By: Brian Gunn
Severed is the latest title from Drinkbox Studios, an indie darling known for games like Guacamelee and Mutant Blobs Attack. It’s also notable for being what might end up as the last notable exclusive for the PlayStation Vita from a western developer. Thankfully, Severed ends up being a fairly interesting swan song.
Severed is an almost entirely touch-based game, something of a rarity on dedicated gaming handhelds. While general movement in the dungeons is controlled by the d-pad, combat will require players to slice and dice enemies with their fingers. Eventually elements like blocking attacks and triggering power ups are introduced, and it can become quite hectic.
For the most part the translation of swipes to sword slices is surprisingly accurate, though there were a few moments of frustration to be had. In particular when activating the magic attacks, where I’d hit the icon and go back to swiping and see the game had not registered the magic attack correctly.
Severed features an art style similar to its predecessor Guacamelee, though it leans less heavily on the cartoonish side than that game had. It’s fairly unique and striking, and the game’s mythology and monsters are ones not often seen in video games.
In terms of level design, the dungeons are sometimes too similar and bland, though there are a few highlights like the Worm tunnels that have you navigating inside a large creature trying to digest you.
Sound design is a solid if unspectacular affair. There are a few music tracks, though the only one that sticks out is the general battle theme because it gets repeated a hundred times. Non-battle moments typically favor silence to emphasize the desolation of the areas you’re in.
The slashing of your general attacks is satisfying, and enemies have a handful of helpful audio cues for their attacks, though I found myself relying more on the cooldown icons on their portraits than I did the audio telegraphs.
Sasha is a young warrior in training when her family is brutally cut down and she loses an arm. A mysterious entity offers a chance at a new life with them provided she can recover their bodies from the underworld. From that point on the story remains mostly vague, with only a few speaking characters that like to talk in riddles. It ends up telling a fairly somber tale with some surprisingly dark moments.
In order to retrieve their bodies, Sasha will have to delve into many dungeons. While the action is frantic and flailing, the level design and navigation is taken from dungeon RPG series like Etrian Odyssey and Might & Magic. Dungeons are laid out on grids and are often wonderfully complex. There are all sorts of switches to hit and secrets to find as you explore.
Combat is typically initiated when encountering a tile that has a white flame icon, from which several monster burst forth. At this point movement is not allowed, which is probably an element that would have overcomplicated things.
At the start of the game, players simply need to slash away at obvious weak points. Eventually you’ll get a charge attack and spells that stun enemies for a long while, though foes will counter with their own improvements.
They’ll gain buffs that boost speed or block your magic, or gain hard shells that will block normal attack. Soon enough combat becomes an elaborate dance of switching between enemies as they charge up and stealing their buffs or disabling them temporarily.
When defeating an enemy you’ll get a chance to sever their body parts. The time is very limited and these parts are a precious resource, acting as currency for the game’s leveling systems. While there are a few standout skills in the tree, like the blind spell also blinding every enemy for a shorter duration, most of it is of the minor stat improvement category, like getting slightly healed when you do damage.
Still, the tree is vital overall, and it probably brings up one of the bigger issues with the title in that these body parts are limited by there being no random encounters. Players can easily, especially at the beginning of the game, be lacking these resources as they learn the pattern, or end up in an area where not many enemies drop their needed items. Still, there’s an alternate resource that can be turned into other body parts, allowing players to fill in the gaps, but it can be fairly expensive to use.
Enemy design is well done, with many fights throwing you between various different gimmicks. Some enemies just charge and emit an attack, while others directly melee Sasha. Battles often end up with the player attempting to balance keeping those charging enemies low and bouncing back to the melee attackers to block their strikes.
There are only a few bosses in the game, which is a shame as the encounters are quite good, and I would have welcomed more. The title is also on the short side, but it is well paced and not stretching things out prevents the touch controls from wearing out their welcome.
Severed is a stellar game that’s worth a look, even if you’ve doubted the touch controls. The atmosphere of the underworld and oodles of secrets and power-ups to find give the game depth outside of the combat. With Severed, Drinkbox Studios may have justified some elements of the Vita that never got much use, even if it’s a bit late in the life cycle.