The duel was not going particularly well for me. While working through this Absolver review, I’d gotten careless and underestimated another of the dozens of random, artificially intelligent fighters who populate the game’s world. I was about to die.
I’d started to think I could just slam through fights without much care, absently pounding the X button and unfurling my carefully crafted series of combos until my enemies caved. I realized I was wrong when this nobody parried my favorite side kick, slammed me with a punch to the chest, and followed up with a leaping haymaker to break my guard and leave me staggering.
But that’s also when Sloclap’s Absolver got cool. Another player wandering this weird, martial arts-obsessed world happened by, saw me getting wrecked, and quickly delivered a series of blows to my opponent from the back. My attacker crumbled and disintegrated. My savior bowed, turned around, and vanished around a corner. I escaped with a sliver of health and a head full of knowledge.
Absolver is defined by these kinds of encounters. It’s a game in which every moment is a fight or preparation for a fight. Everything you do, you do to get stronger — best other fighters or fall to their blows, all the while trying to improve yourself. Running around a mostly empty world, populated only by students of combat, are other players who can help or hinder you, sometimes in the same few moments. It’s a world that runs on methodical beatdowns and unpredictable meetups, and rewards brain power as much as digital muscle power.
Path of the fighter
There’s something of a light framing story at work in Absolver, but the game is really just about getting into fights. It’s a classic Kung Fu story: You have to fight your way through a ruined city from an old empire, looking to find mastery and enlightenment in tangling with other warrior pilgrims looking to do the same. To endear yourself to the leaders of the new empire, you’ve become a Prospect, working to become a special, somewhat ill-defined master known as an Absolver. So are all the other players, and the city is filled with computer-controlled Lost Prospects who tried and failed, and now wait for a chance to attack and impede those on their quest.
Your path to becoming an Absolver requires you to win fights against nine major opponents. Six are “Marked Ones” — special duelers who are more powerful than the enemies you’ll run across throughout the rest of the world — and three more involved boss fights.
Finding those battles is as much a task as actually winning them. Adal, the ruined city in which the game takes place, is fairly sprawling, with environments ranging from ruins mired in swamp to destroyed, densely packed homes. With only an extremely undetailed map to go on, most of the game is spent sweeping through Absolver’s environments, trying to find the right guys to punch. Other enemies are everywhere, waiting to stop you.
Absolver is never about who hit the buttons the fastest or memorized the best combos.
But it’s the amount of effort, time, and thought that Scoclap has put into its fights that makes venturing into the game worthwhile. Absolver has a deep, detailed combat system that’s simultaneously approachable. As you learn new moves you build a “Combat Deck,” in which you dictate which moves your character uses every time you hit one of the attack buttons. Those attacks are determined by which of four stances your character takes. Each attack animation originates from a specific stance, and leaves your character in specific stance, often different than one it came from.
The trick is to build combos in which your character fluidly moves from one stance to the another, so each string of attacks takes you to the next. You also have to time your attacks carefully to keep the combos varied, but flowing. A stamina bar powers all your actions, adding a strategic element: Leave too little stamina for blocking after you finish your attack, and your enemy might break your guard and pummel you with a counter-attack.
The more you fight, the more attacks you learn, and as you level up, you can build longer and longer combos. Battles become cerebral dances you choreograph ahead of time for maximum effectiveness. Unlike most fighting games, battles in Absolver are never about who hit the buttons the fastest or who memorized the best combos. It’s about preparation, getting into the zone, reading and recognizing your opponents’ moves, and exercising patience.
Cooperative and competitive
Interesting as the combat system is on its face, especially because developer Sloclap populated it with painstakingly realized real martial arts moves, it wouldn’t be enough to carry the game if it didn’t allow you to fight other players. In Absolver’s open multiplayer, other people are dropping into your game all the time, running around and fighting in the same place as you, presumably with the same goals. And you never quite know what they’ll do.
Fighting other players is basically required. You need to beat them to get the game’s best gear and to reach its most interesting features, like joining or starting a fighting school to learn more moves and styles.
Working together, though, also has its obvious advantages. Having someone back you up takes away the numerical advantage Lost Prospects often have over you that can make even run-of-the-mill fights dangerous. And even after you’ve defeated the game’s bosses, you can return to them for tougher challenges, which become all the more manageable when you’ve got a little backup.
Battles become cerebral dances you choreograph ahead of time.
What’s cool about Absolver is that both things happen at the same time, with as much or as little structure as you want. You can join the Combat Trials, which start by pitting you in one-on-one fights with other players, and you can use systems to formally cooperate with other players you might meet. Or you can just kick the guy they’re fighting at a key moment to give them a hand; or bust them in the back of the head when they’re not ready for you. It’s up to you.
Playing with others is what gives Absolver legs, especially since there really isn’t much to the game beyond an endless series of fights. Joining up with other people to take on tougher challenges, or trying to become the best fighter you can by facing other people, remains fun thanks to Absolver’s deep fighting system, even after you’ve beaten down 100 guys along the way.
Awaiting some updates
The game isn’t without issues, though. Playing the game for this review on launch day, we found we couldn’t connect to Absolver’s live servers at all, and had to play the game alone. That’s an issue the team has said on Twitter that it’s working on, but it does add some frustration to an otherwise solid package.
Other issues are small but nagging nuisances. The camera gets hung up on stuff pretty easily, making the game a struggle if you happen to get backed into a corner by an opponent. The minimalist map is largely useless, which can make finding the opponents you actually need to fight frustrating. And enemies will occasionally get stuck or glitch out as they try to navigate around the game.
Other than the online connectivity issue, these things don’t come up very often. It does feel as though Absolver could have benefitted from a bit more time in the oven, but the real meat of the game — involved, intense martial arts battles — is tasty enough to make other troubles easy to overlook.Our Take
Absolver’s is hyper-focused on its fighting system, and the work Sloclap did there pays off. Its combination of cool systems, like learning fighting moves from enemies and player mentors, creating your own combos, and carefully and strategically using them during fights, makes every battle feel intense and important, especially in multiplayer scenarios. While everything else surrounding that system feels a bit anemic by comparison, the mix of great ideas Absolver brings to its core concept carries the rest, and should inspire plenty of other fighting and action games.
Is there a better alternative?
No. Fighting games like Injustice 2 are similar, as is the Dark Souls series and its ilk, but nothing is quite the marriage of fighting and action systems that Absolver represents.
How long will it last?
We beat all the Marked Ones and bosses to earn the title of Absolver in about six hours, but with plenty more fighting moves to learn and players to beat on, Absolver can potentially keep players busy for quite a while.
Should you buy it?
At the mid-tier price of $30, Absolver is a game anyone who enjoys brainy, difficult battles should definitely snag.
“Absolver” was reviewed on PC using code provided by the publisher.