself on providing unbiased reviews to fellow consumers and constructive feedback to hard working developers. Whether or not I pay for the game is completely irrelevant.