Sundered (PS4)

Dark Souls’ adversity ruined numerous videogames. Where accessibility and ease of use were beginning to fit in as normal, Dark Souls brought with it an urgent, even repugnant need for hardcore trappings. “Git gud,” says the internet meme. Stop wasting a player’s time, says the critic – and Sundered wastes an extraordinary amount of time.

Billed as 15 hours, it’s likely eight of those involve retracing steps after another death. Most game overs come after unavoidable and cruel circumstances – within randomized maps too, because that’s popularized.

How many won’t play Sundered because of its crushing, near-sighted harshness? How many won’t finish it because of the same? As much lore is punched into Dark Souls, so few actually see it through. So it will be with Sundered too.

There’s a tragedy in this art. Sundered’s Bashki-influenced, hand-drawn animation is an achievement deserving of celebration. The mixture of organic life and sci-fi machinery (often with a green-ish/blue tint reminiscent of the brilliant Flashback) glistens with creativity.

The setting involves a long-past religious war, asking the accidental heroine Eshe to stay pure or corrupt herself for power. The latter choice has cost. Giving in to a monstrous god-like voice in the ether and relishing the chance to see your powers expand means growing ever darker. Sundered’s strike at belief – that obeying a higher power leads to degeneracy – leaves formidable closure on this passing narrative.

Finding Sundered’s story means enduring through sheer will. Sundered regularly calls in a flood of fire-bombing robots and electrified tentacle monsters en masse. Later come additional creatures, equally vigorous in their offense. Survival is luck. Traveling through this midway between purgatory and hell, finding items, and accessing new areas means hacking through insurmountable odds. A chunk of enemy attacks happen off screen, because Sundered ingrains itself into an unmovable part of videogame culture.

It’s an odd regression back into the quarter-hungry arcades. But those decorated cabinets that filled darkened teenage hangouts ran 20-minutes. Their escapist quality rarely overstayed. Today, both independent and studio-published games drone on, including Sundered, washing away the gorgeous art in a blob of repetitious wandering.

This is less about “git gud” than it is holding onto a now archaic design philosophy. Difficulty and value once intersected. With the advent of the Wii and the terrifying proposition of grandmothers playing and enjoying a videogame, a portion of the audience needed something to prove their videogame worth. Developers provided, and in turn, limited the medium’s lasting viability, trapping their stories under the will of personal reflexes.

Were it one or two games, Sundered wouldn’t stand out. Yet where Souls and its many third-person contemporaries reside, so too come the influx of games rushing to capitalize on the randomization and abused term “rogue.” It’s bothered first-person shooters like Strafe and now otherwise competent 2D platform adventures like Sundered.


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