The first rule of this Fight Club is to definitely talk about Fight Club
Absolver is a game about martial arts in the purest sense. There are no specials or flashy moves or powered-up forms, just simple techniques based on real martial arts styles and how they flow into one another. Absolver is a game that knows exactly what it wants to be, and doesn’t try to be more than that.
Even the plot doesn’t try to tell you anything more than you need to know. After a simple character creation sequence, the player character is chosen to put on a mask, and gets transported to another world. From there, he is a prospect tasked with taking on various challenges and enemies to ultimately become the Absolver. What does this mean? I have honestly have no idea. But the point here is that it’s not really important how you get to the fighting, as long as you get to it. Absolver does not take the time to hold your hand, and expects you to learn the game yourself.
And that’s honestly alright, because the game shouldn’t have to take you very far before you delve into it’s intricate combat system. Deceptively simple, the entire combo system takes place within two buttons. One button pushes the combo further, while another allows you to interject a move anywhere within the combo. This is further complimented by a stance system, that completely changes the moveset depending on what direction you have your character facing, which can be changed at will. Adding one more wave of depth, you get the opportunity to choose between three different defensive styles, which subsequently allow you to block, dodge, or parry oncoming attacks.
A Battle of Fisticuffs and Wits
The heart of Absolver’s sophisticated combat system is the combat deck. Does anyone remember how the advertising for DONTNOD’s Remember Me featured this large, in-depth combo maker, only to be severely disappointed by how that played out in game? The combat deck system of this game is basically everything I wanted that to be. Players can modify exactly what moves are used in each stance. There are 180 moves in all, and you can choose three per stance.
Every move has different stats and properties, and uses stamina, which refreshes slowly as you fight. You might have a haymaker with a large wind-up that does a lot of damage and breaks a guard, or a quick sweep kick that hits low. Most of these moves will also end with your character in a different stance, allowing for the combo to continue on. A good point of comparison would be Clover Studios’ ill-fated God Hand, which offered a heavily customizable martial arts engine.
Planning this deck out is a challenge unto itself. If you load up with heavy-hitting moves, your opponent will weave jabs in between them. Load up on only quick moves, and your overall damage will be left wanting. Make the deck too predictable, and your opponent will dodge and parry every blow, leaving you wide open. A balanced deck is key to not getting your ass kicked when fighting.
On top of the combo deck, you also get a set of tension shards. These little rocks fly next to the player, and charge up as they take and dish out damage. From there, you can expend them for various uses, such as healing yourself, stunning the enemy, or producing a shockwave to knock enemies back. Also, using tension shards, you can summon weapons. There are two current types, wargloves and swords, and each gets its own combat deck.
Wax On, Wax Off
You don’t start with every move, however, and have to go about learning them. The first and primary way is by defending against that move. Whenever another prospect uses a certain move against you, if you block or use your defensive style against it, a little gauge will appear showing you how much of that move you’ve learned. Kind of like in real martial arts, the more you observe a move being used against you, the more likely you’ll be able to replicate it. However, you only learn this progress as long as you win the fight. Knowledge is only granted to the victor. On the other hand, high level players can start schools that can be joined. Doing so will give you their specific combat deck, and as you level through the school you will learn the moves to use for yourself.
This all comes together when you challenge another player online. While many fighters that flood the market are high-octane, Absolver is slow and methodical. It’s all about knowing when to counter and when to defend, and when to switch things up. Just going through the Combat Deck without switching around your stance doesn’t work. Eventually the enemy knows what order the attacks are coming in, and knows when they can get in. It’s a constant dance of anticipation around your opponent. I fought players that had decks that rapidly transitioned between fast and slow attacks, and others whose entire deck had a slow tempo, which threw off my rhythm.
There are other customizable options in place here besides the combat system, as well. Dozens of pieces of equipment can be used to customize your character, and they increase your defense in exchange for speed. There is also an attribute system to plant points as you level up, allowing you to create different character builds.
Welcome to the Forbidden Kingdom
The game is built around this sharp, minimalistic style which puts less emphasis on small details and more just straight onto the combat. The animation is where the game shines, I was skeptic on how transitions between certain moves would look, but it’s always seamless.
The world is, for all intents and purposes, an open setting that you can explore freely. Albeit very small, each area has a distinct look to it that separates it from the last, be it a broken-down harbor or a large forest treehouse. You can probably traverse from one side to the other in a couple of minutes. Don’t be fooled, though. The layout of these areas is akin to an Escher print. Without any form of mini-map, you’re likely to get lost wandering in circles until you finally stumble upon the way out. My friend and I once spent hours inconceivably lost. Fear not, however! The game’s online multiplayer is set up so that other players drop in and out of different map areas. You can choose to join up with them, or fight them at any given time.
Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting
The multiplayer was, however, not seamless at the start. Launch day was plagued with connection errors and downed servers, along with Australia not even having servers up until the day after everyone else. That said, I want to praise the team in how they handled these issues. Through various social media sites, they kept in constant contact with players, and pushed out patch after patch rapidly to solve the issue. By the end of the week, besides the one or two laggy matches, the problem was seemingly fixed.
If I have to make a single complaint, it’s that the entire Combat Deck system does not really explain anything to you, and it can kind of hard to handle at first. But I can’t really find any critiques beyond that.
Absolver is exactly what it sets out to be. If they added any more concepts into it, it might’ve been too much. But they don’t overcomplicate it. It’s a fighting game, pure and simple, it does something almost entirely new, and it does so well.
Final verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Playstation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC; Publisher: Devolver Digital ; Developer: loclap; Players: 1-2 ; Released: August 29, 2017 ; ESRB: not rated ; MSRP: $29.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review code of Absolver provided to Hey Poor Player by the game’s publisher.