When I first booted up Severed, I came in with a knowledge only of Drinkbox Studios’ previous game, Guacamelee. That previous taco-laden project took the structure of a Metroidvania-type adventure and mixed it with Day of the Dead themes and an angular art style that all came together to result in one of my favorite games of that year. As it turns out, that knowledge alone was not enough to adequately prepare me for that lay waiting in the fuchsia, veiny trees of Severed.
The setup for Severed is simply thus: you play as a young woman whose home has been destroyed, your family taken, and all sense of reality dashed to the wind. Although the house is indeed your own, you are approached by a mysterious figure that appears to be a bunch of blood vessels wearing a cape (yes, I know), who gives you a sword and tells you that you are somewhere you most certainly not be, but can be reunited with your family. From there, it’s time to hack and slash down every creature that stands in your way.
Those familiar with the mixed bag of blades that was Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword will find themselves in an oddly similar game here. Severed uses the touch screen for everything but the act of walking, and to great effect. That means that slashes with your weirdly organic sword can come at whatever angle you swipe with. Because of this, enemies are designed with a philosophy very much like what made Skyward Sword unique. Some have to be slashed at certain directions, and others need to be blocked from just the right angle. It’s a unique system that nothing else with a touch screen has quiet managed to pull off before. It’s like if your choices on Tinder involved killing golems.
It also helps that Severed has phenomenal art direction and enemy design. The game’s style is in some ways similar to Guacamelee in terms of the angular nature of characters and environments; sharp edges everywhere. Be careful not to ct yourself. Where it diverges is in what the art style is being used to depict. Severed’s visual style still draws some cues from real-world culture, with some distinct vibes of Aztec, Inca and Mayan architecture. At the same time, though, it also has a bit more going for it that transcends the real-world. Everything in Severed exists in a dual-state of presentation; organic and grotesquely non-organic, all at once.
In battle, after landing enough slashes in a row, the game will enter “focus mode,” where the player can slice a foe’s body parts off, for use in weapon and stat upgrades. Arms, wings, lungs, eyes; you name it, you can hack it off like picking fruit from a tree. A gore tree. I’m not sure where those grow, but you get the idea. There are even parts of boss enemies that your character will end up wearing once her foes have been slain. There’s a whole bunch of temples built either by or for crows, an abandoned human village full of portals, and more stuff that feels very intentionally out-of-place. That sounds like it could be a detriment, but it really isn’t. The world of Severed feels like someplace that’s alive, but that maybe shouldn’t be allowed to keep living, for the sake of all who dwell within.
Severed is noteworthy because it succeeds at what not many games have attempted to be before; a first-person Metroidvania game. The entire map is laid out like a series of “rooms,” moving about mazelike through forests, dungeons, and caves. Our hero gains some new abilities from the body parts of the beasts she slays; at one point, her sword develops an actual human spine! Oh good. Now it can have perfect posture. New abilities will give access to new areas, meaning eventual acquisition of more hearts (which are anatomically correct, of course) and brains (ditto). Its world isn’t the most horrifyingly complex thing in the world, but as it’s basically the first game of its specific type, it doesn’t need to be. It functions as far more than just a proof-of-concept, that’s for sure.
Severed is a somewhat tricky game to evaluate, because one of its great strengths eventually becomes one of its great flaws. As precision-reliant as it is, Severed isn’t afraid to up its difficulty to Vita-hurling levels. While the challenge is nothing if not a joy whose swiping-fingers contain the precision, it can just as easily be hell on earth for those unprepared. Monsters will gain buffs like crazy in the game’s third act, and although the player gains a limited but useful ability to absorb a buff (as well as the power to stun a foe), it can be easy to feel penned in. Battles are staged so that the player will only be facing one monster at any time. Meters are always hanging around the bottom of the screen, showing who’s about to attack, but it can be easy to get overwhelmed when dealing with four abominable mouth-birds at once. Damn those mouth-birds.
Severed is most likely one of the final truly excellent original experiences available on the Playstation Vita. It presents itself as this deceptively-simplistic thing that expands on itself well for a game of its size, which could best be described as “Vita-sized.” It’s oddly satisfying seeing an idea as specific as “cutting things thoroughly in 360 degrees” emerge again, let alone like this. Its world is compact, but pulls players in through its own pulsating strangeness. Yes, severed kidneys and wings and everything.
Final verdict: 4 / 5
Available on: Playstation Vita (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Drinkbox Studios ; Developer: Drinkbox Studios ; Players: 1 ; Released: April 26, 2016 ; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: $14.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a Playstation Vita review code provided by Drinkbox STudios.