I first saw Severance at the ECTS trade show in London back in 1998. At the time it was called Blade, and due to be published by Gremlin. Since then Gremlin have come and gone, swallowed by the behemoth Infogrames, and Spanish developers Rebel Act Studios have honed away at the gameplay of their 3D meisterwerk, eventually signing a deal with Codemasters over the summer.
The game is now known as "Severance : Blade Of Darkness", although the Americans are dropping the first word from the title, because if you mention the word "severance" to an American they think lawyers and golden hand-shakes, whilst for Europeans it's more likely to conjure up the scenes of brutal slaughter and unsterilised limb amputation that the game is really all about...
Light And Shadow
Back in 1998 Severance was quite possibly the most visually stunning game I had ever seen, and although the passing of two years means that the rest of the gaming industry has largely caught up with it now, the lighting effects are still amongst the best out there.
Torches cast eerie real-time shadows that flicker across the walls, and the sight of a vast lumbering shadow emerging from around a corner or, even worse, creeping up behind you, is enough to send you whimpering behind the sofa. Of course, when a little goblin-like creature appears and you realise that the shadow only looked so imposing because there was a torch right behind it, you feel a bit silly. But the sheer quality of the real-time lighting effects is downright stunning, especially as you can pick up some of the torches and lamps scattered around the levels, and then club people over the head with them, the shadows moving fluidly across the walls as the light source moves.
The character models are another high point, with beautifully detailed textures and excellent animations, varying from shambling zombies to the short but aggressive dwarf and sinister skeletal warriors. By comparison the levels can look a little plain at times, although the sheer scale of them more than makes up for this, with vast Aztec-style temple complexes, ruined cities, dank dungeons and towering cliffs, all done with no fogging or scenery pop-up apparent.
Four Of A Kind
Of course, beautiful graphics are nothing without solid gameplay, and while the engine has remained relatively unchanged, much of Rebel Act's efforts over the last two years seem to have gone into the actual game that sits on top of it.
You have a choice of four characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, specialities and characteristics. There is the diminutive dwarf, who is naturally a dab hand with axes but rather slow moving. The amazon, on the other hand, will gain access to a range of long-handled spears and blades during the course of the game, as well as bow and arrows. There is also a barbarian warrior, who prefers big two-handed swords, and a knight who uses a combination of single-handed swords and shields in combat.
Each of the four characters also starts in a different location and follows a different route through the game. For example, the knight begins by escaping from a dungeon where he was locked up after returning from a failed mission to save king and country, only to discover that the undead hordes had reached his home before him, and the castle had been over-run. Meanwhile the dwarf is exploring a ruined underground city, also recently attacked by an army of the undead. It should give plenty of reason to replay the game with the different characters, as not only do they change the way in which you approach the game, they also each have their own storyline pulling them through it.
It's Just A Flesh Wound
Combat is obviously a key part of the game and, as the title suggests, limbs have a tendency to become seperated from their owners in the vicious battles that make up much of Severance.
The controls are simple, a little too simple if anything, making it feel a bit like a console game at times. To run you have to tap the forwards or backwards key twice and then hold it down, which is a little odd at first but soon becomes second nature. There is also no way of strafing until you select an enemy as your target, at which point pressing the left and right turn keys will cause your character to circle around the target while facing them, allowing you to rain down blows from every direction, and hopefully prevent them from blocking or dodging your attacks. Moving forwards and backwards causes your player to move closer or further away from the target.
Dispatching your enemies gives you experience, and as you rise in level you will cause more damage in combat, adding a role-playing element to the game. You will also learn a variety of new moves as you progress through the game, accomplished with a combination of movement and attack key presses. It's all very easy to get to grips with, but leaves enough room for strategy to keep things interesting.
Arms, legs, feet and heads are all lopped off with frightening ease as you cleave your way through your enemies, with a suitably grotesque squirt of claret as you reduce your opponents to their constituent parts. This game makes "Soldier of Fortune" look like an edutainment title for toddlers... And as in the Viking action game "Rune", you can even pick up the dismembered remains of your fallen foes and then beat their friends around the head with them. It might not cause a huge amount of damage, but there is a certain strange satisfaction to be had clubbing an enemy to death with somebody else's leg.
The Rotating Knives
Rather more practically, you can also pick up any weapons and shields that your victim was carrying at their time of death, with a wide range of swords, spears, axes and clubs to use. Some enemies will also drop keys when they are killed, which you can then use to unlock further parts of the level. Simple but effective, and strangely addictive.
As well as slicing and dicing your enemies and then looting their corpses for keys, you will also find yourself pushing buttons, pulling levers and smashing up a variety of crates and barrels as you make your way through the game. Although the puzzle solving element of the game won't tax hardened adventure gamers, it does make a welcome relief from the wholesale slaughter. You will also face many devious traps during your quest, ranging from your basic hole in the floor through Prince of Persia style pits with vicious looking spikes in the bottom of them, on to fire-breathing gargoyles, arrow-spitting stone heads, and huge spinning blades. Which gives you yet another opportunity to admire the game's wonderfully tasteful limb severing and blood splattering system in action.
The particle system used for creating many of these effects is also visually impressive, with roaring flames, magical pyrotechnics and tumbling waterfalls all present and correct. The soft rippling effect on the water is another strongpoint of the graphics engine, with your surroundings reflecting off the surface of lakes and pools as tiny waves gently lap the shore.
Severance might have taken somewhat longer to complete than we (or its developers for that matter) expected, but it looks like it may well have been worth the wait. The graphics are still eye-catching, and the real-time light and shadow effects in particular are nothing short of jaw-dropping. And with four characters to play as, a whole arsenal of hand-to-hand weaponry to use, and a wide variety of enemies to chop up into little pieces, you should have plenty of time to admire the scenery.