Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Slicing Swan Song for Vita - The Take Your Time Severed Review

Quick Note: The touch controls will turn many away from this fantastic game, but don't be fooled: Severed isn't a shallow recreation of Fruit Ninja or similar, simplistic titles. Beneath the surface Severed has a deep battle system that requires timing and skill from the player, which is joined by the wonderfully sparse, yet emotional, story the game delivers to make an instant classic for Sony's handheld.

Touch screen gaming has built up a bad reputation for itself. Much like the dreaded motion control scheme, the mechanics of using one's finger to deal damage to the opponent or move the character on screen has been tainted by the hundreds of games that use them all wrong. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with touch controls, most 'hardcore' gamers won't come anywhere near a game that uses touch screen mechanics as a staple to gameplay. If Severed has taught me anything, it's to not be so judgemental about a game using mechanics I do not prefer. Severed uses touch controls so well I can't imagine playing the game any other way.

Severed is the follow up to the excellent Guacamelee from the indie development powerhouse DrinkBox Studios. The desire to develop for the handheld stems from the support of players on the handheld for Guacamelee when it first released in 2013, and though it is unfortunate that DrinkBox will (probably) not be able rake in all that much from Severed, Vita owners should show their appreciation to the developer for taking such a risk and making a game that is not only an exclusive on the handheld in 2016 (when Sony itself won't even make PS Vita exclusives), but create a great game that honestly feels like it can't be played on any other platform. 

One of the opening stages that serves as the perfect view to show off the distinct, creative art style of the world.
The game follows the tale of Sasha, a girl who has mysteriously lost her arm and her family and is on the verge of dying. After waking up in a strange, colorful but disturbingly decorated land, Sasha is approached by a demonic creature which explains that monsters have taken her family's various bodies to separate parts of the land. If she wants to have their bodies returned so that they may rest in peace, Sasha is going to have to get her hand(s?) dirty. The presence gives her a sword that allows her to take on the hordes of demonic critters that dot the landscape. 

Mysterious figure that helps add to the creep factor of the world of Severed.
Part of what is so interesting about the plot of Severed is how sparse it is. The largest amount of dialog exchanged is at the very beginning of the game, where it is used to set up the story. Sure, there are a few creatures that speak with Sasha on her journey, but the protagonist herself is silent and is often wondering the landscape alone. It's a very surreal feeling world and the sadness that Sasha is feeling is easily portrayed in the journey the player goes on with her. 

This sparse feeling works so well with the game and the story and I'm glad that DrinkBox decided to lean heavily on it's excellent art direction and animation over filling the game with dialog. It's not to say that the studio doesn't have the writing chops, because Guacamelee's humor and self awareness shows that DrinkBox can write. Rather, the decision to not use as much dialog adds more to Severed's story, and adds deeper emotion. Sasha is in a stage of mourning, with the only thing pushing her forward is her task of retrieving the bodies of her dead family. By not filling her mouth with words, the feeling is more impactful, and easier to relate to the player. You don't just hear that she feels lonely wondering the fiendish countryside; you feel it with her. 

So that may have been a bit too much analysis of the story, but you get the gist. The story is interesting, but where Severed really struts it's stuff is in its gameplay. The first person dungeon crawler focuses on the Vita's touch screen for combat, and it pulls this combat off beautifully. 

A map of the first dungeon Sasha must journey through.
While wondering the landscape Sasha comes across small white flames that indicate enemy encounters. Once this flame is run into, the demons appear. Most battles consist of fighting two to four enemies at a time, with each enemy on a side of Sasha. For every creature that must be fought there is a symbol that denotes the type of enemy with a yellow outline that fills up as it gets closer to the time in which the enemy will strike Sasha. To avoid damage, Sasha must either parry the enemy attack or strike the enemy's weak spot to lower their attack gauge, causing the timer to deplete. 

This balance of striking the enemy and swapping between the next attacking enemy is what Severed is all about. Not only is it important to strike back at enemies that are ready to take out Sasha, but it's also layered with a focus meter that fills with each successful hit, but lowers with each of Sasha's own attacks the enemy deflects. Once full, Sasha can use her abilities to defeat the enemy and enter focus time, which allows her to sever parts off of the enemy that can be used to make her stronger. Once again, this adds to the balance of attacking the correct enemy at the right time. If you kill an enemy before the focus meter is full, you essentially wasted an opportunity to collect parts to make Sasha more powerful. 

The upgrade tree for the sword has many useful abilities to help Sasha adapt to combat.
Though the enemy variety isn't too large, the different variations of enemies keeps combat engaging and interesting, especially when you start including enemies that require charged attacks to deal damage or have buffs on them, such as increased attack power or regeneration. During my play through of about seven hours I was never once bored of the combat, but I don't think I would have liked the game as much if the play time was extended to 10 hours or more. It's the perfect amount of playtime necessary to make the game fun and keep it engaging.  

Mmmm... heart. Just so....chewy...
Outside of combat, there is plenty to explore and do in the world of Severed. Sasha can find pieces of heart and brain, which can be used to help raise both health and mana respectively. There are also numerous secrets to find, many of which will require coming back once future abilities have been unlocked. Sometimes, the back tracking can seem tedious, but because of how the power up system works for Sasha's abilities, back tracking is rarely boring or 'not worth it.'

From start to finish Severed is a perfect Vita game. Yes, DrinkBox has announced an iOS port of the title, but the movement of Sasha with joysticks feels just as satisfying as the combat with the touch screen. If you own a Vita, spend the $15 on Severed. The gameplay is satisfyingly deep and the story is emotional and interesting without having to be too wordy. If this is the last exclusive for Sony's handheld, at least the system will go out with a strong, demonic bang. 

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