Very little shines throughout the tepid touchscreen landscape of Farmhand 4 and Alphabet Giraffe. But, lo and behold, Drinbox Studios, saviours of the struggling PlayStation Vita, have managed to craft a haunting, finger-swiping experience that adds substance and skill to an overtly trash-filled genre. Exploration is rewarded through health and magic upgrades; a sparse narrative brilliantly coalesces with a world of disorder and death; combat never feels frivolous, and is surprisingly deep considering the method of input; and not since Tearaway have the Vita’s touchy-feely features been put to such deft use.
Severed’s titular severing is done by Sasha, a one-armed, sword-wielding warrior out to find her family. Travelling around its dungeons in first person leads to a plethora of encounters with unsettling monsters that must be decapitated in order to progress. After initiating combat, a circular arena is established in which you can rotate to face a beast of your choosing in real-time. Sword slashes are done by swiping your finger along the Vita’s screen, with smaller swipes allowing more hits, but doing less damage, and with longer swipes doing the opposite. To defend yourself, you must carefully watch a small counter at the bottom of the screen (there is one for each monster), that will fill up with yellow when your enemy is ready to attack. Switching your position is then necessary in order to counter with a blocking swipe. Offensive and defensive abilities are also bolstered by a number of magical items, including a mask that can freeze time and a re-animated arm that heightens attack damage.
All of these mechanics, while initiated using simple finger movements, require a considerable amount of skill to exercise successfully. Each monster is expertly designed with a specific tactic in mind, whether offensive or defensive, meaning that attack patterns must be observed and memorised. These grow increasingly more difficult throughout the game, preventing conflict from becoming stale or predictable. High finger dexterity is also required when entering combat, as every freakish creation has some sort of eyeball or limb that must be specifically targeted in order to incite damage. For example, the game’s giant floating skulls can only be injured when their mouths are open. This combat system has true depth and finesse, as an acute balancing act must be undertaken in order to succeed: attacking correctly, watching for enemy attacks, blocking and using magic wisely. Dozens of finger movements are in constant use, and there is something animalistic – primordial and satisfying – about slicing up creatures with ever-increasing ferocity.
While you can switch between enemies easily using either the left and right arrows, or the circle and square buttons, doing so during combat is no manageable task. Having to take your slashing hand off the Vita is almost always necessary, meaning that the handheld must be propped up using something in your immediate environment (Tip: a pillow is always good). If nothing is available, having the hefty Vita balanced in one hand as you hack at deformed monsters can produce a slight amount of wrist strain.
If you can power through the pain, repeatedly slashing these beasts in their sensitive areas, without having your attacks deflected, will fill up your focus meter; and once they are dead, you can enter Severed Mode. This slows down time and allows you to cut off creatures’ various body parts in order to upgrade Sasha’s many abilities. This system successfully ties combat to the game’s role-playing mechanics, as it rewards prowess in battle with heightened skills. Giblet’s, the game’s main currency, can then be traded for rarer appendages, preventing a slow-down in upgrade progress if you happen to be finding combat rather difficult.
Items pertaining to your overall strength can also be found throughout Severed’s labyrinthine dungeons. While in first-person, you travel through a series of corridors and circular rooms to reach your goal, many of which contain environmental puzzles along the way, varying from illusory walls, which must be opened using magical items, to visual riddles hidden within large red tomes. Heart and brain pieces, which improve your health and magic respectively, as well as more useful items, referred to as mementos, can be recovered from some of Severed’s most difficult areas. Exploration is therefore thoroughly encouraged; a jaunt into unknown territory may be taxing, but an item of useful intent will always be your just reward.
Every area has been designed using a colourful aesthetic that is both cartoonish and unsettling. Bright forests and temples may glow with a natural softness, but the creatures that inhabit them are a disgusting mash of pulsating parts and squishy membranes. This juxtaposition creates something unique, an art style that is both bold and unafraid to gel beauty with something decidedly more sinister. This is also a key aspect of Severed’s story, in which Sasha is driven by love through a Technicolor hell to retrieve her family’s corpses; a truly disquieting prospect to say the least. Upon finding her brother, for example, his limbs and eye sockets have been penetrated by plant-like growths, a sight that conjures up images of the body after the burial process. In this respect, Sasha is not only seeking out objects of death, but is confronting the physical act of bodily decay head-on. Severed addresses mature themes with subtlety, as thin narrative threads meditate on death, the dead and grief throughout its haunting tale.
While touchscreen games are often lacklustre affairs, that present you with fake buttons and flimsy motion controls, Severed is truly one of skill and style. Its finger swiping has depth and intuition, its RPG mechanics are simplistic yet rewarding, and its story contains unsettling yet wholly relatable themes. It is a Vita game made for the system. It is a Vita game of masterful creation. It is a Vita game that everyone should play.
Touch My Giblets
Severed uses the Vita's touchscreen masterfully. It is a mature tale with death, limbs and poignancy at every turn.