Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PlayStation Vita
Genre: Action
Developer: DrinkBox Studios
Release Date: April 26, 2016


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PS Vita Review - 'Severed'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on May 3, 2016 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Severed is a gesture-based action game that follows the saga of a distraught warrior, who is lost in a fantastical world, as she knits together pieces of her story from both the past and the future.

Buy Severed

The Vita's touch-screen has always been an iffy proposition. Very few games have made good use of it, and more often than not, it feels like an afterthought rather than a central part of the system. Even games like Gravity Rush Remastered show that the touch-screen gimmicks are more of a detriment than an add-on.  Inspired by similar mobile games, Severed is a first-person dungeon-crawler that focuses almost entirely on the touch-screen. It's not perfect, but it's the kind of game that benefits from touch controls over the traditional setup.

Severed follows the story of Sasha, who's the daughter of a famous warrior. She awakens in a desolate land amid the ruins of her house. Her family is gone, and she is covered in blood and missing an arm. A stranger says that her family is somewhere in this world, and only Sasha can find them. She sets out with a sword to find the beast that attacked her family. The small selection of characters conveys the uncomfortable and desolate world, and much of the plot has to be puzzled out from context. It works very well, and the tale is engaging from start to finish.

In Severed, you explore a series of primarily square rooms in a variety of disturbing dungeons. You're looking to fight the boss, and there are no random encounters. Enemies are marked on the map and don't respawn after defeat, so a good chunk of your time is spent solving puzzles or finding secrets in the game world. Most puzzles involve the manipulation of opening and closing doors. Some doors are tied to other doors, some doors require a special switch to open, some doors are timed, and so on. You must find the right combination of tricks to advance. A particularly fun late-game puzzle involves swapping keys back and forth between platforms using bells and monster-birds.

This is made more complex by secrets, and every area has a few. Some are incredibly obvious, such as using a specific spell on a specific icon, but others require some thought. For example, paper books show the solution to a puzzle if you can figure out what the clue means. Others involve finding hidden blocks that you need to tap to open secret doors. No puzzle is too tough, and you'll quickly get a feel for the tricks. The rewards are primarily Zelda-style heart pieces that improve your health or mana pieces that increase your magic capabilities, but neither is essential if you're not comfortable with the searching aspect.

Combat in Severed is based entirely on the touch-screen, which serves as your blade. Swiping across the screen slashes that part of the screen. Short swipes do significantly less damage while long swipes do more damage but take longer to complete. You can swipe as quickly as you can move your finger, so performing rapid barrages of slashes is possible and necessary. The primary point of combat is to expose an enemy's weak point and then pound on it. Some enemies block attacks from certain directions while others have vulnerable areas that need to be damaged before they expose a weak point. Some enemies also attack, requiring you to slash at their arms when they glow red to parry and block. You can face up to four enemies at once but can only focus on one at a time. The others appear as circles on the bottom of the screen, which gradually fills up with yellow while the enemy prepares to attack. Tapping the circle allows you to swap focus to that enemy, and late-game combat involves rapid swapping between multiple deadly foes to keep them under control.

When you're fighting enemies, you build up a focus meter. The more consecutive hits you land on a single enemy, the faster your focus meter builds up. Getting blocked, damaged or changing the enemy you're fighting breaks your combo. If you fill the focus meter, you enter Focus mode for the rest of the battle. You gain a passive bonus to your damage, but more importantly, when you kill an enemy, you're given a brief moment to sever their body parts. Doing so causes them to drop valuable elements that you need to upgrade your character. Balancing focus with defeating enemies is a critical part of the game. Kill enemies too quickly, and they won't drop items, but if you kill enemies too slowly, you might get pounded on. You also need a lot of drops to power up your character effectively, so you have to balance the risk and rewards.

You begin with the ability to slash, but you gradually unlock new abilities. Each ability reveals new ways to fight foes and significantly augments your combat prowess. A Charge Slash does more damage, Blind temporarily freezes an enemy in place, and Devour can steal an enemy's buffs. Perhaps the most powerful ability is Rage, which temporarily gives you a huge damage buff but has a time limit. If you don't disable it before the time limit is over, Sasha is temporarily stunned while the rage overtakes her.

As the game progresses, combat gets more complex. Enemies gain improved defenses or more complex combat patterns. An early fight might be against a single slow-moving foe, but a late-game fight involves four highly buffed foes, one of whom is immune to magic, two of whom are armored, and one who hits like a brick house. There's almost a puzzle element to combat, so you need to figure out who you need to take down first. Some enemies get more aggressive when attacked, and others are incredibly passive as long as you leave them alone. Others slowly build up to an attack and need to be regularly smacked to stop their progress.

Severed's biggest flaw and most consistent problem is that the combat is feast or famine. Some fights can feel absurdly punishing, and it's very easy to get overwhelmed if you're not careful about how you approach them, especially later in the game, when you fight groups of four enemies with armored shells and haste buffs. The boss fights are frequently much easier than the fights leading up to them. On the other hand, a lot of fights can be trivialized with upgraded abilities and spells. With a few upgrades, the Blind spell is effectively a free trip into Focus mode. Once it's fully upgraded, it can stun the entire enemy field, and you do 50% damage to an enemy. The game actually has to send enemies who are immune to magic to nullify this strategy. The late-game Rage ability renders every fight a complete joke since the damage output means that enemies die in moments. Sometimes, the fights get tedious. Having to dance between multiple foes to keep their attack gauges down is fun for a while, but once you've done it a few times, it starts to get tiresome. The game is about six hours long and comes close to overstaying its welcome.

Death is a non-issue. While health is conserved between fights, dying instantly returns you to where you left off with full health. You have to restart a fight, but a difficult fight is a lot easier with a full health bar. This makes the potentially harsh fights feel much less intimidating, but it also means that there's little fear in dying in combat. At worst, you start over, and at best, you start over with a full health bar. The game is also hurt by its reliance on touch controls. They're necessary for the game to play as it does, but the Vita's touch-screen isn't the greatest. It works about 90% of the time, but that 10% can be the frustrating difference between an easy win and getting repeatedly punched in the face. It seemed to come up most often with the charge mechanic, which occasionally fizzles. The game doesn't expect much precision. Aside from pulling off the slashes for focused body part severing, you generally need to poke an enemy in a specific place and then slash your finger back and forth across the screen as quickly as possible to do maximum damage.

If you come into Severed from Guacamelee, you might expect a similar tone due to the initial similarity in art styles, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Severed is a shockingly dark game that uses its simplistic art style to provide some grim visuals. There are a few scenes that are unquestionably horrible to see, even though the game eschews traditional gore (aside from a few dangling eyeballs). The overall art design is fantastic, and I was looking forward to seeing every new area and monster. The soundtrack is atmospheric but doesn't stand out as well as the visuals. It helps convey the sense of depressing desolation that pervades the game, but no individual track stayed with me.

Severed is a great experience that comes perilously close to overstaying its welcome. The combat is fast and intense, the dungeon exploration is enjoyable, and the visuals are enticing. The combat can become repetitive and is completely dependent on your touch-screen, but by and large, it's a fun and well-made game. As you slash your way through the bizarre monstrosities that populate the land, Severed manages to be engaging without feeling like a roadblock. It won't change the mind of anyone who hates touch-screen gaming, but it's a great example of how it can work, and it's one of the best indie games on the Vita.

Score: 8.5/10

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