At this point I'm convinced every game should have a Shadow the Hedgehog or Prince Zuko analogue.
When most people think of fighting games, they wouldn’t necessarily come up with something like Absolver, and that’s understandable. It’s a unique game, one that seeks to defy conventions of both the fighting and Souls-like genres to make its own seamless multiplayer experience. It draws from both pools by combining highly customizable combo driven combat with abstract open world exploration through an over the shoulder perspective. For the most part, it totally succeeds, and is a lot of fun. However, some issues with server connectivity have slightly hampered my experience with an otherwise exciting game.
Absolver begins with a cryptic, wordless cinematic depicting the player character let loose into the world as a prospect. You have to find and defeat two boss enemies and six sub-bosses in combat in any order to open the path to become an Absolver. There isn’t much of a story outside of that, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it tends to make the single-player aspect of the game seem lacking or incomplete.
The combat is easy to learn, difficult to master, and incredibly customizable. You choose one of three different styles, each with their own moveset and special ability. There are two different attacks: one that initiates a combo string, and an alternate attack that acts as a mixup. These moves can be set to whatever you have available to you in your movepool, so they can serve whatever role you want them to. You can learn moves you don’t know by successfully blocking or dodging moves from enemies, and then you can add them to your moveset. There are also special abilities you receive when you choose a style, which include a parry, an absorb move that turns damage into temporary health which heals back over time, or a close range dodge that allows you to stay closer to your opponent than the standard dodge.
On top of basic combat, you also unlock new weapons and powers as you progress through the game, which adds more variety to the combat. All players start with a healing power, but you can unlock more offensive powers from beating sub-bosses. I’m partial to the gravity ability, which, on top of being able to use at a range (making it easy to punish opponents running away to heal), makes enemies consume more stamina when attacking or blocking due to the drag on their body. Weapons are unlocked from completing boss fights, and they also have their own movesets which can be customized. There are two different weapon types: war gloves and swords. The war gloves aren’t super different from standard hand to hand combat, but allow you to have a second moveset you can bust out on the fly when you want to confuse your opponent. Swords are far different, as they have unique attacks with added range. They’re not quite as fast as punching someone in the face, but can be deadly in the right hands.
Once you get a hang of how the game controls, it’s wicked fun. Everything feels right. Every small hit has a good thwack that makes you want to do more of them, while every big hit has the right oomph to it that makes pulling it off just feel good. You can spend equal amounts of time practicing a combo and hopping back into the menu to retool it and optimize it. It’s satisfying to train against any random npc in the world, learn their move, stick it into one of your combos, and use it against the next schmuck you see. Whenever I got a new toy, I was always excited to use it and see where, or if, it fit into my playstyle.
Absolver is super stylish in its simplicity. The graphics are simple, yet modernist, but it’s in the animations where the game truly shines aesthetically. Each move is animated with finesse, and leads into other moves with grace. When characters take battle stances, they crack their necks and move fluidly into different stances. My favorite idle animation is when you’re holding a sword and go into the a specific stance, your character will run their finger along the edge of the blade. Even when you aren’t doing anything, the characters are doing something, and they ooze bloodlust.
While a lack of enemy variety would typically get boring in any other game, this is probably Absolver’s greatest strength. Every enemy you face in Absolver is another human just like your character, and they all have access to the same movepool and abilities you do. You never know what type of enemy or how many you’ll be facing, but you know that you’ll be on even footing with them. It’s pretty common to find yourself surrounded by two or three enemies at once, but even navigating those situations feel like puzzles that need to be solved in order to keep from getting overwhelmed.
The boss battles in Absolver do a great job of breaking up the games typical combat. The six “Marked One” sub-bosses are slightly harder than average enemies, and aren’t super interesting. However, the three proper boss fights in the game are very cool, and employ a variety of unique mechanics that still fit into the rules of the world. The stages of each fight throw you into different situations to test how quickly you can adapt to and overcome them. One boss, Kuretz, will try to run away and summon a bunch of weak minions to overwhelm you, and while they’re easy to defeat, they can catch you off guard if you’re not paying attention. Cargal and Kinor will attempt to make you fight them one at a time by having one stay back on defense while the other goes offensive, changing which one attacks every few seconds. These encounters are a refreshing change from the usual gameplay, and are some of my favorite moments of the game.
While the single player is fun on it’s own, Absolver’s greatest strength is its online multiplayer mode. Once you go online, the world is populated with other players, similar to an MMO. You can walk into an area, lock eyes with another player, and have a great moment of tension where you don’t know if this person is friendly, or if they’re going challenge you to a brawl. Most of my encounters with other players have generally been very positive. You feel like a good samaritan when you see another player struggling with a group of baddies, and then run in and tag team to take them all out. It also feels satisfying running up to another player, forcing them into a fight by punching them a few times, and then resurrecting them to let them know it’s all in good fun after you kick their ass.
There’s a positivity to the online interactions that other games like Dark Souls or Street Fighter tend to struggle with. Even in the rare occasions I was ganked by a group of other players, I never felt salty after a loss, and instead felt encouraged to improve as a player. For the most part, other players I’ve encountered have been good sports. It’s hard to get upset when, after you lose, the person you were fighting picks you up off the ground and bows to let you know it was a good fight, apropos of nothing other than human decency. I know not everyone is going to have that same experience, but I think something has to be said about the game fostering a more positive player experience.
Things get a little more serious when you get into online matchmaking and have one on one duels with other players. These fights felt way more competitive as opposed to fights in the overworld. Matchmaking feels like the pure fighting game side of Absolver, but it still manages to keep a lot of the same elements. There are a lot of mind games involved in Absolver PvP. The second you feel like you know your opponent’s strategies, you can adjust your own in order to win a match. These are also the fights that do the least to encourage player positivity. While I haven’t gotten any angry messages from opponents, I have gotten people rage quitting when they feel like they’ve already lost. This still counts for a win for you and gives you rewards, so it’s easy to shrug off, but it’s wild how the generally friendly atmosphere of the overworld shifts entirely to rude attitudes the second you get into more serious fights.
While the online is one of the best features of the game, it’s also been stunted by connection issues. Although conditions have improved and certainly continue to do so, I’ll still occasionally run into disconnects from the server that cause 10-15 minute wait times. A sizeable portion of my time spent ingame was waiting on the main menu, hoping that this next time I hit the “reconnect to server?” button would be the last time. It’s a real bummer not being able to play the best part of the game, and only playing single-player feels like a version of the game that’s not complete. Multiplayer is a huge aspect to what makes this game work, and not being able to play it for large chunks to time has ruined a part of my experience.
Absolver is a joy to play. The single player feels a bit light on content, but what’s there is tight. It’s a game which benefits from online connectivity for the best experience, but if you want to play a neat five to seven hour campaign about doing some kung fu without fear of getting overwhelmed by other players, then you’ll enjoy the single player just fine. I truly hope that the connectivity issues it has suffered since its launch get fixed soon. I could see this game getting a pretty big multiplayer scene, or even some tournaments centered around it. Until then, it’s still good fun to punch your friends.