Absolver is a rare game that trades in specifics—really, just one particular thing. It may garner comparisons to Dark Souls and look like a Jackie Chan tutorial video, but it is entirely about riding a single and dire line. It wants to push and pull you across the divider between winning and simply surviving, and I can’t get enough of it.
It’s a fine distinction, sure, but one that was hammered into my head throughout my tenure as a taekwondo student. Surviving means the other person not winning. It means not losing. But chalking up a victory of your own is being where you need to be and doing what you need to be doing.
That’s a contrast that you don’t really get outside of more traditional fighting games, and even then, you only get that feeling at the highest level of competition. But Absolver‘s premise and gameplay seem primed for it: you take control of a Prospect in the wild and barbarous land of Adal, aiming to beat out the other Prospects to achieve the rank of Absolver. That’s pretty much all the story you get, and that’s all you really need.
You’ll wander this land and fight a bunch of other martial artists with the full power and slow, painful understanding of two buttons. The combat in Absolver is heavy in animation priority, appearing almost glacial at times yet setting your brain aflame with anxiety and panic and, eventually, enlightenment. You have a button for a primary attack and a button for a heavy attack, but with each press of either button, you’ll enter a new stance.
This may not sound like a big deal, but in each of your four stances, these attacks do different things. You might wind up for a slow but powerful punch to the face or you might go for a quick heat check to the chest, and each one will land you in a new stance. This is all dependent on how you build your combat deck and will determine how you string together powerful assault and counter combos.
And holy smokes does it get complicated. You are not only trying to optimize yourself for reducing the possibility of getting countered or parried but also trying to pick yourself up in the middle of strings of moves when you find an opening in your opponent’s attacks. It’s like being dropped into the middle of a tornado and being told to run in any direction so long as it’s the right direction, and it is exhilarating.
This is especially true once you find yourself indulging in higher level tactics. Feinting, for instance, is a powerful one that can trick your enemy into committing to a premature dodge. Changing up your timing can also get your foe to misstep on a parry, leaving them foolishly open for a deadly barrage of punches and kicks. Taken all together, it feels like that scene from Gladiator where they reenact the Battle of Zama. You dance, you dodge, you take your potshots, but when the moment comes—and there will be a moment—you have to take them all the way to the ground.
It’s fascinating also figuring out how your loadout will affect your possible decisions. There’s very little gear that is a categorical upgrade from anything you have at any given moment, so everything is a tradeoff. And in that seemingly minute sacrifice, you could be rendering one of your attack sequences completely useless with a slower speed and thus a meaningful opening for attack. Or you could find that by rearranging your deck to take advantage of your increased power, you don’t need as many alternate moves out of your back-left stance.
For as dense as this game is, there is a fantastic way to get into it. Absolver is also an MMO, of sorts. Or at least in the way Journey and the aforementioned Souls games are. When you are online, other human players may wander into your session. They might attack you, but they could also be just wayward student much like yourself, looking to help you out in a bind and give you lessons. And in my experience, it has only been the latter.
We’ll spar and one of us will go down, but with a quick revive and a bow, it’s one of the most consistently and strangely heartwarming experience I’ve had in recent memory. There’s no way to speak unless you count the gesture system as communication, which further leans into the Journey comparisons, but it works. There’s no overt animosity that usually accompanies online multiplayer because of it. The communication is simple and pointed towards curiosity and respect rather than dominance and irreverence.
It’s handy, too, that these other players can teach you moves because it’s the only non-frustrating way to do so. When you come across a new move, you can learn it by successfully defending against it and add it to your own repertoire. But there’s no reliable way to get an AI enemy to do it, often leading to the same frustration that arises from trying to capture a rare Pokémon. It’s not fun just standing there and trying to bait a certain move out of a computer.
And for as much as the game feels like it wants to be about this sort of spur-of-the-moment cooperation, it also likes to rip it away from you with just as much consideration and warning. Boss battles will force you to disband with any friends in tow, as will even accidentally hitting your buddies. And if you respawn, you’re separated even though you are still in the same instance. It feels less like a deliberately ephemeral connection and more like a flow of consequences that wasn’t fully hewn.
While I didn’t hit many performance problems of my own, you should know plenty of people reported a bevy of lag and disconnects, not to mention full-on crashes. At worst, PvP matchmaking seemed to take longer than it should for me, but that’s also not what I was coming into Absolver for.
Granted, I had no idea what I wanted from Absolver. A nuanced fighting game? A non-MMO MMO? It didn’t really matter as it managed to surprise at almost every turn. It’s a brief experience with little post-game beyond PvP and a confusing school system, but it’s a brevity that has stuck with me a disproportionate amount of time. It’s not only surviving this deluge of fall releases. It just might be winning.
+ Complex and rewarding fighting system
+ Simple yet vital online component
+ Gorgeous ancient rustic aesthetic
– Co-op grouping is too often disgruntling
– Not much reason to go back even though it really wants you to
Final Score: 8 out of 10
Game Review: Absolver
Release: August 29, 2017
Genre: Action role-playing
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC
Players: Single-player, multiplayer