Published on September 11th, 2017 | by Nathan Misa
Absolver PS4 review
Summary: Absolver is an ambitious and unique indie fighting game/action-RPG with ample character customisation, compelling PvE and PvP content and an engaging martial-arts focused melee combat system that rewards practice.
Fighting games and role-playing games are my two favourite video game genres ever, so when I heard of a small indie developer named Sloclap wanting to combine martial-arts action-based melee combat with character customisation and seamless online interactions in the form of one-vs-one duels, I was hooked.
After beating up dozens of players around the world and (brutally) learning there’s always someone better at smashing my face in right around the corner, I can safely say there’s no other game quite like Absolver. It carries obvious gameplay influences from several mainstream greats, like Dark Souls, Journey and Tekken, but stands on its own two feet with several ambitious and well-executed ideas. If I had to try and summarise it, I’d say it’s what Dark Souls and fighting game fans envision a crossover genre to resemble: Brutal, methodical combat systems with a high-skill wall. If this is to be a new hybrid-genre, Absolver is a fantastic start.
In Absolver, fighting is your bread and butter. You’re immediately thrown into a mysterious world with nothing but your fists and wits to get you by and learn what to do. You have two main buttons to concern yourself with during fights – a primary attack and special attack – which can be modified and swapped by selecting one of four available martial arts ‘stances’ with ensure your attacks aren’t always the same. One combo-string might be a series of fast jabs and a haymaker, while another could be a sweeping low kick followed by an elbow to the face – each time you finish one attack string, you are set into the next stance. You can also change your stance-on-the-fly to keep your opponent guessing your next move and hit them in places they aren’t actively blocking.
Players choose one of three schools of martial arts at the beginning of the game (Forsaken, Kahlt and Windfall) each with their own unique defensive tool and playstyle which further enriches the core fighting gameplay and caters to a number of different playstyles. For example, fighting game experts used to punishing cocky opponents with quick counters will love the parrying ability of the Forsaken, while casual players who might not be as dexterous can simply absorb more hits as a Kahlt. All three play offer completely unique experiences rather than just a few small differences. As you level up, you rest at healing altars to meditate and spend level points on improving several character attributes such as strength, dexterity, stamina, vitality and willpower which directly affect and govern your effectiveness with certain moves and attack styles. Essentially, Absolver integrates its numbers and role-playing systems as heavily as its core fighting gameplay mechanics, so it pays to have a good long think about what type of fighter you want to roll (hard-hitting and heavily armoured, lightly-clothed but nimble, etc) because skill alone won’t always ensure you survive if you don’t crunch the numbers.
What makes the game’s fast-paced and tactical combat system particularly addictive is the combat deck – I’m convinced even fighting game fanatics more interested in the brawling side of things rather than the RPG stats will be swiftly converted. This is the customisation system which allows players to rearrange the flow and order of your attacks and is visualised through cards; each card has a damage rate and speed rating and some moves even have secondary special effects to take advantage of, such as breaking through guards or absorbing an opponent’s health. Every attack card has a scaling rank and favoured attribute, and the higher your grade in that attribute, the higher the damage – so some sacrifices need to be made as you can’t just mix and match fast-paced drunken brawling (which favours dexterity) with hard-hitting punches (which favours strength) and expect to dominate. While meditating, you can practice these moves with a NPC sparring partner to nail the exact combination desired.
And boy, does each card and move-set have character. Whether you’re slamming your foot into your enemy’s chest with a flashy spin-kick or pounding their face with a powerful lunge, the fluidity of the animation for each attack, along with the unique flourish and feel attached to each impact, is astounding. In terms of presentation and execution of the melee-centric battle system, Absolver absolutely nails that feel of being a bad-ass martial arts warrior once you get the hang of more than a few moves and start taking on groups of fighters rather just one opponent effortlessly.
While the basic inputs and premise – start beating up people to progress and learn more cool moves to beat people up in cooler ways – is quick and easy to pick-up, Absolver really does throw you headfirst into battle with minimal hand-holding and in this regard best suits players who enjoy a little less hand-holding in their games. Attacking is easy enough to control, but managing stamina, switching between stances at the right time and making sure all your attacks flow effortlessly and leave little room for counter is an art-form in itself and is where the hardcore part of Absolver reveals itself. A lot of the fun I experienced was learning that there’s more to the deceptively simple fighting systems than initially presented, and I tinkered with my moves in the combat deck (and got my ass kicked by other players with better deck builds) for far longer than I care to admit.
Absolver definitely always feels like it’s introducing more sub-classes and moves as you progress through both the main story and the player-versus-player fights along the way. As you fight other real players (and NPCs) and defeat them, you gradually learn more moves to add to your combat deck, unlock the ability to pull off more attacks per combo string and gain access to entirely different schools of fighting to further change-up your fighting style. Every fight you emerge victorious promises new rewards, and it is thoroughly addictive to seek out more opponents just for the sake of mastering more complicated and powerful move-sets (and watching others pull them off so spectacularly) to show off in your next duel.
Weapons such as swords and daggers are also obtainable in-game and have their own unique combat decks to accompany them, but they come with their own disadvantages (slower and prone to breaking) which forces you to make on-the-fly decisions about which is more effective depending on the current opponent. There’s also tons of armour and masks (every fighter in Absolver hides their face) to gather from your fights that have both a cosmetic and statistical effect (do you want to be protected against weapons, or lightly geared to move faster?), so if you want to look bad-ass but also have a particular advantage, make sure to manage your equipment with the same care.
Speaking of duels, Absolver places a heavy emphasis on both co-operative and player-versus-player fights. While roaming Adal’s interconnected world, other players can join your public session, and you can make it an invite only space if you want to play with just friends. You can instigate fights or ask for assistance from other players seamlessly, which leads to some interesting interactions (let’s just say trolls aren’t tolerated too long in Absolver). However, the true player-versus player (PvP) mode is separate from the main game and transports you to an arena for a one-on-one, best out of three duel with opponents around the world. These fights against real players are way more intense and rewarding than standard battles against computer opponents, granting more experience points and a separate level system to the main PvE content which unlocks additional rewards.
The multiplayer community in Absolver has quickly formed a reputation as one of fun and learning, and I had a great time beating and getting my butt kicked by other players, most of whom were eager to take the time to teach me how to beat them and use certain moves they had unlocked ahead of me. You can’t voice chat in Absolver, but your character can gesture to others in a similar manner to Dark Souls and these little interactions added to the overall charm of these random encounters.
Unfortunately, even a few weeks past launch, server and connectivity issues plague the otherwise fantastic seamless multiplayer functions. I’ve experienced numerous disconnections mid-fight and one particularly close save corruption, and thousands more players around the world have reported similar misfortunes. Sloclap is a smaller games studio compared to many of its peers, but so far they have been vigilant in ironing out the many multiplayer-related problems and have promised new PvP modes in a free update in the future (a 3 vs 3 duel mode is planned). It looks likely in the near future most issues will be less frequent, but the bugginess now admittedly put a slight damper on my otherwise fantastic first playthrough for this review.
So, why exactly are you beating up other people in Absolver? The game is extremely light in the story department, with minimal dialogue and only a handful of cutscenes to experience throughout the five-hours it takes to complete the main mission path. It’s the most basic of premises: The player-created character (you can customise hair, race, gender and name) is a Prospect who wants to become a fully-fledged Absolver peacekeeper and to accomplish this task, you have to fight your way through a number of skilled martial artists while training and mastering various unlockable movesets to gain final passage to the Tower of Adal for graduation. I definitely got some old-school kung-fu flick vibes from the simplicity of the journey as well as the cryptic statements uttered by the powerful foes you face as part of the story; I personally enjoyed discovering the bulk of the background details through environmental exploration and making up my own mini-stories through my battles with randoms, but I do feel players who seek a traditional narrative won’t feel as satisfied with what’s here.
In terms of graphics and presentation, Absolver evokes an eerie cel-shaded watercolour painting come to life. The exotic landscape is dotted with desolate ruins and overgrown towns ravaged by nature and time, ancient ships washed ashore, and huge open temples barely lit by the sun above. There’s numerous untold stories and intriguing histories inferred by the obvious setting of a collapsed empire, but it’s never expanded upon in a direct way. Similarly, the other Prospects and fighters you encounter across the land are mysterious and unreadable due to the masks they wear in battle, many with exotic designs the farther you progress into the story. Think bad-ass looking nomads with hoods and masks and robes, ready to karate chop you into oblivion at the blink of an eye.
If you’re a fan of Dark Souls and enjoy the recent trend of environmental storytelling versus cinematic narrative, Absolver will click, particularly with its cleverly interconnected world design; each section of Adal connects to the next in a coherent manner with several shortcuts to discover during your free roaming. There are many secrets in the form of cairns (where you can find unique items) and teachers (NPCs who let you join their ‘school’ to gain access to their fighting style and moves) to discover in-between fighting your way through the Marked Ones, more difficult and experienced boss enemies that you need to beat to gain access to the Tower.
The Final Verdict
Absolver is one of the most impressive and unique action role-playing games to grace the PlayStation 4 and PC platforms this year. As a huge fan of fighting titles and role-playing games, its pitch as a martial arts-focused action title with a huge emphasis on player-versus-player combat was enough for me to get seriously excited. However, the overall execution of the attack stances, combat deck, stats progression systems and seamless multiplayer (co-op and PvP) was so much more well-done than I expected, and it’s clear the talented indie team at Sloclap have a serious hit on their hands that’s more than just martial-arts Dark Souls.
While significant teething issues remain with numerous server problems and other bugs affecting the worldwide community’s playthroughs, the game has already received patches and free content to more than make up for the headaches. Absolver is definitely recommended for anyone who loves competitive fighting games and the added customisation and personalisation that comes with well-integrated role-playing systems.
Primary Format – Games – Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4
Game Genre – Action-roleplaying game and fighting game
Rating – M15+
Game Developer – Sloclap
Game Publisher – Devolver Digital