I love the Vita, but I often find myself only really getting around to playing it when I have some travel time and I want something to take with me. I think part of the reason I do this is because exciting new releases for the Vita are often spread so thin on the calendar that I don’t really feel any pressure to get around to anything when it comes out. This is usually reinforced by the fact that a lot of Vita titles are ports of games that had already been out on existing platforms for a while, so there’s a chance I’ve already played them. Furthermore, a lot of these ports often end up running poorly on the Vita, making it more attractive to play them elsewhere, even though I like to play games handheld. It’s a very rare occurrence for a game to release first on Vita, and offer arguably the best experience on that platform.
I recently discovered, though, that one such game that excels on Vita is Severed, a first person dungeon exploration game by the same team that created Guacamelee. It originally released exclusively for the Vita last year, but since then found its way to 3DS and Wii U, as well. Taking place in a Mesoamerican-inspired fantasy world, it pairs an oddly vibrant art style with a contrastingly gloomy and ominous atmosphere. The combat system is probably the most unique aspect of Severed as it relies entirely upon the Vita’s often underused touchscreen.
While exploring dungeons, enemies appear as glowing white orbs, and combat is initiated when the player moves onto spaces occupied by said entities. When the main character, Sasha, incurs upon an enemy party in such a way, the player is surrounded by the group of monsters, while facing only one at a given time. The foes outside of the player’s first person view are indicated as icons at the bottom of the screen that keep check of information such as their health, buffs, and status of their charging attacks. The d-pad/face buttons are used to switch focus between enemies, but the rest of combat is carried out on the Vita’s touchscreen. When the current enemy in focus reveals their weak point, the player does damage by slashing their finger back and forth across the vulnerable spot. Severed’s battles are real time, not turn-based, which means the faster the player can swipe their finger back and forth on an enemy, the more damage Sasha will deal.
Conversely, enemy attacks can be countered by swiping against the motion of their attack, so, for instance, if an enemy slashes at Sasha, swiping in the opposite direction against the motion of their claws will negate any damage dealt to the player. The icons at the bottom of the screen signal if an enemy off-view is about to attack, and monitoring these indicators and performing successful counters is critical to success in the game, since Sasha’s health is never large enough to take more than a handful of hits each encounter. The game has a decent variety of enemies, each which have different attack patterns and quirks that managed to keep me on my toes and ensured battle never became a particularly tedious affair.
In a lot of ways, Severed sort of reminds me of a game from the heyday of the Nintendo DS. There was a period of time in the DS’s early life when there was just a huge amount of titles making innovative use of the touchscreen. Since those days, touch-based gaming has kind of fallen by the wayside. I can’t think of many 3DS or Wii U games that really made heavy use of the touchscreen element in an essential way. There have been some really great touch-based games on phones, like The Room series and Lara Croft Go, but for the most part I find really exciting releases on such mobile platforms to be very few and far between. But while it’s disappointing to see this side of gaming whither, Severed at least manages to do something new and interesting in this area.
Unfortunately, there’s a slight ergonomic toll inflicted by Severed. I find the easiest way to play the game is to hold the Vita with one hand, gripping the middle of the system with my palm, which leaves the other hand free to use the touchscreen and face buttons. This method works fairly well and isn’t nearly as awkward as it sounds. The problem really comes from the rapid swiping motions the game encourages the player to make. Like I said, combat is real time, meaning the faster the player can move, the more effective they will be. So for instance, some enemies open up weak points for limited windows of time, during which I found myself swiping as furiously as I could to inflict maximum damage before the opportunity closed. Situations like this had a bad affect on my wrist, and often I would find my hand getting a little stiff and sore after only a small (30 minutes to 1 hour) play session. I don’t want to leave the impression that I was in excruciating physical pain or anything, it was a mild discomfort, but it’s probably the only real negative I found to the game.
In recent years there have been a lot of RPGs I’ve found myself getting bored with after I’ve sunk in significant playtime due to how tedious their repetitive battle systems can become. Fortunately, I felt like Severed managed to dodge this sort of fatigue, partly due to its relative brevity, but also because the game does a good job of continuously adding new wrinkles to the battle system that keep it from getting stale across the duration of Sasha’s quest. The game has a fairly decent variety of enemies that it rolls out, each which require their own strategies to counter, but it also introduces some new mechanics that require the player to continuously adapt their play style.
It’s a bit difficult to give an overview of Severed’s story due to the hazy and cryptic way in which the game opens. It’s not Dark Souls level of vaguery, but the whole game definitely has a dream-like quality that implores the player to use their own imagination and intuition to fill in the blanks it leaves. Here is the best explanation I can put together for how the game opens: A young warrior named Sasha arrives in a strange, nightmarish realm to find her missing family that were abducted in a struggle that left Sasha without her left arm (hence the title). She is guided by a shadowy, almost demonic figure of ambiguous intention and origin to set out on a quest through the nightmare world to discover their ultimate fate.
RPGs tend to be games about heroes who embark on epic journeys to counter existential crises that threaten the entire world, but Severed is a deeply personal story about loss and survivor’s guilt. Sasha is no savior of mankind, merely a young woman on a hopeless quest to save her loved ones, nothing more. Additionally, her journey is a solitary one with only a few recurring NPCs occasionally interjecting her dungeon diving. Yet despite the much more humble stakes of Severed, I still found myself thoroughly invested in Sasha’s unfolding tale up through its poignant and bittersweet conclusion. And while it might not be a game about saving the world, I still found the final boss fight to be an epic struggle against a terrifying foe.
Severed is a great game for the Vita. It’s not super long, only about 6 hours, which is probably just as long as it needs to be to not outstay its welcome. It’s kind of sad that it hasn’t quite gotten as much attention as its predecessor, Guacamelee, but I think that’s probably due to the touch-based gameplay restricting the platforms it can be available on. Regardless, I feel like the team should be commended for taking a risk to create a touchscreen-focused experience. It goes a long way to disprove the popular theory that games that use controls besides the standard DualShock/Xbox controller or mouse and keyboard can only be empty gimmicks.