Fighting games are known for laying out a selection of contenders and having the player choose the style that best compliments them. Absolver, like a small handful of titles before it, offers up an unique alternative. This adventure game lets players create their own fighting style, then put it to the test in an open, explorable world. For some, this challenge may prove harder than for others, as the game puts little effort into helping the player along their journey.
The world of Absolver seems rich in narrative backstory, but very little of it is actually offered straight up to the player. We are dropped into Adal, where the ruins of an ancient civilization play host to our adventure. A number of NPCs spread across the land tease us with small chunks of backstory, but it isn’t quite enough to get the full picture. While it has the potential to be intriguing in its entirety, attempting to make sense of the story’s convolution isn’t quite as satisfying as appreciating it as the enigma that it is.
Adal is split into three general regions, each connected to the others by paths that aren’t always overtly apparent. The modestly-sized regions are made up of open areas and multiple semi-linear routes that the player can explore. The world is rather Dark Souls-ian in its design, with paths that interconnect and fold back in on themselves in clever ways, where secrets can be easily missed if players don’t take the time to fully scan their surroundings. This is one of the game’s greatest strengths, giving value to the exploration beyond a simple experience grind, but the other thing Absolver should have taken from Dark Souls is its intuitive sense of progression.
How soon the player internalizes the game’s intentions is up to random circumstance. In my playthrough, a lot of time was wasted in one area without a sense that my forward progression was up to me to discover; this was not helped by the beautiful, but occasionally confusing, environment design. Generally, it would do the game a disservice to bold-facedly kick the player down the right path, but much exasperation could have been avoided with a slightly less subtle nudge in the right direction.
Players will explore Adal through the eyes (or mask, as it were) of an Absolver-in-training, also known as a Prospect. After being selected for a ritual, the player’s Prospect is transported to Adal and left there to fight their way to the rank of Absolver. Prospects train in hand-to-hand combat, which is used to fight through the legions of enemies spread around Adal. On the surface, Absolver’s combat is very straight-forward: the player can enter four different stances, each with its own attack sequence, while alternative attacks can be thrown into these sequences to seamlessly switch up the player’s stance mid-combo. Attacking, blocking, and dodging uses stamina, which players must carefully manage if they want to stay in control of a fight. It is fairly rudimentary combat, at least until you get into the game’s combo creation and learn what Absolver is truly about.
After getting a handle on the controls, players can enter Mediation through the pause menu and begin customizing a combat deck. Combat decks are a unique collection of moves manually strung together to create the most effective combos possible. Moves can have different attributes—like a sweeping animation that is harder to evade, or block-breaking that can punch through an enemy’s block—and these can be strategically incorporated into combos to make one’s fighting style as versatile as possible.
Melee weapons can be found or earned over the course of the game, and equipping these will access a completely separate combat deck which can also be customized. Moves for these decks are learned by defending against enemies using those particular attacks—assuming you survive the fight. This system is a clever way to reward the player while incentivizing practice and exploration, but the number of times moves must be defended against can make the process tedious. If a player is adamantly seeking a specific attack, they may have to stay blocking against it for minutes on end.
Combo creation is Absolver’s most enticing feature, but it too suffers from the game’s lack of explanation. The game’s combo creation interface is rather confusing and overwhelming, particularly in regards to how moves transition between each other. Once enough moves are unlocked and the player has had time to appreciate what combo variance does for the gameplay, it becomes easier to get a grip on the logic and relevance of combo builds. The issue is that this appreciation comes far later than it has to, and what could be the game’s most intriguing feature—via slightly more guidance—starts out as its most contentious obstacle.
Before players begin constructing their combat deck, they must choose between one of the game’s three main combat styles for their character: Forsaken, Kahlt, or Windfall, with each supporting a unique defensive maneuver (Parry, Absorb, and Avoid respectively). These moves vary in difficulty of use, but each bring an extra level of strategy to one’s combat tactics. It could be argued that more variation between the classes would have given the game more substance; alternatively, keeping the differences minimal better maintains balance, which becomes more apparent later in the game. A fourth combat style is also available, offering its own moves and special ability, titled Stagger style. Unlike the other three, Stagger style must be discovered by exploring the game world, giving even more reason for players to scour Adal.
Once a player masters their combat deck and special ability, they can make short work of the waves of hostiles occupying each zone, but it is the bosses that players will want to face if they are looking for a real challenge. There are six Marked Ones scattered around the three regions, and these formidable foes must be vanquished in order to access the game’s final area (and subsequent boss fight). Absolver features three bosses—excluding the Marked Ones—that come with minor cinematics and slightly more narrative presence. Gear and experience can be earned through any enemy in the game, but the bosses and Marked Ones are where the best rewards are earned. In addition to those better rewards, they serve as effective indicators for players to gauge how they are progressing with their character over the course of the adventure.
Higher difficulty versions of non-Marked bosses can be fought for more of a challenge after defeating them once, but players must rank up in the game’s Combat Trials to access this option. Combat Trials—one-on-one skirmishes against other players with the winner being the first to take three rounds—are the core of Absolver’s competitive multiplayer. NPC enemies in the open world can be fairly reliably outmaneuvered, but here, the true strategy behind the game’s combat and combo creation is tested.
In these PvP arenas, victories are determined more by preparation than reflex. There are occasionally moments in a fight where reaction can be a turning point, but the moves a player specializes in seem to have much greater impact on the outcome than the fighting proficiency of the players. Fights are generally won with a few key maneuvers, often undermining the complexity and purpose of the game’s combo creation. This observation could prove less true in the upper echelon of the game’s competitive scene, but in my playthrough, nearly every single fight was won using a curiously small selection of moves.
Luckily, not every player met in Absolver requires their face to be bashed in. The game supports a cooperative element in its open world, inviting groups of up to three players to take on challenges together. While teamwork is an option, Adal gives no respite from conflict between players, as fellow Prospects wandering around in your game can just as easily attack you as befriend you.
Player synergy is further encouraged through the game’s Schools. After progressing far enough in Combat Trials, players will unlock the opportunity to Mentor a school. Students (fellow players) can join these schools and adopt the Mentor’s combat deck, optimally giving access to rare moves or creative combos that low-level players may not yet have seen. The world sharing and School system give Absolver a dynamic of player cohesion that suits it well; its environment isn’t massive, but it feels much richer knowing it can be experienced in tandem with others.
Absolver has much to offer players that put in the work, arguably more than players should have to. When all of its cards are on the table, the exploration and personalization can feel like a worthy commitment, but it can take too long to get to that point. Each player will have a different experience, which could mean some of us uncover all that the game has to offer without missing a beat. In my case, however, my exasperation would have likely caused me to give up all together before getting the chance to see the game’s true potential, if not for professional obligations. Absolver is a unique adventure worthy of the time, but less patient players will only see this by sticking with it longer than they normally would.
Absolver can be rewarding for those that dedicate the appropriate amount of time and attention it requires, but its complexities can be hard to break into. Even when Absolver is mastered, the resulting expertise seems to have little impact on the competitive side of the experience.
T - Teen
|Absolver is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC. Primary version played was for PS4. Code/hardware was provided by Devolver Digital for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Nick didn’t start gaming until mid-2006. Once his parents finally allowed a console into the house, it was all uphill from there. Starting out with a PS2, he grew an affinity for Sony consoles and moved on to the PS3, and now the PS4. He keeps his gaming palette wide, but, gun to his head, he’d have to say shooters are his genre of choice.