Absolver is the type of game to make me wonder if I need to take anger management therapy. I nearly broke my hand playing this game; and I'm not being cute or funny here, I literally pounded my clenched fist into my chair's armrests so hard that at one point I lost all feeling and function in my right hand. (I'm better now, if you were wondering.) So yeah, it's difficult. It's frustrating.
But man is it rewarding, too.
Absolver wears its Dark Souls inspiration on its sleeve, and I'm not talking just in terms of difficulty. There's the same emphasis on telling its story through dilapidated environments instead of expository dialogue, evoking a sense of an empire fallen from grace. There are the same sort of enigmatic characters with hidden backstories and imperceptible motives for what they do. And of course, there's the whole 'die and you lose your XP' incentive for you to learn pattern recognition. There's even an equivalent to the Souls series' campfires.
This isn't to say Absolver doesn't feel like its own thing - it very much does. It's just that the framework upon which it's built and a few individual elements will likely feel familiar. What you've never seen before is Absolver's unique approach to combat. At the start of the game, you'll pick one of three martial arts schools. One is focused on your strength stat and has lots of slow but powerful punches; one is focused on dexterity and is quicker, more agile, but less damaging; and one is intended as a balance between the two. Regardless of which style you pick, the hits feel solid and connect with satisfying whump and crack sounds.
There's more to a fight than whether you win or lose, though. Enemies in Absolver rarely drop equipment, and you'll never just magically gain a new attack. If you want to expand your combat abilities, you'll need to learn by fighting.
Let's say a particular enemy, be they human or NPC, has a spinning kick they tend to open combat with. If you successfully block, parry, dodge, or absorb the attack, you'll start to fill up an XP bar specific to that move. Get hit by the move and you won't earn XP. Die or run away and you'll lose what progress you made. But succeed at countering it enough times and you'll be able to perform it yourself, adding it to what the game calls a "Combat Deck". This ensures that every move feels earned, and every fight has the weight of risk and reward.
Despite the possible insinuation of a card-collecting, lootbox-buying scheme behind the name, the Combat Deck is simply the means in which you choose your style of fighting. In Absolver, each attack leads into the next, regardless of what the next move actually is. So you could jab twice with your right hand, or jab once and hook with your left, or jab and then do that awesome spinning kick you just learned… the list goes on.
The depth and ease with which you can switch up your Deck to create your combos are almost too plentiful to comprehend. Any time you feel like an attack is slowing you down, holding you back, or you just want to try something new, you can. There's no lengthy respeccing process, no gold cost, no nothing. Just find somewhere safe, meditate, and mix your Deck to your heart's content. It feels positively freeing.
Fighting styles - gotta learn 'em all
This constant flexibility creates a feedback loop, where you'll see (or more likely, get knocked out by) a cool move being utilized by a powerful foe. And you'll know that you can get it if you fight them for long enough to understand how it works. As soon as you’re an expert in what this move looks like, the game reflects that by allowing your character to utilize it. You feel in sync with your kung fu avatar, and hopefully, you'll want to keep traveling the world, always striving to learn new moves. It's a satisfying, addicting feeling that makes Absolver so unique.
It makes you want to build up your list of moves to the point you could feasibly create your own school of martial arts and teach other players. That's not some futile fantasy, either, as once you've mastered the game, you can do exactly that. Pre-launch I couldn't find any players practicing this mentor-student relationship, but I imagine that once more players are roaming the servers, you'll find all manner of roleplayers, combat enthusiasts, and I'm sure a few pranksters, enjoying this unique social space.
Even in the face of occasional network and technical hiccups that caused everything from dropped frames while transitioning between areas to a fight spawning in a duplicate copy of the extra-tough guy I needed to kill, I couldn't stay mad at the game. There's always the promise of more, if you can surmount the challenges it throws at you. And though I'd sometimes bang my fist at losing a close fight or call foul on being shoved off a ledge to my death, I always got up, dusted myself off, and charged right back in.
Of course, the idea of Absolver is that you don’t have to go into that level of detail. You can just brute force your way through, mashing buttons and not learning anything. It's far more difficult, you'll die a lot more, and you probably won't have as much fun. What little narrative there is lasts a mere several hours, so to get your money’s worth you’ll have to really dig in. Absolver is very much game that puts out what you put into it.
If you’re going to have the best experience, you need to try new techniques, put together different (and silly) outfits and explore every nook and cranny of Absolver’s vibrant yet ruined world. It’s a little rough around the edges, and the lack of structured content indicates this is only the first step into a larger universe - but it is so thoroughly committed and confident in its core premise that I can't help but be enthralled, broken hand and all.