At first, Sundered seems like one of the many attempts by modern developers to recreate and reiterate upon the classic 2D Metroidvania formula. It closely follows in the lineage of its forbearers, but in doing so, it manages to take its best parts and mold them into a surprisingly fresh and involved experience that stands apart from its contemporaries. It’s a tense and atmospheric adventure ripe with exploration and a combat system that’s as fulfilling as it is flashy. Sudden difficulty spikes can bring it down sometimes, but its brilliant combat and progression systems elevate Sundered above its momentary annoyances.
You play as Eshe, a wanderer of a ruined world who discovers an ancient monument that sucks her into a vast, otherworldly cavern. Stuck within this realm, you’re forced to journey forward under the guidance of a malevolent entity known as the Shining Trapezohedron to find a means of escape.
Sundered’s story is bare bones and mostly exists in the periphery, often relying on you to scour the world for special rooms filled with bits of lore. When you do stumble upon such mythology, the Shining Trapezohedron offers you vague, ambivalent accounts of the cavern’s former inhabitants and the war that caused them to perish. Its unreliable narration is unnerving, as you're never quite sure what to make of the machinations that brought the world to its knees, and whether or not it remains a threat. While you spend time deciphering the cavern's history, you hear next to nothing about Eshe's feelings about the predicament; she's a silent protagonist that rarely reacts to the events at hand. But like her, you are an outsider exploring Sundered’s strange and gruesome world. What you discover is as morbid as it is fascinating, and it imbues your travels with a strong sense of unease.
Due to a rift in reality caused by the conflict between the ancient races that inhabited the cavern, the world is physically unstable; justification for Sundered's procedurally generated rooms. Aside from a few key areas, you rarely feel acquainted with your surroundings and are left helpless to adjust to its constantly changing labyrinthian pathways. It's unfortunate that the environments lack diversity in structure, coming across as repetitive in appearance. The game's hand-drawn characters and animations are a joy to look at, but the environments are inconsistent at best, sometimes captivating you with derelict ancient cities, but other times boring you with dull catacombs. It's an issue that's apparent early on, but once you're busy exploring uncharted territory, it's more of a minor disappointment that falls by the wayside when you're focused on exploration and combat.
During your travels, swarms of hostile creatures will occasionally bombard you from all directions. Sundered is particularly punishing during these moments, especially after having made substantial progress into uncharted territory; the blaring alarm cue that preempts each encounter instantly fills you with dread. It can feel overwhelming early on, but you quickly gain new abilities that give you the upper hand. The combat system is smooth and responsive, utilizing a level of complexity akin to Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden. Familiar attacks like launchers, air-juggles, and downward strikes can all be linked together to create an assortment of devastating combos. In addition, you acquire a fair number of abilities as you progress, including an air dash, a charge slash, and a double jump. They make you stronger, and make the process of dodging and countering attacks during a chaotic fight all the more exciting. Combat is demanding, but mastering your moves leads to exciting performances that leave you hungry for more.
On the occasion you do perish, you return to a safe room at the beginning of an area where you can spend currency on new skills. The wealth of stats you can enhance is as welcoming as it is extensive. Given the number of times you're likely to die, the opportunity to upgrade your character and explore different builds, prioritizing offense, defense, or mobility, is rewarding. You're even given the choice to enhance your abilities further by embracing dark energy from the Shining Trapezohedron, which adds another layer to progression; and your decision to accept or reject the opportunity will determine which of the three endings you ultimately receive.
The constant progression is a godsend considering Sundered's high level of difficulty. Boss fights in particular offer the most challenge, steadily ramping up with riveting duels against monstrosities that demand new tactics and quick reflexes to overcome. But there are times where Sundered's difficulty falters. Much of it roots from issues caused by its procedural room generation, which can sometimes work against you. You will occasionally face a boss or a swarm of enemies in an environment that--by chance--has random obstacles that get in your way. Moments like this--though rare--make you feel like your ability to survive isn't in your hands, but rather by luck of the draw.
It's frustrating when you're dealt a bad hand, but the reward of overcoming hardships outweighs the vexation. You're given the proper tools to succeed, and when you use them tactically, what was once frustrating quickly becomes gratifying. No matter the failure you endure--fair or unfair--Sundered always manages to reward you one small step at a time.
Sundered is an enjoyable journey that iterates upon the Metroidvania style in ways that are both satisfying and substantial. Its progression systems are constantly fulfilling and combat is complex and exhilarating. While rare moments of unfair circumstances hold it back, Sundered remains a compelling and rewarding experience that you’ll be eager to play again, if only to seek out its other endings or to simply to wipe out another swarm of grotesque creatures.