This review is by Skylar V. Lalonde.
Thunder Lotus is my favorite indie game studio, period. In the past five years, they've created three amazing games, each brimming with personality and offering more content than the last. This year's release, Spiritfarer, made an appearance at the Game Awards as a nominee for Best Indie Game, which was almost enough to suck me back into that particular heart-wrenching saga. Alas, my emotions were not quite ready to be whacked with that particular mallet again. So I took the suggestion a different direction, and plunged back into the shifting caverns of Thunder Lotus's second title: Sundered.
Sundered is an eldritch horror Metroidvania that follows a woman named Eshe as she fights her way through the underground ruins of an ancient civilization, following the guidance of an entity calling itself the Shining Trapezohedron. The Trapezohedron gradually explains how the civilization, known as the Eschaton, was brought to ruin by the Valkyries, human scientists attempting to restore the world to prosperity. Before the Eschaton could open a portal to summon their god Nyarlathotep, war consumed them, and both sides were lost to time. Dragged into the ruins by dark forces, Eshe must fight her way past corrupted Valkyrie sentinels and twisted Eschaton devotees in order to escape and return home.
Thunder Lotus delivers majorly on Sundered in all its usual ways. The hand-drawn art and animations create wonderful visual contrasts: Eshe's fluid, purposeful motions against the writhing and clanking of the horrors she faces, the artificial order of Valkyrie construction against the organic shapes of the Eschaton. Subtle shifts in color communicate enemy difficulty, and bright glows draw the player's attention to important objects. The soundtrack is full of somber, isolated melodies and echoey drones, creating an uneasy atmosphere easily pierced by the terrible gong to signal an incoming horde. An emphasis on high and low pitches, squeaky violin trills and low rumbles, serves as a constant reminder that danger lurks around every corner. Boss fights crank up the energy as you leap and dodge to reach weak points, and the music escalates with it; if horror movie characters picked up a sword and fought back against the monster, this is what it would sound like. Thunder Lotus tops it all off with a unique speakable cipher, using strange letter clusters and sounds based on German and Old English in order to resemble an alien language without having to truly create one. The cipher is spoken by the Trapezohedron and used in area title cards, similar to how the narrator in their first game Jotun speaks exclusively Icelandic, to create a wonderful level of immersion.
What sets Sundered apart from other Metroidvanias isn't just its backdrop, but how it uses it. It incorporates several elements not commonly seen in Metroidvanias, like a skill tree for constant progression, a perk loadout to cover weaknesses or focus on a certain playstyle, and a map with constantly changing subareas to keep the player on their toes, all justified with in-game constructs like the Trapezohedron and the forces keeping Eshe trapped. The most interesting and unique mechanic by far, though, is the the game's tagline: Resist or Embrace. Killing minibosses awards Elder Shards, and combining three shards or killing a boss gives you an Elder Sign. Elder Signs have two uses: you can Resist the Trapezohedron's urgings by taking them to the incinerator, where they become currency to let you progress faster on the skill tree—or you can Embrace its power and take it to an ability shrine, corrupting that ability to unlock an additional, related one. Since corrupting is a choice, none of the corrupted abilities are necessary for progression, but they open up new options that make progression easier. Depending on your choices, the final boss of the game changes, as does the ending cutscene. The decision to resist or embrace is permanent (within a save file, anyway), and your choices really do affect the game's narrative.
Alright, you say, it's got great art, great music, interesting mechanics, and a cool spin on its genre. So what; you could just play Hades or something, right? I mean, yeah, but I haven't even mentioned the mobility. As a Metroidvania, the game centers around unlocking new abilities and movement options to surpass obstacles and reach new areas. Eshe starts out with only the basic melee weapon (and a dodge roll, naturally), but that on its own has a surprising amount of versatility. Attacking five times in a row unleashes a heavy attack, dealing more damage but requiring an extra half second before your next slash. Attacking in the air suspends you there until the fifth attack ends your streak. The double jump combos incredibly with this: hitting something in the air refreshes your double jump, meaning that you can not only keep your height but gain more indefinitely as long as you have something to hit. Not everything has quite as much synergy as those two, but every upgrade changes not only the way you fight but often the way you move around the map. By the end, you're practically flying around the Holy City of the Eschaton, air-dashing and grappling and preserving momentum to cross huge gaps in seconds and reach literal new heights. Even better, collecting Elder Signs and using them to corrupt one of your abilities unlocks even MORE options: a glide, stationary wall clings, a vertical air dash, on and on. I have never had as much fun maneuvering in a game as I did in the third boss fight; I could do the whole thing without touching the ground once.
Sundered is very open about drawing its inspiration from Lovecraft and the cosmic horror genre he pioneered. The characters of the Shining Trapezohedron and Nyarlathotep are both ripped directly from his short story "The Haunter of the Dark," only slightly adapted to fit the setting of the game. Elder Signs and the idea of "corrupting" your body to gain new abilities are also very Lovecraftian, as are the writhing tentacles of Eschaton enemies; but beyond plot elements and set dressing, the experience has relatively little in common with the cosmic horror genre, or horror at all. Eshe is far too capable to be frightened by the monsters she faces—killed, yes, but she goes down fighting—and no matter how much she corrupts herself, her mind remains intact, a big no-no for Lovecraft. The game paints itself with the aesthetics of horror, full of unsettling music and twisted ex-humans, but in practice it still plays like a Metroidvania. The player, removed from stakes or jumpscares, may become attached to Eshe and her quest, but when death is only the beginning (loading screen tip!), even stumbling upon incredibly powerful enemies or messing up your dodge in a boss fight isn't much more than a minor setback. Personally, I like that Sundered cosplays horror more than it embodies it; I don't do well with that particular genre, so I appreciate having the aesthetics while still being able to enjoy the content. I suppose in this way it could act as a baby-steps gateway into horror appreciation; I certainly don't plan to go down that road, so it's probably not going to convert you if that's not your jam.
ADHD is already dragging my attention to other horizons, but in a lot of ways, Sundered is sort of the perfect game for me. The ~10-hour playtime fits perfectly with my long-term attention span; the artistic direction is Thunder Lotus, I mean, amazing; the gameplay feels incredible; the eldritch theme exposes me to the neat aspects horror without the scary ones. I listened to the soundtrack on repeat to keep me in the mood while writing this piece, and I might start doing that more frequently. Eventually, I'm going to come back to finish the final route I haven't yet completed and see for myself the last way Eshe's story can end. For now, it goes back on the shelf, having filled another week or so with challenging fights, "a-ha" moments, and really, really good mobility.
experience: 26 hours, 2 playthroughs, 2/3 endings.
score: 7/7 Elder Signs