Truth to be told, I didn't expect Sundered to be any good. Sure, it looked the part in the trailer, but that initial vid also seemed to put an ungodly emphasis on enemy crowd control and dodging lasers. "Bullet-hell? In my metroidvania? I don't think so."
So instead of buying it at launch, I filed it away in my PS4 wish list. After reading some first impressions the initial fears melted away. Having now played the damned (and damned it most certainly is) thing, I can say it's delicious.
Those shoot'em up and bullet-hell elements in the game really aren't what you think they are. The game is structured to give you the idea of overwhelming odds and it's very good at doing that. Just watch the video above. Sundered provides you with a Halo-style shield next to your health early in the game and then decides to have fun with it. As the shield regenerates, having multiple enemies and getting hit is less of an issue than the game lets on. Enemies aren't found in static positions, usually they just appear as a horde to hit you at random.
That may sound frustrating but it proves to be great. It takes down the repetitiveness a notch when enemies appear in different environments, lending an almost Brawl-like quality to the combat in making use of skills and environment while landing hits. The more you unlock abilities the more expansive this lethal dance becomes. It certainly feels epic as you wade through the horde, sometimes even welcoming the challenge with a sadistic grin.
Its randomness is also expressed in the environment itself: while the overall region structure is the same, the "rooms" within those regions randomise after death. It's subtle, nowhere near as labyrinthine as, say, Rogue Legacy. Instead it lends an eerie quality to the environment. "Haven't I been here already? This feels familiar yet different."
It's that particular feeling that ties everything together in a Lovecraftian setting. Strange creatures and constructs assail you in increasingly fantastical environments. There is nothing here that is truly grotesque, but the intention and direction are more than clear. The soundtrack especially is great: getting the most out of a simple theme with different arrangements.
The game does falter a bit when it reaches the eastern area. Here the terrain becomes a constant struggle turning mastery of your skills into a mandatory practise. It's maybe a bit annoying compared to overpowered prowess, but at the same time, the game makes sure you get to play with all of your toys before the game is over. Something most metroidvanias don't like doing (looking at you, Aria of Sorrow's Black Panther soul).
Difficulty can be further changed by sacrificing ability tweaks, essentially making the game a bit harder. The game's randomised nature makes that a bit of a style choice rather than a speedrun tool; speedrunning itself feels useless when the terrain is based on throwing a pair of dice.
But blimey, the game simply works deliciously. You keep your currency as you die making you grow stronger slowly and turning even low level traversals into acceptable grinds akin to, again, Rogue Legacy. The change in terrain later on in the game might put some people off, yet this still comes very much recommended if you're itching for a more experience points based metroidvania.