Do you like games where you have to figure things out for yourself? If so, you’ll probably love Absolver, which not only refuses to hold your hand, but barely so much as even looks in your direction.
The new martial arts MMO from French developer Sloclap is a curious beast, to the point where even after spending a bit of time with it, I’m just not sure if I get it. This could just be because I’m a bit of a thickie, however, so rather than try to slap a score on it before I properly get to grips with the game, let’s look at some first impressions.
Absolver drops players into the world of Adal, where after a few basic character creation choices, a wordless opening cutscene seems to indicate they are one of many students or initiates in an order of some kind. Literally shoulder tapped by an Obi-Wan-esque mentor, they receive a ceremonial mask that teleports them out into the wider world as a Prospect, tasked with – well, something, anyway.
A brief tutorial introduces Absolver’s basic combat mechanics. But "basic combat mechanics" might be the wrong term here, because the game’s systems seem to be very deep. Players can take one of four stances at any stage during a fight; hold down the right trigger and nudge the right stick in the desired direction, and you can drop into the one you prefer.
But if you hit triangle to perform a special attack, you’ll transition automatically into the next stance that that specific move ends with. You can then follow up with a chain of basic attacks – for which the timing of button presses is crucial for maximum efficacy – in the new stance before shifting into yet another one with a special attack, and so on, with the idea seemingly to put a flowing and unpredictable combo together.
All the while your opponent (or opponents, multiple) is trying to do the same thing to you. As a response you can block, dodge, duck or sidestep with trigger holds or directional presses of the right stick, and all while managing your stamina bar, which is depleted both by blocking and attacking.
This is complicated enough, but your character’s move set is also fully customisable. Your "combat deck" can be programmed to your liking during meditation in safe areas. You can pick the basic and special attack moves you want to use in each stance, which other stances these combos will lead into, and so on. Then you can do all that for your weapon-enabled moves list as well, because weapon combat features in the game alongside the fisticuffs.
Grappling with this system takes place as your Prospect roams Adal’s beautifully ruined world, where crumbling towers, abandoned bridges and decaying bridges seem to suggest a once prosperous civilisation that has undergone some great catastrophe. Lurking in the corners and on the pathways of the remains are Lost Prospects, AI controlled martial artists (sometimes alone and sometimes in small groups) who rush towards you and attack without a word as you wander around trying to work out what on earth you’re supposed to be doing. Complicating things additionally are other human players, who might join you in fighting the Lost Prospects, but might equally decide they’d rather attack you themselves.
Does this seem weird and complex? That’s because it is. In the first couple of hours of play, I more or less bounced off Absolver completely, because its fighting system is not the sort of thing you can properly get to grips with quickly, and the lack of direction is baffling. It was a series of unsatisfying button mashing fights against random opponents for no apparent purpose.
However, Absolver seems to be a game that improves as you get to grips with – and relax over – the idea of just how little you know. If you find your combat deck ineffective and repetitive, it is because your character only has a few moves in the repertoire at the start of the game. To learn more, you’ll need to survive them being used against you by opponents in fights you win. More moves means more possibilities, and sees you starting to feel a like a bit more of bad-arse.
The story starts to make a little bit more sense as well. It helps when you realise that first time around you basically ran past the fairly non-descript bloke who tells you what you're meant to be doing (told you I was a thickie). He informs you that prospects must beat a number of powerful fighters around Adal in order to unlock a gate to face a final opponent at the top of a tower and become an Absolver, a respected martial artist who is then able to roam the land teaching other martial artists how to be better at martial arts.
In a way, Absolver turns a truth about the genre into a kind of design aesthetic and philosophy; the ultimate raison d’etre of this fighting game is for you to get better at fighting. When you click to this, it becomes a Zen-epic sort of proposition, as you wander around the gorgeous and melancholy Adal getting into lonely contests under dappled greenery and atop perilous ledges, sloooooowly learning the skills you need to better defend yourself.
This though, is clearly not going to be for everyone. It helps that there’s no notable penalty for death, beyond losing the potential new moves experience you would have received from winning the fight you were in. It helps too that enemies have a very short range of aggression, so running away from or past a fight is nearly always an option. But I’m not the only one struggling with getting a handle on the fighting, if the number of almost resistance-less pummelings I’ve delivered in duels with other players both out in the world and in the game’s roped-off challenge mode is any indication, all while still feeling like an utter noob myself.
It’s super-important to note that this is not due to any great skill on my part; I’ve basically learned how to sidestep. But it seems symptomatic of how the idea behind Absolver, which is that of two masters evenly trading blows in deep, fluidic combat, is locked away behind lots of grinding and a steep learning curve, and it feels like it would be a bit unfair to try and score it before, essentially, I git gud – although at this point I feel like I’d settle for git competent.
At least the struggle seems to have ensured that the game’s spirit of noble duels seems to have permeated the player base – we’re all in this together, so casual team ups to take on environmental enemies are common, and it’s not unusual to lose a duel to the death in the wilds with another fighter only for them to immediately revive you and extend a bow emote (of course) in your direction. As always in Absolver it seems, your fight continues.
◆ We'll return to score Absolver once Destiny 2 has released our fingers... assuming it does.