Severed may very well bring life—and interest—back to the Playstation Vita. Those familiar with Guacamelee will find much of Drinkbox Studios’ familiar aesthetic and cultural flourishes, but Severed is a marked departure from the platforming, beat-em-up style of Guacamelee. Instead, it is a much darker story that falls somewhere between traditional dungeon crawlers and Infinity Blade.
Severed tells the story of Sasha, a girl who finds herself in a surreal landscape and separated from her family. The early portions of the demo take place in what appears to be the remnants of her former home. There, Sasha is confronted by a family portrait and a floor-length mirror. At this point, players learn that Sasha’s arm has been amputated, leaving a bloodied but bandaged stump. She looks battered but not beaten—terrified but determined. I lingered for a moment in front of the mirror, just to appreciate how Drinkbox allows their heroine to be both vulnerable and unyielding. In short, Sasha feels utterly human, falling prey to prey to neither strong woman nor damsel tropes.
From these early impressions, it struck me just how much Severed revels in visual story telling. Looking into the mirror triggers a flashback that alludes to—but does not explain away—how Sasha and her family found themselves in this situation. The folks at the Drinkbox booth told me that this was intentional; they wanted the story to be explored but left open to player interpretation. This is an absolutely clever move, considering how Severed is visually compelling to begin with. Rich indigos and magentas breathe color into an otherwise dark world. Swaths of vines and ivy clash with geometric, man-made shapes. It’s a strange combination of brilliant hues and dark imagery, of rigid shapes and contrasting organic forms. Even the enemies followed this visual rhythm, appearing as strange incarnations of both natural and technological entities.
The gameplay itself relies on the lush visuals to instruct. Each enemy presents a puzzle that can only be solved by playing close attention to their design and behavior. If they raise an arm a certain way, it’s a cue for players to swipe against the attack on the touch-screen, effectively parrying the attack and leaving the enemy vulnerable for a moment. Some enemies may only be struck immediately before an attack. With other foes, it is important to look for glowing details or logically vulnerable areas (like an eye) in order to deal damage. Once enough successful hits are landed, Sasha is capable of enacting a finishing move, which, when activated, causes swipe marks to appear that map out weak points. Successfully severing each weak point within the time limit literally tears adversaries to pieces, allowing Sasha to collect new gear or ingredients from their corpse.
While this may seem straightforward enough, combat becomes increasingly desperate as Sasha finds herself surrounded by more and more foes. The bottom of the screen features icons and attack meters for each combatant. This constantly requires players to apply what they know and strategically manage their enemies. Just as the main character must learn to fight her mysterious foes, so too must players learn to survive when faced with brutal odds and fast-paced combat. Survival is no small task, either.
By the end of the demo, Sasha and I had come full circle. She returns to the house and the mirror within. This time, when she gazes into it, her gaze is hardened and her nerves are steeled. The demo concludes with this moment of introspection—of both player and player character alike recognizing the extensive change that occurred in the span of fifteen minutes.
Faced with Sasha’s new image, I could only think of a warning that appeared at the beginning of the demo: the longer you stay there, the harder it will be to come back. While the mysterious text was referring to the surreal world of Severed, it handily serves as a warning to players, too. If you pick up this game, you’ll have a hard time putting it down again.
Drinkbox plans to release Severed sometime in 2015, and it will be a PS Vita exclusive.