Severed is the latest step in the maturation of indie developers DrinkBox Studios. In 2013 I called Guacamelee! “both fun and funny”, noting the common DNA found in all of their work. Severed, the studio’s fourth title, doesn’t fit that description. It’s fun, but it is most certainly not funny. Severed is dark, ambiguous and incredibly intimate; it is the new benchmark for all future DrinkBox games.
The story of Severed is simple: the protagonist, Sasha, must track down her brother, mother and father. We don’t know what’s happened to them or why, just that they’ve been taken to three corners of Severed‘s nightmarish world. A few NPCs will lend some context and flavor to Sasha’s journey, but, the story and world are largely open to interpretation.
“Sasha’s determination is conveyed through great character design”Sasha is both memorable and relatable. Her motives are clear and her task unenviable, but the determination she has to reunite her family is conveyed through great character design. We spend the entire game looking through Sasha’s eyes, catching glimpses of her in mirrors and on the skills’ screen. Initially all we see is a battered, one-armed girl. Later, we see a woman who’ll stop at nothing to see her family together once again: the arc is as much the player’s as it is Sasha’s.
Severed‘s harsh world is backed up by challenging touch-based combat. Sword swipes and magic are triggered via stylus swipes and taps on the 3DS’ touchscreen. Each unique enemy has its own routines and weak points that players must learn to exploit. Generally combat is limited to a maximum of four enemies per encounter, placing one in each of the four cardinal directions. The duality of the setup is clever, as it causes the stress of being surrounded, yet also affords the affinity of one-on-one dueling.
“Severed asks its players to play with their food before eating”The defining aspects of combat are the ‘Focus’ meter and the titular “severed” mechanic. Consecutive successful slashes against a single foe without being blocked builds focus. Once the meter is maxed out, each enemy can be dismembered after their health is depleted. The amputated parts can then be collected and used to strengthen Sasha’s various skills, but the interesting part of building focus is that Severed asks its players to play with their food before eating.
Most enemies can be dispatched of in a matter of seconds. However, killing Severed‘s monsters in the most efficient manner often yields too little focus to fill the meter. What ensues is an elegant implementation of risk versus reward, deciding to kill enemies quickly and thus be safer, or to prioritize enemies, deal damage and continue to build focus without delivering killing blows. The result is a mechanic that encourages thoughtful combat throughout, while spontaneously allowing players to dictate how difficult they want the current encounter to be.
The 3DS is actually the fourth platform Severed has appeared on, following iOS, Vita and WiiU. However, the combination of excellent stylus use and a second screen for easy dungeon navigation makes the 3DS the best fit.
Severed is at its weakest when that agency is stripped from the player. There are three ways that the game undermines its delicate, rewarding systems. First, there are a few isolated difficulty spikes, which ruin the otherwise great balance of combat and exploration. Second is the game’s allocation of body parts at the endgame. Immediately before the final boss there’s a room that will continually spawn enemies and vases (Severed‘s requisite destructable container), which somewhat weakens the idea that smart play is the only path to maxed-out skill trees. The third, and ultimately the one that bothered me the most, is a hidden item that gives you max focus at all times. Admittedly, this object is well-hidden and most players will likely miss it, but it causes combat to be a lot more mindless, as the primary goal (to attain focus) has already been achieved.
Balance issues aside, Severed is undoubtedly DrinkBox’s finest work to date. It’s an excellent title that beautifully illustrates the developers’ willingness to grow and experiment as game makers. Both stark and somber, Sasha’s story provides a striking juxtaposition to the studio’s previous work. It is an essential 3DS offering.