A beautiful throwback that's just a touch too shallow.
Severed is a very innovative game for 2011. When touchscreen gameplay became a new phenomena we had no shortage of titles like Infinity Blade and Fruit Ninja pioneering ways to merge touchscreen input with the precise thrill of an action game. The results weren't always elegant, but they were novel. DrinkBox Studios (Guacamelee!, Mutant Blobs Attack) has sought to replicate this already bygone fad in its latest Vita-exclusive first-person dungeon crawler Severed. The funny thing is that by being a few years behind the curve it's almost retro enough to be back in vogue.
Trends are cyclical after all. Where Resident Evil's peculiar camera angles and clumsy controls turned many off the series in the early 2000s, those awkward design decisions now feel delightfully offbeat. The same goes for the recent Ratchet & Clank reboot, as the 3D platformer/shooter genre has shifted from oversaturated to borderline endangered.
Assuming the role of a one-armed warrior in search of her family in a haunted forest, Severed takes a page from Infinity Blade by using touchscreen swipes to mimic the feeling of swordplay. Scribble your finger back and forth over an enemy's weak spot and you'll watch a flurry of blood and numbers spill out dictating your damage. Swipe into an enemy attack as it launches and you'll parry your foe, leaving them stunned and vulnerable. One small but ingenious design decision allows you to deal more damage if you draw a longer line. It's an elegant and effortless way of translating the light attack/heavy attack dynamic from button-based brawlers onto a touchscreen.
DrinkBox even turns your limited field of view into a feature as you cycle between your opposition with an analogue stick while small icons at the bottom of the screen indicate who's about to attack. It's a sophisticated system that's often utterly thrilling. The physicality of annihilating an enemy by rubbing your unholy finger of death over its quivering, bleeding body is as deliciously empowering as any combat game can be, and keeping track of the throngs of foes around you provides a properly pressing time-management puzzle. On its most fundamental level Severed gets it right. The controls, enemy designs, interface and systems all work together in harmony, reminding us that this sort of controller input still has a lot to offer.
Beyond this, Severed also offers one of the more alluring visual styles on the market. Like Guacamelee before it, Severed is striking in its liberal use of neon angles and bright colours. It's a good thing Severed looks as arresting as it does, as its world is a colossal labyrinth comprised of barely interactive corridors. Occasionally you can smash a barrel to find some currency (amusingly in the form of demonic organs that you freakishly absorb), and there's a handful of secret areas hidden behind panels or discovered by solving cryptic riddles, but Severed's exploration is largely mundane.
A worse problem is its pacing. It takes far too long to get to the good stuff with the first couple of hours a disappointingly dull adventure offering too few enemy types and mechanics to shake things up. It's not until the upgrade system, magic spells, and buffed foes come into play that Severed really hits its stride. Given that the entire campaign only lasts about six to eight hours, having to plow through a ponderous opening third is a big ask.
It does get there though, in the end. Once the combat complexities open up it's clear why DrinkBox dedicated its last two years to this aberrant affair. Severed is an easy game to enjoy and admirable in its pluck, boldly battling against the current zeitgeist. It also looks gorgeous. But ultimately it's a smidgeon too shallow to really stick and I can already feel it fading from memory with the end credits having rolled only a scant couple of hours ago. If you want a slice of exquisite half-decade old design, Severed will more than fit the bill. Just don't expect it to cut much deeper than that.