Absolver could be one of the rare genuine progressions in the fighting game genre. Like most fighting games, Absolver requires patience, thought and meticulous timing to succeed. But at the heart of the third-person brawling is an interesting and unique combat deck system that lets you create your own combos.
This combat deck offers over 180 moves, which can be used to create a multitude of sequences. Each sequence is made up of several general attacks and one alternative attack (your sequence finisher). Each sequence of moves starts from a different fighting stance - as you finish one attack you slip effortlessly into another stance and, ultimately, another sequence of attacks. As you make your way through the game, you encounter different enemies who use different attack sequences and combat decks. Winning fights against these enemies allows you to gradually learn their attacks, with a bar gauging your progression towards the new strike.
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"You progress as your character progresses," says Pierre Tarno, creative director at the Parisian indie developer Slowcap.
As your character learns new attacks and becomes more skilled, "as a player you learn it also," Tarno says. You learn how each sequence flows, how to time attacks effectively and how to defeat certain enemy fighting styles. Unfortunately, for the less patient among us, this comes with a Dark Souls level of death.
During a recent hands-on session I found Absolver harder than I had anticipated. You don't know the level of the NPCs or other players you are fighting before you get stuck in. So if, like me, you cockily attack someone else in the map then realise they're much better than you, you're screwed - but you don't know that until you try.
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This is a deliberate design decision by Slowcap, Tarno says. "If you meet someone in the street you wonder, 'who are they?' You judge by appearance." The idea is even the most timid looking player could easily kick your ass, so are you going to take the risk?
The game revolves around this risk and reward - and it takes a lot of dying before you realise what you're doing wrong. As frustrating as this sounds, there's more of a sense of challenge than annoyance. What did I do wrong that time?' you find yourself wondering. 'OK, my timing was off, this time I need to time my strikes better.' As Tarno says, you learn as your character learns. This is definitely the case for timing. Striking at just the right time gives you a power advantage over enemies. This coupled with the fact you have to manage a stamina bar makes Absolver a fun challenge.
Spliced into the gameplay is a loot drop system. Each piece of armour has a weight value. Heavier weight means your stamina takes longer to recharge but you hit harder whereas lighter items mean you move faster, and can hit quicker, but with less damage. It's about working out the combat style you want to use and using equipment that compliments it.
Absolver is all about hand to hand combat, so weapon use is minimal. There are two types of weapon, both of which are temporary. There are those you pick up in the world and are destroyed after a certain amount of use, and 'real' weapons. These 'real' weapons are created using shards and do more damage, but again are temporary. Shards are charged by using technical moves and achieving perfect timing in your sequences. Once your shards are fully charged, you can automatically choose to create a 'real' weapon. There is a separate combat deck for weapons, divided into swords and war gloves, both with their own sequences.
Perhaps my favourite feature of Absolver, and the one I think players will enjoy most, is the online multiplayer. A map can host up to three players, and what you choose to do with these players is up to you. Team up or fight? If you choose co-op, you can team up with your fellow players to take down bosses, some of which are rock hard. If you choose to fight, you can either attack others in the open world or have extra fun in PVP. The PVP option comes from an altar, where you get paired up with other players based on three key factors: character level, skill rating (your win/loss rate) and your regional latency (internet speed).
Teaming up felt like the better option during my play session. I made the mistake of attacking another player who then refused to help me fight bosses later. At the moment PVP is 1V1 with players fighting in a small arena for the best of six matches. (Tarno says there's a plan to introduce 3V3 later on.) If you want to play with a friend, you can invite them into your zone or PVP because it's unlikely you will be automatically put into the same server.
When you start the game you pick a combat style that reflects the kind of fighting you want to undertake. Each combat style has its own starter stats and special abilities such as shielding or damage absorption. As you progress, you can change your stats and mix up attacks from different styles to create your own combat deck that reflects your fighting style. You begin with three combat styles, but one is hidden. Tarno says the team will release more after launch, giving increased flexibility in combat.
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Once you have settled on a fighting style that works for you, and have progressed enough, you have the opportunity to become Absolver's version of Mr Miyagi by starting your own martial arts school. This means you can 'mentor' others, so if they join your martial arts school they automatically gain your combat deck and can use the moves included in it that perhaps they haven't yet unlocked. If you have a popular enough combat deck, it could go viral within the Absolver community. However, disloyalty is punished. If you leave your martial arts school then you lose access to the abilities in the combat deck - unless you have unlocked them for yourself. This is to stop people jumping from school to school collecting attacks.
As someone who is not a big fan of fighting games, I found Absolver an intriguing marriage of the online, open-world and fighting genres. But at the end of the day, Absolver will live or die by its combat. For me, the combat feels responsive, the animation blending smooth and the sequence transitions smooth. There is a significant challenge here, but not the kind that leaves you seething or let-down. You feel like each fight you win is an achievement of sorts, and the many possibilities combat provides means the game will likely have strong replay value, especially as more updates increase the options for PVP.
The fighting game genre has arguably become stale. There is only so much button bashing and limited attacks sequences we can handle before games like Tekken and Street Fighter grow tired. Progression is needed. Perhaps Absolver will bring it.
This article is based on a press trip to Paris. Devolver covered travel and accommodation costs.