Despite having a passionate user base the PlayStation Vita has often felt like the black sheep of the PlayStation family whilst its younger, more successful brother continues to break records and steal the headlines. Although Drinkbox Studios have always supported the Vita, with Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack being a launch title for the system followed by a port of Guacamelee, no one could have foreseen them making a game exclusively for the platform and especially one like Severed: a touch-based, first-person, hack ‘n’ slashing, dungeon-crawling Metroidvania RPG.
In the years since Severed’s announcement the Vita has continued to decline in terms of sales, first-party support and interest from other developers with the sparsity of games being a regular thorn in its side; I had to wipe a thick layer of dust from the OLED screen before firing up Severed. For a while the hopes of Vita owners have rested upon the Canadian studio’s shoulders and we’ve collectively believed that the platform’s longevity could very well be dependent on a game such as Severed. It was either going to be the Vita’s death knell or the inception of its revival.
Before Vita owners pass out from bated breath, I’ll just come out with it: Severed is superb. Drinkbox have not only produced a compelling game but one that is incredibly original in almost every way. I can’t help but think that if a game of Severed’s calibre had come out at the start of the handheld’s lifecycle then things could have been very different for the platform with more first and third parties taking advantage of its unique hardware and enthusiastically supporting it rather than it being an afterthought
For the uninitiated, in Severed you play as a girl named Sasha who wakes up to find her house in ruins, her family gone and one of her arms amputated. The story centres around her quest to find the members of family and enact justice upon the world’s monsters in the process. Despite its fluorescent colour palette, Severed is quite a macabre tale but just like Drinkbox’s former game Guacamelee, humour is intertwined with the dark tone. With very little exposition, the narrative and the world at large have a very surreal and mysterious quality, making every second spent with Severed as intriguing as the last. Where I feel Severed is lacking in comparison to Guacamelee however is the absence of a supporting cast of characters to flesh out the world and provide context to the intriguing story. Severed is quite a solitary experience but even so, throughout the whole game you only come across about three secondary characters, one of which is a two-headed, dual-personality vulture who makes regular appearances and acts as the main conduit for some of that black humour.
Severed takes inspiration from the dungeon crawlers of yore and involves you navigating around labyrinthine dungeons from a first-person view as well as completing puzzles in order to reach new sections. Health and mana upgrades can be found in dungeons but these are usually only accessible after completing certain puzzles or deciphering secrets. What I like in Severed is that it respects your intelligence and does not provide overt instructions, allowing you to figure out each dungeons mechanics and secrets yourself. Certain areas are blocked off depending on your progress and in order to access them you will need to acquire certain abilities, which are usually rewarded after boss battles. This Metroidvania-style gameplay encourages you to explore every nook and cranny and ensure that no stone is left unturned.
There’s a minimap in the top-right corner of the screen so you can keep track of your movement (touching the minimap will bring up the entire world map). Explored areas will be highlighted in light grey whilst unexplored areas are highlighted in dark grey. Other things such as levers, gates, upgrades and secrets are also provided with their own symbols on the map. The minimap is very easy to follow and you’ll find yourself glancing at it quite often, which, despite its effectiveness, is a bit of the shame because Severed is a beautiful game and you’ll want to take in every frame.
Similar to Guacamelee, Severed retains a Day of the Dead aesthetic with a vibrant colour scheme and quirky character design. Floral yellows, bright crimsons, zesty greens and vivid aquas adorn each environment and the visuals effortlessly pop of the OLED screen. The surreal and nightmarish character designs are both weird and wonderful, like something you’d experience in a psychedelic fever dream. The music is equally effective with a percussive soundtrack (that reminds me a bit of the tunes heard in Crash Bandicoot and can be purchased here) replete with xylophones, cymbals and drums playing as you’re exploring dungeons and enemy encounters are infused with blood-pumping metal guitar riffs, adding to the heat of the battle. Although my Vita’s screen only measures a few inches wide, I felt myself becoming completely engrossed in the immersive and atmospheric environments Severed has to offer.
Along with the puzzles and secrets, dungeons are also rife with enemy encounters because after all Severed is as much as a hack ‘n’ slash game as a dungeon crawler. At the very start of the game you learn the very simple controls and mechanics during a flashback sequence in the form of a training session under your mother’s tutelage. Severed makes use of the Vita’s often underutilised touchscreen as its main control, using swiping movements in order to attack enemies. Don’t let your preconceptions about touch-based games cloud your judgement because the integration of the touchscreen in Severed is the best utilisation of touch controls I’ve witnessed on the platform. Not to mention there’s absolutely no use of the superfluous back touch (hooray!). Each swipe is responsive and even the slightest and most delicate of brushes will be accurately registered. Severed isn’t great in spite of touch controls; it’s great because of touch controls. How many times can you confidently say that about a game?
Depending on the number of enemies within a single battle, they’ll flank you from the sides and the rear and turning in first-person perspective to face them is done by using the left joystick/D-pad or the face buttons depending on whether you’re right or left-handed, respectively. Underneath each character is a circular icon that’ll display any relevant information such as the enemy type and any special buffs they have. When an enemy is getting ready to attack, a yellow line will fill up the circumference of the meter and will flash red as they engage in their attack. The yellow line acts as a timer and a warning to turn to face the enemy and parry their oncoming attack. Parrying is done by swiping in the opposite direction of the strike; for example if the enemy is striking from left to right, you block the attack by swiping right to left.
Enemies themselves will block your attacks and their stances and armour will determine the angles and areas that you should attack. There’s an ample selection of enemies that are encountered in the game and each have their own patterns, movements, potency and defence mechanisms. Later on in the game enemies will have their own buffs such as enhanced speed, regenerating health and higher defence therefore your tactics will differ depending on the enemies surrounding you and you have to quickly adapt to the events of the battle as they unfold. As absurd as it sounds, you’ll find yourself actually getting better and more clinical at swiping. Severed isn’t just about maniacally swiping backwards and forwards on the touchscreen; the fight mechanics have a deceptive amount of depth and it actually takes a degree of finesse, thought and dexterity in order to outmaneuver your enemies.
Providing that your strikes aren’t blocked and you successfully parry oncoming attacks, a focus meter in the top-left corner of your screen will fill up as you battle enemies. Once the meter is full you’ll have the chance to harvest enemy parts during a brief slow motion sequence right before their demise. During this slow motion sequence two or more cut lines will be indicated where you have slice the enemy with each successful cut resulting in a body piece to be collected during or after the battle. You must be quick, however as the sequence only lasts a fraction of a second (this time can be extended as an upgrade). Fortunately the location and orientation of the cut lines are consistent for each enemy type so you’ll quickly learn each enemy type’s anatomy and anticipate the slices ahead of time, harvesting as many pieces as possible. Also, breakable urns scattered around dungeons often have a few enemy parts in them too so keep an eye out for those. And what do you do with these body parts you ask? Well this is where Severed’s surprisingly rich RPG elements come into play. Pressing the ‘Select’ button will bring up Sasha’s skill tree where the body parts can be used as currency to purchase new upgrades, skills and buffs. Upgrading the skills that you deem to be the most necessary is a key part of the gameplay but over the course of the campaign you’ll naturally unlock most, if not all of the skill tree by the time you face the last boss.
What I like about Severed is that it is challenging but not unforgiving. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Severed has rogue like mechanics given that most dungeon crawlers released in the last couple years have had such tendencies but it’s not the case. If you die in battle you’ll always respawn just before it since checkpoints are often and plentiful (saving is indicated by a small rotating eye in the bottom-right corner of your screen) and enemy encounters are never a surprise as they are represented by a white glow that can be seen from a distance. In terms of difficulty, Severed is a fair challenge but doesn’t go to the brutal and sadistic levels that the more hardcore contingent would look for. That being said, with such a unique battle mechanic, even the most seasoned gamers will take some time mastering the controls and gameplay.
Similar to its lack of hardcore difficulty, some may be quick to malign the game’s brevity (I was able to earn the Platinum trophy in ten hours) but personally I felt that Severed’s total runtime was an appropriate length. It only felt shorter because I did nothing but play it for two days straight, which is a testament to its addictive and brilliant gameplay rather than a criticism of its length. Time truly does fly when you’re having fun and by the time the credits rolled I’m glad that I was left with a feeling of wanting more rather than the opinion that Severed overstayed it’s welcome. Content and runtime are a hard balance to strike but I believe that Drinkbox Studios managed to find a nice equilibrium.
Apart from a noticeable dearth of characters and a mysterious story that could have been a little more fleshed out, there’s nothing negative I can really say about Severed. The visuals, soundtrack, controls and mechanics are all remarkable and the catharsis of hacking and slashing your way through enemies, upgrading your skills and uncovering secrets makes Severed an unmissable experience. Vita owners, you can let out a massive sigh of relief; Severed is as great as we all hoped (and secretly knew) it would be. It’s one of the handheld’s best exclusives and Vita owners should flock to the PlayStation Store en masse to make sure that it is also one of the most successful if there’s any hope of saving our beloved by sending a message to developers and publishers worldwide. Whilst the Vita may be too far gone at this point, if Severed is the handheld’s swansong then what a way to go.
- Unique Fight Mechanics
- Art and Sound Design
- Dark Themes and Black Humour
- Metroidvania-style Gameplay and secrets
- Lack Of Secondary Characters
- Mysterious But Slightly Lackluster story