I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
Indivisible is perhaps the most prominent example I can think of where a developer’s lineage is so evident across genres. Lab Zero, who made their name with indie fighter Skullgirls back in 2012, have managed to somehow translate their expertise in fighting games into something that is very much not one. While it may not work in every regard, Indivisible’s take on a more active and quick Valkyrie Profile is impressive, and kept me hooked on its gameplay loop for hours on end.
Set in a fictionalized take on Southeastern Asia, Indivisible follows hot-headed teen Ajna as she runs around shoving a diverse cast of comical characters into a magical, fully furnished realm inside her head. With the aid of her new friends (known as Incarnations), she goes on a quest for peace and revenge across various cities and environments, with the ultimate goal of dealing with a deity who has been sowing dissent for decades.
While the plot may seem outlandish, most of the character interaction in Indivisible is down-to-earth and easygoing. Each Incarnation is wildly different from the next, ranging from pretty standard stuff like a large buff woman, to more specific archetypes like a depressed jungle witch or healer aunt who will not stop talking about how cute you are at any given time. While the main story plays with more serious themes at times, it’s clear that the intent behind the game is a more lighthearted appeal. Characters rarely linger on a problem, and conversations often devolve into tangents, with personalities playing off of each other being the focus.
Though it might have been more compelling for Indivisible to lean heavier on topics like fascism, corporations’ roles in the drug market, or the values of an isolationist state, using them as largely inoffensive set dressing to deliver more charming engagements between the cast is still effective. Not every character receives the same amount of focus, but each individual appearance is welcome, and you really feel like you’re seeing a group of eclectic friends hanging together as their individual story arcs play out. Even if these narrative bits aren’t exactly Pulitzer-worthy, they provide enough of an endearing hook to help fluff up the appeal for whatever characters you end up liking.
The story only needs to put in half the work of drawing you in after all, because even as a Metroidvania-style RPG, Indivisible is oozing with fighting game spirit. Every Incarnation you come across plays differently from the others, and each have their own combos or gimmick mechanics to really set them all apart. On top of this, the combat really encourages perfect blocks, grappling, juggling, and all the other sort of tech that one might expect from a Street Fighter or Guilty Gear, just presented a little differently.
I was amazed by just how different each character’s tech could get too. Most of the characters feature a pretty standard up, down, and neutral attack, but they all utilize these inputs in wildly different ways. For example Kampan, the steampunk thief with a heart of gold, uses her down attack to load her robotic fist with a bunch of explosives, which makes her next attack do a lot more damage. This makes playing Kampan a process of choosing when to launch an enemy, and when to reload her fist, which is a different sort of engagement than the more basic gameplay of the scarf-wielding Tungar, whose attacks are all raw multi-hit damage. With even more gimmicky options like Lanshi the dog’s kit that’s focused entirely on petting, or Ren the horny-on-main assassin’s penchant for traps, it really is like picking a set of fighting game mains for your party.
Outside of battles, however, Indivisible really is an honest to god Metroidvania. Featuring large interconnected maps, traversal upgrades, and even hidden unlockables, everything you’d expect from the genre is here. The platforming can require some precision at times, combining things like air dashes and wall jumps, but it doesn’t get that grueling until you get towards the end of the game, and you’re more familiar with all of your options. A neat touch I appreciated with the upgrades were how all of the later ones made Ajna more demonlike, giving standard-fare stuff like a super dash or double jump so much more style.
Indivisible in general is an incredibly stylish game, mostly thanks to the 2D linework Lab Zero has become known for. Each frame of any given character’s animation is hand drawn like an animated show, full of fun smears and tons of details no matter where you stop and look. While 2D animation like this isn’t as novel as it was back when Skullgirls first came out, Indivisible manages to remain aesthetically impressive and unique, with an explosive style befitting of the myriad cast of characters it’s home to.
When it comes to the problems with Indivisible, they can be pretty much be sourced to the game’s origins as a crowdfunded game. Working with a limited budget, and becoming indebted and obligated to the various backers who helped make the game possible, are both issues that hold the game back from truly becoming the best game it could be. It’s nowhere near as dire as a Mighty No. 9 situation, not even close, but there’s still a handful of unfortunate realities that really drag everything down.
The first is just how rough around the edges the game can be. The user interface, although full of options one would be hard pressed to find even in big budget games, is full of half-documentation and vague directions. Indivisible’s characters are endearing and fun, but the story they’re placed in is little more than set-dressing at best. As I said before, this can work absolutely fine as a backdrop, but the game’s world is ultimately dictated by what happens in that main plot, and it can often be frustrating.
For example, Dhar is the first Incarnation you get in the game, and he sort of serves as a deuteragonist for a majority of your playtime. Narratively, the game isn’t quite sure whether it wants to vilify Dhar, or have him be some sort of Shadow the Hedgehog style redeemed edgelord. Even though his arc is tied so closely to core narrative, and Ajna’s motives, it moves incredibly fast, and at a certain point it feels like they just sort of throw it all away entirely. This was especially disappointing for me as I had really come to love Dhar, and having his character just arbitrarily become unimportant with little to no fanfare was a real bummer.
Though I enjoyed each of the other characters’ individual stories, actually getting to the locations on the map they took place at was way harder than it had to be. Almost all of the quest markers for these side-missions are bugged, meaning that you’ll have to flail around a lot when it comes to vague location hints like “Mount Sumeru,” which may as well be an entire country wide. With no quest log to keep track of all your objectives either, you’re gonna be stuck running back and forth between the various friends in your brain, and hoping that the dialogue they have at the moment will point you in the right direction.
This is another issue very prevalent throughout Indivisible: backtracking. Though the Metroidvania genre is famous for this feature, usually in an endearing way, Indivisible struggles with using this concept far too often. Most of the sidequest objectives take place far away from the two different entry points to any given zone, meaning a lot of running back and forth across the same specific stretches of map for no real reason, over and over again. Even in the main story, the game forces you to go through the same large sections of the three major zones in the game multiple times. You’ll end up backtracking through a zone you’ve nearly completed, to go somewhere else and get a new traversal upgrade, only to then have to backtrack back to the original zone you were in and backtrack your way back to where you were and even writing this has gotten me as tired as I felt doing all of it.
This wouldn’t be too much of a problem if there was a reason to go through these areas over and over again, like grinding enemy encounters or finding new sidequests. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much of a purpose to grinding in Indivisible, since the most important upgrades to your party come from the limited and easy to find upgrade material found in the overworld. While it’s fun to actually do the battles, there’s little reward for doing so outside of personal pleasure, which while normally fine, does ultimately make these bits where you’re backtracking feel completely and utterly pointless. There aren’t even sidequests in the game outside of those related to your party, or the less than a handful of Incarnation recruitment quests, so it’s not like these moments encourage engagement with the world.
Engagement with the game’s world is equally curbed by Indivisible’s origins as a crowdfunded game as well, since the game is host to maybe the most intrusive in-game backer representation I’ve ever seen. Almost all of the NPCs you’ll run into across the various locales in the world are painfully and obviously an Indiegogo backer’s original character. This isn’t too surprising for Lab Zero since Skullgirls’ own crowdfunding campaign led to a slew of backer representatives popping up in the background of stages, but it’s far worse when they’re almost all of the speaking characters in an RPG.
I enjoy seeing people’s creativity and original designs; I think there’s even a charm to be had from seeing people’s heartfelt representations appear in a video game they love, but Indivisible takes it too far. When I reached the Iron Kingdom, an area spoken of in the game’s lore as oppressive and Victorian, I really didn’t expect nearly every member of the populace to look like a youtuber’s rantsona complete with custom outfit and a quirky one-liner. While parts of the narrative are trying to drive home just how dire this world ending situation truly is, the rest of it ends up feeling like an anime con meetup. If they had even forced the backers to come up with something to say that fit the tone of the environment they were being put in, or some sort of message that was relevant to the plot I could be way more into it. As is, I’m looking at Nyanners trying to convince me to visit her maid cafe, right below the porno artist who’s making a joke about sex.
Even though these aspects were infuriating, they didn’t stop me from bursting my way through Indivisible with what was mostly abject delight. For most of my time with the game, it felt like actually playing a game in the vein of anime like Gurren Lagann or Kill la Kill (which is not too surprising since Lab Zero had Studio Trigger do the animated opening for the game). There hasn’t been much like Valkyrie Profile in the last decade either, so I’m extremely grateful if this can help encourage more Metroidvanias or RPGs to really play with their format in a way they haven’t been for quite some time. Indivisible might not be perfect in every way, but it accomplishes enough with such style and aplomb that I’m extremely excited for whatever Lab Zero is planning next.