I first saw Severance in action way back in September 1998, before EuroGamer was anything more than a twinkle in the milk man's eye. It's certainly been a long time coming, but the good news is that despite the somewhat protracted development cycle the game is actually rather good...
Choose Your Warrior
In the best tradition of hack-and-slash fantasy epics down the ages, Severance gives you a choice of four characters, each with their own personal preferences when it comes to weaponry, and their own range of strengths and weaknesses. For example, the dwarf is a mean hand with axes and hammers but moves relatively slowly, while the amazon is lighter on her feet and prefers bows and spears. Also on offer is the traditional brawns-before-brains barbarian (specialising in two-handed swords) and an ageing knight, who is most comfortable with a sword in one hand and a shield in the other.
What makes Severance really shine though is that each of these characters follows an entirely different path through the game, so while the dwarf starts the game battling his way through a string of mines and fortresses that have been over-run by orcs, the knight begins in a prison cell having been captured by a traitor and must escape from a castle before continuing his quest. Effectively you are getting four games in one, with different missions, maps, special attacks and tactics for each of the characters.
As you progress through the game your character will develop thanks to some fairly rudimentary role-playing elements - slaughtering your foes will earn you experience points, and experience points mean prizes! Every time you go up a level your character will gain more stamina and hit points, allowing them to hold their own in battle for longer.
Each attack which you make will cost you stamina, and although it gradually regenerates you will find yourself getting exhausted if you are not careful. Run out of steam in the middle of a battle and your character will have to stop to catch his breath, which leaves you wide open to attack for a couple of seconds. The more spectacular your attacks and the larger your weapons, the faster your stamina will run out, so simply running into a room waving a dirty big axe around in the air isn't going to get you very far.
You will also gain special attacks as your level rises. These are essentially beat 'em up style combo moves, pulled off by pressing several buttons at once or in sequence. Which weapon you get a special attack for at each particular level depends on your chosen character's preferences, and pressing F1 brings up a handy list of which special attacks you have coming and how to use them. They are surprisingly easy to pull off in combat, and can be highly effective when used in moderation.
Combat is clearly the main focus of the game, and thankfully the wide range of weapons on offer and the plentiful supply of enemies to test them out on prevents things from getting too repetitive. A range of different shield types can also be used alongside any one-handed weapon to try to deflect attacks, although they can only absorb a limited amount of damage before shattering, leaving the target vulnerable for a moment before they can recover.
Battles are made easier by the "lock on" function, which allows you to select a target and then circle around them simply by pressing the left and right keys. As a result most battles involve circling cautiously around your foe, hiding behind your shield and trying to dodge their attacks, then whacking them while they are off balance or over-stretched. Fighting multiple foes can be a little hit and miss at times, but generally combat requires some degree of skill rather than simply flailing around with a sword and hoping for the best.
Other than that there's very little to the game though. Most of your time is spent exploring the vast maps, slicing and dicing the monsters you run into, and looking for items to pick up. The puzzle solving aspects of the game are fairly basic, with lots of levers to pull and the odd key to find but nothing too challenging.
Although Severance's graphics don't look quite as revolutionary today as they did two and a half years ago, they are still close to the cutting edge. The architecture is grand in scale if a little spartan in places, while textures vary from drab rock and wooden surfaces to banners, stained glass windows and painted walls.
The lighting effects are the real highlight from a technical standpoint, and are truly in a class of their own, with beautifully clear shadows being cast in real time by all of the light sources in the game. Often you will see a shadow approaching around a corner before you see whatever is causing it, which can lead to some hilarious moments as that vast shadow on the far wall turns out to be a tiny little goblin with a torch in its hand.
The monsters themselves look rather impressive as well, with nicely detailed skins, and as you bludgeon each other into submission blood will spray around liberally, coating your weapons and armour with claret. The game's title is well deserved, with dismemberment surprisingly common. This is certainly not a game for the faint hearted, with corpses often ending up in several pieces before they hit the floor. You can even pick up severed limbs and use them as weapons, or throw heads around and listen to the reassuring squelching noise as they hit a wall. Needless to say, Severance has an 18 rating here in the UK, although there are options to tone down the gore and "mutilation" for younger players.
Severance is not a role-playing game. It is not a game suitable for the young or impressionable. It is not a particular deep game, with the storyline being largely submerged beneath the rivers of blood which you unleash wherever you go, and your missions generally consisting of getting from A to B by pulling a lot of levers and then picking up an item.
It is however a lot of fun, with gruesome but surprisingly intelligent combat and some lightweight RPG elements to flesh things out. With four characters to choose from, each giving an entirely different experience, it's also good value for money. It might not be perfect, but it's arguably the best fantasy action game of recent years, and well worth a look if you're after some good old fashioned gratuitous violence.