|Platforms||PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One|
|Release Date||August 29, 2017|
Honestly, my experience with fighting games has been unhealthy. Don’t get me wrong: I love a good Smash Bros session with the boys, and watching EVO moment 37 still sends my jaw through the floor. I spent several months frantically scouring the internet for rumors of new Injustice 2 characters as I eagerly counted down the days until release. (I was hoping for Kite man, but I guess Blue Beetle is cool too…) If a controller happens to end up in my hands during a casual Mortal Kombat tournament, I simply can’t resist. I love fighting games. Or at least, I love the idea of them.
See, the simple truth is, as much as I love fighting games, I’m also unbearably bad at them. I can’t remember combos any better than I can remember Algebra 2, I have the reflexes of a dead sea slug, and if you ask me to do anything involving the words “quarter-turn” I might cry. On a good day, I can MAYBE handle Smash Bros, on account of some shamefully cheesy techniques I’ve developed over the years. Fighting games lure me in with all their shimmer and sheen, and I believe their lies until I’m presented with my first 6+ move combo. So, when I started playing Absolver, a game that requires you to remember AND make your own combos, I knew I was in for a unique experience, to say the least.
The player character can remove their clothes down to undergarments, but player models are not rendered anatomically correct.
The process of becoming an “Absolver” can seem somewhat ritualistic. A lot of the masks and armor you can wear bear resemblance to demons, tribal gods, or other “idol” type creatures.
Players fight enemies with their fists, knives, swords, and some other weapons. No blood is shown, the violence is not particularly realistic, and enemies simply vanish when defeated.
Absolver is rated T for Teen
My first hour or so with Absolver left me with a sinking feeling. The game starts off pretty typically, with a sleek title screen that transitions into a character customization sequence. The options at this point are pretty bare, allowing you to change your skin tone, hair, and gender. Every player model in Absolver shares the same sleek and lean build, so there’s not much there for anyone wanting to play as a character in any other weight class. I was expecting a few more customization options for a game that flaunts customizability as one of its main features, so I was a tad disappointed. Regardless, I created my beautiful faceless man and moved on to the next screen.
At this point, I’m prompted to choose between several different combat styles. Each one specializes in different kinds of attacks, draws from a different base statistic, and features a unique special move. Since I didn’t have a great idea of what combat in the game looked like, choosing a style was somewhat challenging. After some consideration, I ended up going with the “Kahlt” option, a style that focuses on strength and vitality. This style’s special move allows the player to dismiss the stun effect of an enemy’s attack. I’ve never had the best reflexes, so I figured an aggressive class with the ability to absorb blows might be handy.
At this point, I was pretty excited to dive in and learn all I could about the game’s customizable combat system. The game teased it out a little bit longer with an artfully crafted cutscene to give some context for the violence I was about to commit. The story is simple: You’re a prospective warrior, and you need to go fight all these people so you can have a chance to be a real warrior. Nothing groundbreaking, but it is well-presented nonetheless. My excitement rose as the game world opened up before me, beautifully and meticulously crafted. And unfortunately, that excitement quickly faded as soon as I realized I had no clue what I was supposed to do.
The game does provide some degree of information, but the lack of a detailed tutorial stands out like a sore thumb. Not only did I not know where to go, but I barely knew how to play. The first few minutes of the game started following a familiar loop before too long. I’d run around the endlessly confusing maze of buildings, spot an enemy, throw some random punches, then get my teeth kicked in. The combat is incredibly frustrating to figure out right off the bat. There are no “easy combos” to get you acclimated before jumping into more advanced techniques. Instead, there’s an overwhelming barrage of information without anything to give it context. The game would tell me about “stances” and that I needed to find the “Marked Ones” but gives little information as to what these things actually mean. Even when I had some idea of where I was supposed to go, my progress was hampered by groups of enemies that would gang up on me mercilessly.
After some time of dealing with clunky, hard to understand fighting and making no progress, I gave up. I took a break for a little while, and then reluctantly took to Google to solve my problems. I don’t usually like looking up walkthroughs, especially not at the very beginning of a game. However, I wanted to give this game a chance and really try to understand what makes it so appealing. After a bit of Googling, I learned more about how the combat system works, and received a vital recommendation: bring a friend. Absolver is advertised as offering both PvP and PvE. It accomplishes this by having an open-world area populated by NPC enemies, but with the possibility for real players to spawn in. This creates the “Multiplayer Narrative” where you can enlist other players or challenge them to a duel. I begged (and possibly bribed) a friend to play with me, and we started our adventure together.
Adding a second player vastly improved the initial experience, and I highly recommend it. This friend has an uncanny knack for fighter games, and we were quickly able to figure out the bare basics of the combat system between the two of us. Essentially, the combat allows you to transition between four different stances. In each stance, you have access to several moves that either finish in the same stance or transition to a different one. This allows you to set up combos by starting in one stance, executing a move that ends in a different stance, then kicking into a combo set you made. There’s a lot of variation, including alternative moves and weapons, but this is how the game basically works. You start off with a handful of moves based on your chosen style, and you can move them around however you like. After creating combos so beautiful they would make Bruce Lee weep, my friend and I engaged in some good old fashioned fisticuffs.
PvP with a friend ended up being a lot of fun, and gave me hope for the game as a whole. Duels have a certain intensity to them that comes from needing to really read your opponent. Neither of us knew what the other’s moves were, or how we might have set them up, so we learned while fighting. This emphasizes a lot of strategic play and encourages thinking carefully about how your moves are set up. A flying kick might be really cool, but it has a long start-up time, so makes for a poor opener. Each of your attacks can land high, low or middle, leading to a lot of interesting change-up opportunities. During one match, I was struggling to break through my opponent’s high guard, and he had gotten used to me striking there. So I threw a low kick, transitioned into a midsection punch, but then canceled that attack into an uppercut as he tried to block the punch. Sparring was a lot of fun, and helped us get a handle on combat before venturing into the co-op story mode.
Karate moves in hand, me and my friend set out on a grand adventure together. Those groups of enemies I had dealt with earlier got a lot easier to deal with, and I started enjoying myself more. We took on everything from regular knife-wielding thugs to aggressive and showy boss NPCs. Over time, our movesets expanded greatly. Every time you encounter an enemy using a new move, you gain some experience points towards unlocking it yourself. This makes seeking out combat rewarding, as you press on to unlock that sweet-looking spinning back kick. The actual story itself feels pretty minimalist, and is mostly told through the boss characters you fight. These can only be fought alone, and they’ll usually give you some rant about how many have faced them but none have succeeded. They’re fairly interesting looking, but tend to fight like more advanced versions of the characters you’ve already been fighting. Each time you beat one of these characters, you unlock a new power that you can use in conjunction with your fighting moves. Some powers give you the ability to create earthquakes or black holes, but they tend to be balanced heavily towards using the healing power instead. After a good bit of running around and fighting, we finally prepared to face the final boss of this area.
This character proved to be the toughest in the game, and tested our ability to dodge, parry and strike with the right timing. It must have taken at least an hour, but we finally landed that last punch. Elated, we prepared to move on to the next area. But instead, we were treated to a brief cutscene and spawned back into the main hub area. Remarkably, the game’s entire story was over in one 5 hour play session. I was left feeling a little disappointed with this aspect of the game. The game’s art style and beautifully crafted environments suggest a much deeper story behind the combat. The music conveys this sense of grandeur, as if you are stepping into something no one has ever truly seen before. At the onset of the game, I noticed a similarity to Dark Souls. Like that game, Absolver starts off with minimal guidance to the player and pushes them to learn for themselves. Unlike Dark Souls, however, it does not provide nearly enough for the player to find if they go looking.
So is Absolver worth playing? It certainly fulfills what was promised on the surface, though it may take some digging to get to it. The combat system is robust and deep in a way that feels clunky at first, but feels satisfying when used correctly. The visuals are gorgeous, and the characters tell a story all their own with their sleek design. Dueling is a blast, and co-op mode is short but sweet. However, after completing the game in just over 5 hours, I can’t help but feel a little empty. There’s multiplayer, sure, but Absolver hasn’t maintained nearly the thriving community it was expected to have. Players are few, and unless you have a friend it may be hard to find someone at a beginner’s level. At the end of the story, I felt like I’d just finished playing through an exciting demo for a promising game that was coming out soon. Maybe it could use some better tutorials, more customization, or some better UI, but it’ll get better. Unfortunately, Absolver is likely to stay where it is right now. If the concept intrigues you, by all means pick it up, but be prepared to leave a little hungry.
The Bottom Line
Absolver promises a lot and delivers most of it, but cuts itself off just when it gets good.