Publisher(s): Devolver Digital
Platform(s): PlayStation 4, Microsoft Windows
Reviewed on: Microsoft Windows (GOG Galaxy)
Release date(s): 29 Aug, 2017
Versions reviewed: 1.00 through to 1.05
Absolver is a game difficult to judge without comparison. Sloclap’s debut effort combines For Honor’s style of combat, Journey’s drop in and out multiplayer and God Hand or Remember Me’s customizable combos. A chimera of a game, it begs the question – how much of Absolver is inspired and how much is a mere imitation? With Steam releasing more titles each year it is definitely not an easy task to release something entirely original. That being said, Absolver is no less than a unique combination of existing ideas.
The game’s biggest and most memorable strength is its community. Players drop in seamlessly into others’ games. While there, they can either aid or hinder their fellows. What you’ll find the most, however, is that they choose to do both. It is not uncommon for a player to challenge another to a duel, beat them to death and revive them for co-op. In this manner, players scout potential allies and judge their ability to help.
Absolver is a game of combat, after all. The game’s only mechanics are combat and combat preparation. SloClap has included basic co-op controls and simple gestures for players to interact with, but nothing in the way of text or voice chat. Therefore all communication is limited to bows, waves and roundhouse kicks. And believe me, the last speak the loudest.
In aid of this, Absolver also creates a very specific atmosphere. Thanks to its minimalist sound design, the game feels peaceful. There is no noise. The only sounds beyond characters’ grunts are the occasional wind, waves, and birds. The significance of this design choice is that players are allowed to focus on the task at hand. And it is one that requires focus. Absolver’s world is easy to get lost in. It feels real and familiar. There is a calming melancholy about the ruin it lies in. It is a world that once was much like ours, with a fishing village, a palace, a town. Now, it is full of rubble and rabble fighting over it.
The Old One-Two
As mentioned before, the meat of the game is combat. Specifically, hand-to-hand one-on-one combat. With the occasional side of weapons and menage-a-trois-plus. As a vegan, it saddens me to say that the sides do nothing but spoil the meat. The combat is both incredibly simple and deep. It is simple in that you have a single attack button to accompany dodge and block buttons, a skill move and a lock-on. The depth is apparent in players’ application of these scarce options.
The game features 180 moves that players can learn and equip. Much like in Godhand or Remember Me, the player sets up their own moves list. Absolver adds a stance mechanic where available attacks are dependent on the character’s positioning towards their target. There are four such stances, referring to whether the player is facing their opponent or has their back turned and which side is leading, left or right. Certain moves take the character from one stance to another and building a solid and entertaining fight deck supports the creative director, Pierre Tarno’s mantra of “Fighting is a dance.”
The combat is specifically designed to suit one-on-one situations. Thus SloClap’s choice to fill Absolver with one-on-three encounters is baffling. The argument, of course, is that the game should be experienced online. With drop-in multiplayer allowing players to unite in their fight against lost prospects, the game is undoubtedly best experienced with others. If the player is kicked offline, however, shambolic brawls are inevitable.
The game is incredibly obscure and purposely vague. The player is told to find and defeat the Marked Ones and then left to their own devices. The ultimate goal is defeating all of the marked ones and bosses to receive the title of an Absolver and a cape to boot. What an Absolver does and why one wishes to become one isn’t really pointed out. Nor is the origin of the Marked Ones. Not by the few NPCs, not by the equipment descriptions, and not by the fandom. In its vagueness and obscurity, the game also hides opponents’ strength from the player. As such, it’s up to the player to figure out whether their tactics are wrong or their character simply still too weak to tackle the opponent that just smashed their face in for the fortieth time.
Unfortunately, Absolver’s world is easy to get lost in. And this time I mean that logistically. Getting stuck in a confusing area is more of a problem than getting stuck on a tough opponent. There is a map but the only points of reference are the few locations that allow the player to view it. Even then, wayfinding requires traveling between two such places. What makes traversing the world even more of a slog is the utter omission of fast travel. While I can appreciate not allowing fast travel early in the game to create the feeling of dread and constant danger for the player, fully-fledged Absolvers should have the option to teleport between pillars.
That would be the faces. Seriously, they are hideous. Remember when the Assassin’s Creed 2 remaster had background NPCs with horribly cartoonish faces appear? It’s like that. And nothing else. Thus the choice to make all player characters and adversaries wear masks, obviously. In fact, NPCs can be recognized by two unique features. The first is the lack of a mask. The second, the fact that they’re not trying to beat the seven living shits out of the player. Anyone who doesn’t run at the player with a Warsong on their hidden lips will instead test the player’s patience with slow, unskippable dialogue. What’s worse, the NPCs don’t actually serve any purpose whatsoever. Except for one, that is. And they could well have been one of two in the game for all it’s worth.
The combat, while deep and gorgeous when it works properly, is a hideous abomination when abused. Nothing brings this about more than facing off, one-on-one, in a combat trial. Every praise I threw the game earlier, Combat Trials snatch out of Absolver’s hand and gleefully throw out the window. The community spirit is altogether dead when there are only two members of it facing off. Players use any available tricks to defeat their opponents, making the most out of pitfalls and spamming the fastest moves. On the other hand, players who struggle often quit mid-bout. Combat Trials are a hidden underworld, where bad internet connections and sore losers poison Absolver from behind the scenes.
Been There, Done That, Got the Cape
At the time of writing, the game is still unfinished. Combat Trials, the game’s designated Multiplayer mode, only has one option: Unranked 1v1 Duel. Those duels are currently running on very weak servers and glitches are frequent. Admittedly though, there has been steady improvement since launch and SloClap continue to trickle patches to improve the experience. These will eventually include 3v3 online duels, ranked duels and presumably teams as a result. As it is now, Absolver is a solid fighter with fresh (implementation of old) ideas and is well worth a shot. Or swing. Whatever.
The single-player experience is daunting and boring unless played with others, and the meta-game is utterly pointless without other players. Absolver is a brave little game that relies on concurrent players for its success. This, of course, creates the great conundrum of the game needing to keep its players in order to keep the charm. The main things SloClap should learn from their time with Ubisoft is that microtransactions are of the devil and false promises always backfire. Or if they look at it through a Ubisoft lens: players love being able to support you further through microtransactions and hyping features that won’t make it really, to quote Rick Sanchez, “gets their dicks hard”.
'Absolver' - The Alchemist's Punch
'Absolver' - 7/10
Absolver is a heavy hitter and as such, a lot of its punches are wild swings that miss their target. The ones that do connect, however, leave a lasting impression. With a genuinely passionate and sympathetic community marred by poor servers and a vicious one-on-one arena, and simple-to-learn difficult-to-master fighting mechanics overthrown by online lag and a few exploits, SloClap's debut is a good game that falls painfully short of greatness. A fantastic idea executed competently but, unfortunately, not much more than that.