Don’t mind her, she’s armless…
(Review code provided by publisher)
Severed is a peculiar anomaly in 2016; a Vita exclusive. Initially announced two years ago for a 2015 release, Severed was put back to 2016 when developers Drinkbox decided to cram a whole load of new content into it. Was it worth the wait? Well, yes and, to a degree, no. A year ago, the Vita was still playing hang on, a console for many that provided a remote link to their shiny PlayStation 4 while being fed a steady drip of quality indie titles and ports. But disparaging comments from Sony as to the machines future, a lack of first party development commitment and a definite slow down of releases with some promised titles seemingly skipping the platform (BroForce, I would have a word with thee…) the future is certainly looking bleak for “the little handheld that could if only a good developer would let it”. Drinkbox is certainly such a developer but Severed feels somewhat like it’s a welcome guest turning up at the end of the party.
Severed borrows a lot from Drinkbox’s last big hit, the seminal Guacamelee (a game which really shone on Vita, making great use of Sony’s cross buy/cross save infrastructure) and puts players in the shoes of a young girl called Sasha. Sasha wakes in a strange land in the ruins of what appears to be her family home, her mother, father and brother gone along with her left arm. Yes, the game lives up to its name from the get go. Sasha has, in whatever encounter separated her from her family, had her arm savagely ripped off above the elbow. Undeterred from hunting down her wayward kin, she straps up the stump, accepts a strange living sword from a mysterious demon and heads off into the wilds of this strange new world on a quest to rescue her loved ones.
Players explore the world from a first person view, rendered in the same Genndy Tartakovsky esque cartoon style as the aforementioned Luchador adventure. The world is set out in a very “Metroidvania” esque route with passageways and locations looping back on themselves. Movement, at first, feels very stiff. Turn left and right with the left stick to explore each room you enter. You’ll need to look around like this to find all of the things that each location has to offer, from breakable pots containing hidden consumables, to doors, levers and secret blocks which open hidden passages. Push the left stick forwards and you move through doors and into the next room. In a way, it feels similar to the likes of Eye of the Beholder and Legend of Grimrock and puts you in the mind that the game is a lot simpler than it eventually becomes. Because there’s also the combat to deal with.
Combat in Severed works similarly to Chair’s iOS classic Infinity Blade, with players swiping the screen to damage the hideous creatures that Sasha encounters. Long swipes deal more damage than short ones and you can deflect incoming attacks by swiping against them. It becomes a learning game, as you identify where enemies weak points are, targeting specific areas with your swipes, and keeping your eye on the indicator that creeps up at the bottom of the screen to let you know when the enemy is about to attack so that you can counter. It’s fairly straightforward and seems early on like it could become tedious over the course of the game. Until you come up against multiple enemies! In this case, combat quickly becomes a frantic exercise in managing each individual opponent, using the left stick to turn and face them, watching their attack meters to see when something is about to take a swipe at you. This can be frustrating until you start to learn how each enemy behaves, which charge quicker and which only really attack when aggro’d by your own attacks. It feels fresh and totally unique to the platform.
Unfortunately the combat is, in some ways, the games undoing. When juggling upwards of four enemies at once, keeping track of charge meters while also swiping at the screen can become incredibly awkward when your hand is covering some of the critical parts of the UI. It’s a problem that is unfortunately inherent in most action heavy touchscreen games and really highlights why this play style is better suited to smaller, simpler experiences. Thankfully the analogue sticks on the Vita make the exploration straightforward. As with all games of this style, you unlock abilities as you progress that will allow you to access previously blocked off areas – players willing to spend time exploring will be rewarded with expansions to health bars and other secrets that will help with later fights.
The gradually unlocking abilities also lend another interesting angle to the game. While in combat, successful swipes will gradually build up a “Focus Meter” if this meter is full when you land the killing blow to an enemy, time will stand still for a few seconds, and the game takes a dip into Dead Space territory, allowing you to dismember your opponents. It sounds gruesome and it is, especially when juxtaposed with the games cartoon presentation. Once hacked off, severed limbs can be gathered up and converted to upgrades for your abilities, from extra attack strength, to the ability to convert outgoing damage into health. It adds another layer of tactics and, when some rare enemies are hidden away, it’s another reason to go exploring in the desolate, depressing world of Severed.
Yes, this is not a happy game. Where Guacamelee had an upbeat, triumphant tone for a lot of its story, Severed is an incredibly grim tale indeed. The world feels permanently oppressive, from the deformed, eldritch enemies you’ll face to the despair inducing story twists, it’s a tough tale but there is enough to it that you’ll want to see it through to the end hoping that Sasha makes it through this nightmare and can somehow undo the pain she’s been caused.
Severed is a game unique to the Vita which mostly succeeds in showing off the platforms strengths but is ultimately let down by its weaknesses in the touchscreen based combat. It’s certainly not a system seller but if you still have your Vita, Severed is worth a purchase.