Absolver is an open-world fighting game. It’s by Sloclap, a French indie studio, and I knew nothing about them or their game before it turned up in my inbox. Aside from the usual whisperings, that is. “It’s a bit like Dark Souls,” said one (presumably because it’s what you have to say about every game these days). “It’s got swords” declared a promo screenshot of two fighters with swords. Both of these notions turned out to be essentially misleading anyway.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t get off to the best start with Absolver. After a quick tutorial, I found myself thrown into the deep end with the barest of instructions – “kill the six marked ones.” I awaited plot development, but it never came. The world is full of “lost prospects” – AI who would fight me, respawn a minute later, and fight me again with practically no purpose or ceremony. The world itself looked big and inviting, with big landscapes on the horizon and labyrinthian urban stone ruins – but so many corridors seemed permanently closed to me, and I perpetually struggled to find the ones that actually lead anywhere new. The first few times I started playing, I just as quickly wanted to turn it off.
For all its obvious shortfalls in plot, world-building and size, Absolver’s combat system has exceptional depth and feeling. Like, this must be one of the best melee combat systems in a game…ever? It’s fast and tactile; simple enough to begin with but belying layers of complexity. You start to understand why the rest of the game is so bare-boned – it’s all just there to prop up the fighting.
The fighting as such is more on the martial arts side of things (which martial arts, I couldn’t tell you) – kicks and punches, knees and elbows are the go. There are swords and knuckle-duster type weapons, but their presence in the game is secondary to the main course so far as I’m concerned. Basically, your offence is all based on stance. You can move your character so you’re angled in four different directions – think four sides of a diamond. Each of these gives you a different punch or a kick, and pressing a different button will perform an alternative attack for that stance. So that’s eight different moves to start with. Are you following? But then you can add different attacks to chain with your regular attacks – two for each of your starting moves, so you’re potentially hitting an opponent with sixteen different inflexions of fist, elbow, knee, foot, etc. Oh but that’s not all – as you play, you unlock (very slowly) moves that are used on you by enemies, be they AI or human, eventually giving you a deck of fifty or so attacks in your pocket, which are yours to rearrange into your active set of moves at your leisure. But even then, there are different styles of fighting within the game, and, oh, have I mentioned the weapons? These have their own attacks you’ll have to combo, learn and assign.
On the defensive side of things, you’ve got three options – dodge, block or parry. None of them works against all attacks, so you’ve got to be selective (and I mean this in the most hardly considered, split-second/pre-emptive way possible). The thing is, no matter if it’s offensive or defensive, every action will cost a bit of fatigue, and running out is a license for your opponent to hit you with their most painful strike. Defence is also the way you learn new moves, though – if an opponent uses one on you, and you successfully dodge, parry or block it, you accrue points toward unlocking this move for yourself. What you learn is no good if your opponent beats you, though – you’ll forget it if you don’t win – so trying to learn a specific new move becomes a balancing act between drawing the fight out enough to get a look in, but not enough to give your opponent the chance to actually beat you.
And beat you they probably will. Absolver can be frustratingly hard at times. I died, like, a lot. Sometimes I died five times in a row to the same AI. Sometimes I died by accidentally slipping into what seemed to be very shallow water but was actually somehow an insta-death void of peaceful reflection. It’s cold and unforgiving – but it’s actually not so bad because you generally respawn nearby (if there are no other players around to help you up where you were slain), and you’re quickly back into the fray. It’s unashamedly about learning, both for the player and the in-game character. It doesn’t really get easier, either, as the enemies scale with the player, reinforcing the feeling that Absolver’s world is just a sandbox for fighting.
Once I’d gone a few hours deep, I found the tactile rhythm of it infected my waking life. I’d see in my mind’s eye a series of swishing dodges while lying in bed, hear the thwack of an un-dodged kick while reading a book. That’s the marker of excellent game feel, I reckon. Suddenly a game I’d struggled to play in stretches longer than twenty minutes seemed difficult to stay away from.
Absolver is one of those nonchalant PvE games. Unless you choose to play offline, you’ll find yourself on servers with up to a few other players at once. Like yourself, they’ll mostly be running around and fighting AI, perhaps looking for the boss fights. The important thing is that most of the time they don’t want to kill you, and you probably don’t want to kill them. You can choose to co-operate, you can choose to ignore each other – oftentimes you’ll do a mixture of the two, perhaps helping each other in one fight then running off in different directions. The game is full of these ephemeral moments – friendships are made and lost as players cycle through the game areas. Communication is done through a chat-wheel of exaggerated gestures, and this turns out to be yet another instance (ala Rocket League, Journey et al) of how removing direct communication can help make a game more pleasant and encourage people to be good to each other. Because, well, in Absolver people are mostly good to each other. Sure, you can still spontaneously go and beat another player to the floor, but you won’t be rewarded for it; neither in points nor rage.
For those who do desire to beat other players to the floor, I have good news for you – Absolver’s PvP mode is simple but robust. This can be accessed from the shrines scattered about Absolver’s world, so it’s not like you have to go back to the main menu. You get pitted against an opponent in one of several arenas, first to three knockdowns wins. Afterwards, you can ready up and see if they’ll give you a rematch – or you can just exit out to try and find someone else, or get back to biffing your way through Absolver’s overworld. While I was playing, wait times for games were reasonable, and it matched me against opponents that were higher-levelled than me, sure, but at least in the same ballpark.
Where Absolver’s online integration has fallen short has been on the technical side, with semi-frequent server lag particularly in the PvE parts of the game. Because the game quietly moves you to a different server whenever you change areas, you can suddenly go from forgetting that you’re on the internet at all to finding yourself being hit by punches that were thrown three seconds prior. Fortunately, it’s something that Absolver’s devs have been working on, and the instances of this have gradually decreased over the time I spent with the game.
I’d also drop a mention for Absolver’s use of customisation and in-game items. You get to build your character, yes, and that’s cool, but also there are a heap of clothing and armour items that drop from vanquished foes. These have stats that will affect your defence and movement capabilities but, also, sometimes they just look cool, and you want to equip a silly thing that you found even though it makes you sluggish and weak. It’s a small part of the game, but while every game has an item system these days, it’s still good to see this sort of thing used well.
One criticism I keep coming back to with Absolver is the wish for there to be more of it – it’s something a lot of players have voiced already. After the final boss, there’s still a long way the player can go in terms of improving their skillset and the moves available to them – but whether this is end-game enough is a point that could be argued either way. On one hand, it’s hard not to imagine what Absolver’s combat system could do for a big Ubisoft-style open-world game; on the other hand, you might argue that the joy of fighting and improving is the point and essence of Absolver and that adding more story around that would just be taking away from the purity of the experience. Personally, I’m happy with Absolver for what it is: a game of limited scope that does do one thing very well. If it leads to deeper combat systems in big-budget games down the line then, well, so be it.