It had been a while since we booted up the PS Vita. In fact we had to set the time and date on the unit, it had been that long. It's not that we don't still like Sony's handheld, it's just that we've sort of moved on. And it's not that there aren't any new games coming, it's just our attention is elsewhere.
But every format deserves its swan song. That last great exclusive that revives it for just a brief moment in the eyes of its fans. And maybe that game is Drinkbox Studios' Severed.
At its core this is a dungeon crawler that features touch-based battles much like Infinity Blade. It takes place in some sort of netherworld or alternate reality, where the protagonist, a girl, has lost her arm and needs to find missing members of her family (a brother, a father, and a mother), between her and them are labyrinthine dungeons, monsters, and boss encounters. But this isn't your traditional story about saving your family, it's a game that's ultimately about dealing with loss and letting go of what you cannot change. We won't go into more detail than that, but the story, which is told with simple means and leaves much of the interpretation up to the player is one that really stands out from the crowd.
We mentioned Infinity Blade and that's a good starting point to describe the combat. You will encounter monsters with various patterns to them on how they attack and how you can attack them. After a while they'll also come with various buffs or debuffs and what is most unique here is that they can come from all directions, which means you'll have to switch between them to make sure you're not taking damage from behind while you're trying to dish out damage of your own.
The system is brilliant, very engaging, and rarely did combat feel like transport and something you just had to progress through to reach the next room or item. At several points in the game you're faced with a new sort of challenge, be it a new type of monster, more monsters than before, a new mix of monsters, or a particularly difficult buff (magic defence or speed comes to mind), and at this point you're forced to re-evaluate your tactics and approach the encounter like a puzzle you need to solve. Swiping across the screen very quickly will help you progress, but in order to be successful you need to figure out the best order in which to take out the enemies and which ones you merely focus on, trying to cancel their attacks initially. The controls are precise, but as always with touch-based controls, it can sometimes frustrate and your fingers will feel the burn of frantic swiping, and when frantically swiping you do run the risk of accidentally shifting to the enemy to the left or right, which is typically rather devastating.
The game is very forgiving in that if you die you'll respawn just prior to where you fell, so there's never any real frustration involved when figuring out the encounters. It may sound like the game is too forgiving, but it feels more like the designers decided to not punish the player for failure. There's still challenges here, you just don't have to retread the same corridors over and over.
That said, there is a certain degree of backtracking involved if you want to unlock all the secrets (and there are lots of them) as you'll gain access to new areas as you gain new abilities. The game also features a brilliant loot system and ability tree. As you face enemies you build up a combo meter, once it is full you will unlock the ability to cut limbs off of your defeated enemies as they go down. Wings, tentacles, eyes, hands... They're all used to unlock and upgrade your abilities. You also find giblets that can be transmuted (pro tip: unlock the transmute ability as soon as you can) into various limbs to help you upgrade abilities quicker. The game is very finely balanced, perhaps thanks to enemies not respawning, so if you're struggling with a certain encounter it may just be a matter of finding some giblets to transmute in order to unlock a more powerful spell or increase your damage to be able to make it through. Finding heart pieces and brain pieces will increase your health and mana bars respectively.
Our trek through the world of Severed lasted around nine hours according to the save file, and that included going back for secrets and unlocks to further our chances against the final boss (one particular ability upgrade - not having your charged attack cancelled by damage - was key). It felt like the right sort of length as there is no filler here and it feels like new mechanics, enemies, and abilities appear steadily so it never feels like a grind.
Severed offers an art-style that may not appeal to everyone, but if you enjoyed what Drinkbox has done in the past this game is along the same lines. It has a colourful and clean aesthetic. It's not what you'd typically see in a dungeon crawler, but it is easily readable and therefore it's a great fit with a game where you'll be swiping the screen frantically from time to time.
We mentioned that this is a dungeon crawl and you will be exploring lots of nooks and crannies in the large connected locations in game. It should be said that it is all very accessible, and perhaps even glaringly so, as a secret can be marked on your mini-map with a great big green question mark until you figure it out. It's not the most subtle game design and it does take away some of the sense of discovery and exploration. That said, it is still a challenge to collect all the secrets and reach the coveted trophy that requires 100% of every area explored.
While Severed may not be the sort of game that's worth cutting off an arm or a leg over, it certainly scratched our dungeon delving itch in a new and rather unique way.