Review: Severed

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Wait a minute. There’s a brand new, all original, and exclusive game out for the PlayStation Vita today? What year is this? 2012? Nope, it’s still 2016. I guess miracles do happen!

The latest gem from the makers of Guacamelee and the Tales From Space series is a touch-screen-slashing dungeon crawl about a young girl named Sasha, who has lost not only her arm (it’s been severed clean off, hence the title) but also her brother, father, and mother. The story doesn’t shove a whole lot of exposition down your throat, but gives just enough plot and world building to grab and hold your attention for the roughly half a dozen hours it takes to complete.

Assuming control of the one-armed she-warrior, you must explore a bizarre and psychedelic nightmare underworld in order to find the bodies of her deceased family members. DrinkBox Studios games always have a distinct visual identity, but Severed really pushes the envelope for truly weird and stylized art and character design. The world is full of vibrant color, but the shades and hues all skew to the darker end of the color spectrum to set a rich, dreary atmosphere without the heavy handed use of drab colors and dim lighting. This funky, freaky world is made all the more foreboding and mysterious by a fantastic score.

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Navigating the game world is very much akin to a classic first-person RPG, in which you move one room at a time through a series of sprawling, multi-floored environments, engaging with monsters, solving simple door and switch puzzles, and filling out the full scope of the map as you go. There’s even a touch of Metroid-like design as far as discovering new abilities to open up blocked passages and hidden rooms in previously visited areas, which mainly comes into play at the end if you decide to go for 100% completion by backtracking through every map to discover all secrets. (FYI: The map does keep track of exploration percentage and the number of secrets in each location.) Fortunately, the game saves a point of no return before the final boss, so once you beat it the first time you can reload your save and continue working toward the coveted Platinum trophy, which should extend your play time by another hour or two. I finished within six hours, but needed between seven and eight to achieve 100% and the Platinum.

So no, the game isn’t massive in scale, but it is definitely right-sized for the story being told and the mechanics at play. I guess my only beef is with the fact that, beyond getting the Platinum, there really is no greater narrative payoff for finishing the game at 100% (which involves finding hidden family mementos) versus just beating it normally. As I finished the first time and went back to find everything I previously missed, I was quietly hoping for a more significant “true ending” or something to that effect, but as far as I could tell the only differences were cosmetic.

Severed‘s main draw is its touch-based combat system. Upon encountering a glowing spirit designating the location of a creature, the game loads into a sort of active time battle against anywhere from one to four enemies at a time. Each target is denoted by a circular icon at the bottom of the screen, which is filled with red to display their health pools, while a radial meter fills with yellow to indicate when it’s an enemy’s turn to attack. Some enemy’s turn meter fills in at a constant, steady rate that can be knocked back by attacking them, while others wait around for a sudden, uninterruptible turn order or react with a quick counterattack if you focus on them with a lot of damage at one time. Only one enemy is seen on screen at a given time, so you have to watch the meters carefully and quickly rotate your attention between targets as the battle unfolds, either by tapping an icon to pinpoint a specific enemy or using the control stick to cycle in either direction.

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Whether it’s attacking, defending, or deploying a special attack, every action is triggered by a tap or swipe on the Vita touchscreen. You can do small, short swipes for fast attacks with minimal damage, or you can trace broad finger strokes for more damaging long slashes. On defense, an enemy will briefly telegraph its attack for you to attempt to counter with a parrying swipe to deflect the damage. A charge attack (touch, hold to charge, then swipe) also becomes available later on in the game, which becomes a must for destroying armor plating and protective barriers. Getting blocked by an enemy’s defenses drops your focus (more on that in a sec) and can cause their turn timer to fill quicker.

The touch interface and mechanics are actually very simple and easy to learn, but steadily build upon themselves through the acquisition of different abilities and, of course, the introduction of more challenging enemy types and bosses. Early on, you only have to deal with, say, four-armed dudes that can attack from one of four angles, and block to one side while leaving the other side vulnerable to swipe damage. As the game progresses, the enemy attack patterns and the means to get at their weak points becomes increasingly complex. Some enemies even morph into alternate forms after taking a certain amount of damage, altering how they need to be attacked and defended. Then buffing and de-buffing comes into play for a whole new twist on things. Every time the gameplay feels like it is verging on repetition, some new enemy appears that forces you to adjust your battle plan. For me, the game being five to six hours long is a positive rather than a negative, as I don’t think the gameplay mechanics would hold up as well for a longer duration than that.

In addition to the fact that the game’s heroine is one arm shy of a bear hug, the game gets its title from its limb-severing upgrade system. Successfully landing attacks in combat builds up a focus bar, and any creature killed while at maximum focus triggers a “Sever Time” finishing move during which you have merely seconds to follow on-screen guide marks in order to dismember the slain beast’s appendages. Acquiring a massive stockpile of assorted body parts is crucial for survival as they serve as the primary resource for unlocking stat bonuses and upgraded abilities found in the game’s three skill trees. Different body parts have different values. Relating the values to the US dollar currency, hands are like ones, wings are fives, eyeballs are fifties, and jaws are hundreds. Naturally, more advanced branches of the skill tree require the rarer, more valuable creature bits and pieces.

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The battles present a fun, frantic challenge that’s a mix of whatever you want to call the equivalent of button mashing on a touch screen (maybe swipe spamming?) with more surgical striking, as well as the quick thinking that’s needed to react to the shifting dynamics of enemy turn orders and patterns. And with the dismemberment system, taking a skillful approach is rewarded with the means to more quickly obtain upgrades. On the downside, at times the difficulty can spike drastically for one particular battle of seemingly no greater importance than any other battle in the surrounding rooms. Some encounters almost seem impossible until you die and retry a few times to figure out a pattern that will prevent multiple targets from having their turn orders pop all at the same time. But at least the game auto-saves at regular intervals, so there’s never a situation of having to make up for a lot of lost progress.

I think the highest compliment I can pay to Severed is that it truly feels like a game that was tailor made for the Vita. Now I wouldn’t be shocked if down the line DrinkBox decides to adapt the game for other platforms (mouse and keyboard on a PC, the Wii U GamePad, and the PS4’s track pad should be able to accommodate the controls with some tweaking), but for the here and now the only place to enjoy this game is on Sony’s underutilized handheld. Throw an old school first-person dungeon crawler into a blender with a splash of Fruit Ninja, a dash of Metroidvania, a pinch of Guacamelee for the right color, and a heaping pile of dismembered body parts. Those ingredients wouldn’t make for a very good smoothie, but they do mix well for a pretty damn tasty video game in Severed.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Fun and challenging touch-based combat
+ Severing creature parts in slow-mo for upgrades
+ Classic first-person dungeon crawl exploration
+ Colorfully bizarre and nightmarish art style

Cons:
– Some occasionally frustrating difficulty spikes
– No greater story payoff for achieving 100% completion

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Publisher: DrinkBox Studios
Developer: DrinkBox Studios
Release Date: 4/26/2016
Genre: Action/RPG
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by developer

Buy From: PlayStation Store

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!