The only thing core gamers seem to hate more than motion controls are touch controls, which is what makes Drinkbox Studios’ new game Severed such a risky proposition. This Vita exclusive, from the same folks who made colourful and critically acclaimed platformer Guacamelee, doubles down on the handheld’s touch capabilities, resulting in a first-person dungeon crawling RPG where all combat is performed by swiping the screen. The result is an immersive and vibrant game, which – while fun – further proves that touch controls remain a substandard way to drive gameplay.
Set in a version of the afterlife, you play a young girl whose whole family has just been murdered and her arm chopped off. You are guided by a demon to venture out into the underworld and retrieve the bodies of your family to lay them to rest in the wreckage of your family home.
Though Severed may utilise the same art style as Guacamelee, it is plain to see how far the two diverge tonally. However, Severed uses this juxtaposition of vibrant art style and dark tone to great effect, creating a world which is fascinating to behold in its grotesque beauty. Adding to this effect are an assortment of weird and wonderful creature designs, which are awesomely unique both visually and mechanically.
Though first-person dungeon crawling has largely fallen out of favour since its ‘90s heyday, it works well for the type of game Drinkbox has set out to make. For those unfamiliar, first-person dungeon crawling allows you to move a step at a time through the environment, with each step taken either forward, back, left or right.
The appeal of this system is in how it organically allows the environments to be purpose-built for puzzles or combat encounters. For example, Severed includes many environmental puzzles which use the layout of the map in their challenge, encouraging you to understand patterns within the layout that lead to the answer. The downside of this approach, however, is that you are often more focused on the minimap than you are on the stylish world around you.
Combat uses this layout as well by using the four directions as fields in which to fight enemies. This means that in most encounters you will be surrounded by multiple enemies and must constantly spin around to confront them or protect yourself.
The combat itself requires you to simulate swinging a sword by swiping the screen. Each creature has a different weakness and pattern of actions which require you to handle them in different ways. For example, there is a one-eyed monster which slowly blows out gas bags which need to be hit to stop them popping, and only when you have deflated a bag will it open to reveal a weak spot. You then have to swipe like crazy to damage the creature.
In theory this system is amazing, because fighting four enemies creates a deeply strategic challenge, requiring you to juggle the timing of attacks from all directions while also trying to reveal and attack the weakness of each enemy. Unfortunately, in practise the touch mechanics make this fun short-lived.
The primary problem is the fatigue inherently created by this gameplay mechanic. The swiping necessary to defeat an enemy encounter is not the casual flick of the wrist you might use in Fruit Ninja, but rather a vigorous and rapid back and forth swiping that leaves you sore and exhausted after a short time playing. I actually grew concerned for my Vita playing the game, because my screen grew incredibly hot due to the amount of friction I was constantly subjecting it to. In short bursts the touch mechanic is fine, but as a consistent and integral mechanic it is uncomfortable and unwieldy.
Adding to this unwieldiness are the unusual ways you have to hold the device in order to accomplish the game’s tougher challenges. This is mostly due to poor button mapping: during combat you still have to use the analog stick to spin around the room, which means you have to hold the Vita with a thumb on the analog stick while supporting it for the swiping. Another issue is how the game often requires you to swipe in a series of unusual directions, which requires you to twist and contort your arm at bizarre angles to perform the correct swipe. No doubt it looks as dumb as it feels.
These bizarre swipe angles are part of the game's upgrade system, where at the end of enemy encounters you attempt to severe enemy limbs to use for gear upgrades. Despite the awkward challenge of severing these limbs, the upgrade system itself is compelling. Upgrades have an obvious effect on gameplay, and so choosing them is an important and satisfying task.
Severed is still overall a very appealing game. It is beautiful and fantastical, and despite how unsuccessful the touch controls are, the concept of swiping a sword is still a charming one. However, I would recommend finding a work out to boost your upper arm endurance before playing.