What’s a developer to do after it’s mastered the art of the 2D platformer and released one of the best games ever made for a PlayStation platform? Prevailing logic says “sequel, and fast!,” but Severed, DrinkBox Studios’ followup to Guacamelee, is anything but a cash-in on previous successes. A Vita-exclusive, first-person dungeon crawler with touch-based combat, Severed is a great fit for Sony’s neglected handheld, and though the game itself feels slight compared to the studio’s previous releases, the combination of its gorgeous, otherworldly art and a sparsely told but deeply felt story makes it a great reason to give your Vita the old dust-off-and-update treatment.
Severed starts with a tragedy: our heroine Sasha, survivor of a massacre that claimed her right arm—as well as the lives of her mother, father, and brother —sets out on a quest to retrieve the corpses of her family from the demon dragon who murdered and absconded with them. Sasha herself may have been killed as well—she’s human, but the world around her is populated by unspeakable grotesqueries—but what’s really going on is left open for players to interpret. As someone who still dreams about saving his mom from a different kind of dragon some 13 years after her death, Severed speaks to me differently than it probably will to you… though even after finishing the game twice at this point, I’m still not really clear on everything that happened over the course of Sasha’s journey.
Though I’ve long been a fan of JRPGs, the first-person, dungeon-crawling variety have never really been my thing. For me, grid-based movement has always contributed to a disconnect between player and game world that’s been very difficult to get over. Severed solves this problem, in part, by offering 360 degrees of horizontal movement so that players can appreciate the meticulous set dressing on each tile of the game’s map. From the ramshackle ruins of an old house to the glittering crystal caves beneath a mountain ghost town, each grid has a paper-like sense of unreality that makes exploring the world feel sort of like walking through a shoebox diorama. It also helps that DrinkBox has carried one aspect of their previous game’s design over to Severed: the progressively expanding ability system that lets you access previously unreachable areas. Exploration does ultimately boil down to moving one-by-one across an interconnected series of tiles, but each area is unique, interesting to look at, and there’s plenty to discover along the way, whether it’s a new ability, a health or magic upgrade, or a creepy character who may or may not want to slice you open and eat your gizzard. The world of Severed can sometimes feel empty, but when it springs to life, it enhances the mystery at the heart of the tale.
Where Severed really pulls ahead of other first-person dungeon crawlers is in its awesome touch-based combat. It’s a mix of Fruit Ninja (Swipeswipeswipe!) and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Parry! Block! Find a weakness! Go in for the kill!), and while the concept should be instantly understandable to anyone who’s ever touched a smartphone, it’s far more difficult to master than you might expect. Learning each enemy’s tells and attacking in exactly the right spot at just the right moment is only half the battle: Severed frequently piles 2, 3, even 4 enemies onto the player at once, making the real challenge figuring out who to face when, who to attack cautiously or go to town on, and when to allow yourself to take damage so you can focus on avoiding stronger attacks from more deadly enemies.
Combat in Severed is strategic, often difficult, and frequently rewarding, but it’s also so fast-paced—particularly in those late-game areas that allow virtually no margin for error—that I actually burned the tip of my sword finger after rubbing my Vita’s screen so fast. Successfully battling through some of the game’s more difficult challenges has been among the most rewarding game experiences I’ve had so far this year, but I’m not going to pretend to enjoy the fresh blister on my fingertip that’s rubbing against my keyboard while I type this review. If you have soft skin on your hands like I do, do yourself a favor and take a break from Severed every once in awhile.
Speaking of damaged digits: Severed’s upgrade system is based on Sasha’s bizarre (perhaps vengeful) penchant for cutting off the limbs of monsters when she defeats them. Severed limbs, jaws, livers, etc., act as a form of currency with which players can enhance skills along three separate skill trees. Players can also collect giblets hidden in pots throughout the world, which can be converted into the larger body parts needed for each upgrade. You’ll need to build up a focus meter to be able to actually collect body parts from fallen foes, and you might not be quick enough to dismember your enemies completely, which can feel like a waste when several parts go uncollected. Still, there should be enough parts scattered throughout the game world to upgrade every single one of Sasha’s skills, and for those who are desperate to collect each and every upgrade but who aren’t particularly great with a sword, there’s a specific location on the map with an endlessly spawning assortment of baddies to defeat and body parts to collect.
Severed may not be my favorite DrinkBox Studios game, but it’s still a gorgeous, atmospheric adventure built on engaging combat and a deeply thoughtful tale about grief and the purpose of revenge. There’s also plenty of reason to keep playing after you finish it a first time, whether it’s to collect all the upgrades you missed previously, or to get a better understanding of Sasha’s world through optional story segments or ending-enhancing items that are hidden away for true explorers to find. Whether or not it makes sense as a Vita exclusive is another story entirely: the Vita’s been dead for years, while the userbase for today’s much more powerful tablets and smartphones (where this game would also be a great fit) continues to grow. Still, if you’ve been looking for a reason to exhume Sony’s neglected handheld from its shallow grave, you won’t find a game more suited to the system’s strengths or unaffected by its aging innards. Just don’t burn yourself while playing.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Severed is based on final review code provided to us by DrinkBox Studios. The game launches on Tuesday, April 26th, 2016.