I like Absolver. I want to love it, but I can't. Not right now. It's core gameplay can be satisfying and thrilling, requiring deliberate, precise control to succeed. There is an impressive depth of strategy while still being approachable. But sometimes clunky controls, often buggy online play, and some obtuse mechanics and design choices have lead me to quit the game in frustration far too often at this point. The core combat mechanics are strong enough to keep me coming back for now, but I'm not sure how long that will last without some updates, particularly to the online experience.
Absolver is an online combat game, the first developed by Sloclap, that is heavily influenced by the Souls games. It's main adventure can be played solo (online or off) or cooperatively by joining into ad hoc groups other players you see running around the game world or with friends. There is a competitive multi-player component of the game, where you can fight other players to gain loot and experience. I've been mainly playing solo, but have enjoyed playing both with and against the randos I've encountered online (when the servers are up, more on that later).
The gameplay hinges on the combat system, which is innovative, deep, and satisfying. Mechanically it's very simple. There are only two attack buttons, one for main attacks which you can string into combos, and another for one off attacks. You can block and dodge as well. That's it. No complex command sequences or anything. While mechanically simple, there is tremendous depth to the strategy and execution of combat.
Similar to Souls games, you have a stamina meter that is drained by blocking, attacking or dodging. Managing your own stamina and keeping a close eye on your enemies meter are crucial. There are four stances. Each attack button executes a different move depending on which stance you are in and each move leaves you in a different stance when it finishes. You learn new moves as you encounter them in battle, and can customize your move set ("deck") at any time during the game. Building a "deck" that plays to your strengths, flows well between stances, and can effectively counter your enemies is a layer of meta-strategy that I'm only starting to wrap my head around.
Reading your opponents move-set and learning how to effectively counter their attacks on the fly is so much fun and makes every encounter feel fresh and interesting. You can "feint" attacks to mess with your enemies timing and keep them on their toes. You start with hand-to-hand combat, but eventually obtain weapons, with entirely separate move sets. The combat is fluid and exhilarating when you really get into the flow with a tough enemy.
The game is beautiful. The low-polygon count and simple textures are reminiscent of The Witness. Character models aren't very detailed, but the design is appealing. There are even stone statues (maybe unfortunate souls somehow frozen in their final moments?) strewn about. The animations are smooth, which is vital to the gameplay where reading and recognizing your opponents moves is essential. The lighting is excellent. Each area has it's own quality of light, and there is a neat transition of the lighting between areas as the sun quickly moves through the sky, as if hours are passing by in an instant as you walk through a hallway between areas. Some of the backdrops are stunning. Impossibly huge towers off in the distance, or ruined cities sprawling out around the play area provide moments of awe and a feeling that you are living in a much larger world with a rich history. It's another move taken from the Dark Souls playbook, and executed really effectively.
There is a lot to like about this game at its core. Unfortunately right now there are a lot of nagging issues that are building up to sour my experience. The camera is frustratingly bad. In wide-open areas it's fine, but any time I'm engaged in battle in a cramped corridor or small room I end up spending a lot of time frustrated trying to get a good view of the action which completely disrupts the flow of the fight and makes it very hard to get a good read on the enemy. The lock-on system is clunky, and makes encounters with multiple enemies more of a chore than anything. Locking, unlocking, and changing locked enemies is clumsy, but I can get over that. What is absolutely infuriating is that the lock on doesn't entirely dictate who you are attacking or defending. Sometimes attacks are focused on a non-locked enemy if they are closer for instance. I've had many instances where I get one of a pair of enemies nearly knocked out, just needing one more hit to take out, but when I go to deliver the final blow I end up going for the other enemy and opening myself up for a counter-attack from the guy I wanted to finish off. Movement in general is just a bit messy, which leads to problems when you're trying to out maneuver an enemy or get out of a corner but get stuck on something in the environment. Fighting on ledges or near water can get infuriating when you end up falling off the edge to your death due to what at times feels like sloppy controls rather than a misstep. The servers have thus far been horrendous. They are often down or intermittent. I find that the game constantly declares that I've died randomly, although I have not, and this ends up resetting the enemies in the area. This lead to a maddening encounter where I was working my way through a room with three enemies. I had taken out the first two and was nearly finished with the third when the game somehow thought I died, which lead to three more enemies appearing right on top of me, at which time I actually died.
Beyond jank, some sloppy controls, and server issues, there are some design and usability issues that add to the frustration. I wish there was an option to create default move decks. While there is certainly fun to be had in designing an effective deck, I don't always want to spend the time to carefully construct a set of moves. And early on you can't really build a good deck anyway because you don't yet understand the systems. Give me something like the helper in Hearthstone that suggests one of a few cards to add to your deck if you don't know what is missing. I have limited time to play games these days, and sometimes I just want to get into the action without spending 20 minutes in menus. Also I find that I'm constantly lost in the world. You only get any kind of map when you're at "altars" (think bonfires from Dark Souls) and what map you're given is basically useless. Dark Souls gets away without any kind of map because the world is so detailed and each area unique and well designed, and you can end up spending a lot of time exploring and learning each area, that you don't really need a map and end up learning how things are connected and where to go through intuition and memory. I usually have a very good sense of direction and don't find myself getting lost in games, but I never really know where I am or am going in Absolver. I find myself learning a few small areas, but not really knowing how they connect together. It's easy to miss paths, or to find yourself going around in circles. I get what they're going for without fast travel or a map to guide you, making you really explore and pay close attention to your surroundings to learn how to navigate, but I just don't think they have the detail and design required to pull that off. Just give me a map, damn it.
Note that I haven't talked about the story at all. What little there is isn't worth mentioning really. There might be some hidden lore for those interested in digging and intuiting what's happening. But really it amounts to having a mask put on your character and being told to go kill some people so you can move on to some place locked behind a gate. They're really going for a Souls storytelling method. Like the Souls games, I don't really care that much that I don't know much about the world, characters, or the motivation for what I'm doing. I just want to beat on some fools and have some nice stuff to look at while I'm at it.
In the end, I love the core of Absolver. The combat system is deep and rewarding. The world is beautiful if maybe a bit empty feeling. But right now there are a lot of things keeping me from thoroughly enjoying what I love. Sloppy camera, clunky controls, bugs, server issues, all end up leading to frustration. Each thing on it's own might not be a big deal. And from a game that is less demanding, I might even be able to overlook the issues. But I'm finding that a game that requires precision and deliberate actions of it's players and fails has a much higher bar for polish. I am OK with dying over and over again in Dark Souls because I always end up feeling like I made a misstep and can learn from my failure. Far too often in Absolver I feel like the game got in my way or screwed me somehow, and after a while you don't feel so compelled to come back and try again.
In the modern age of ever evolving games and games as a service, I hope that some of these issues can be resolved, especially the server issues. Maybe in a couple of months this game will be polished and have even more to offer. I truly hope so, because I want to love this game if they'd only let me.