Absolver is fighting. It’s kung-fu, karate, and I’m sure other forms thrown together into a large world for literal kicks. That’s what it does for about 90 percent of the time, and that’s a good bullet point to have. Originality will immediately push you through a lot of lines in life and video games (if those are separate for you). Because of the fighting therein, Absolver feels fresh for a good while.
After you realize that you’ve heard the same verse of the same song for 20+ hours, you may not have that fresh smile any more.
The ol’ eye test reveals a decent little envelope of visual sweets. Though I must say, I’ve never grown in love and then out of love with a single visual style so quickly in my life as I have with the faceless clay person look. Absolver was the first to that party so there’s a slight pass built in, but it’s a style that far too many people are diluting into a literal faceless segment in a hugely visual medium. Even so, it’s tough to deny that the environments and vistas have wonderful colors that can lead to hugely thematic showdowns.
Fighting in hand-to-hand combat has never before felt so lively as it does in Absolver. Quick-time events, I believe, derailed a lot of potential in this area to where some of the coolest actions a player could possibly perform feel meaningless. Absolver rolls back the last 15 years and builds a world where everyone is flashing through martial arts styles in order to beat their opponent. Because it is built so effectively and broadly, it becomes intoxicating that these are your actions and moves, not those of a cutscene.
That seems understated but it truly is a bit of a video game fantasy come to life for me. There’s nothing more interactive nor intimate to me than having hand-to-hand interactions match moment-to-moment action. I loved it in Phantom Pain. I lamented the lack of it in Fallout 76. Interaction with the world just feels more meaningful if you have input. That’s not a design philosophy that I’d ever expect to have slipped off the stage as is seems to from time to time.
Absolver surrounds the concept of movement, spacing, and form fully and embraces hard. Your character will battle through uneven, decayed landscapes in a series of For Honor-like duels. Against either computers or humans, you’re expected to balance between your style and the angle of your strikes. Blocking is paramount to counters and swaying momentum in and out of your favor. There’s a sense of power behind each combo as your quickly click through styles, looking for the best counter to your opponent’s bull rush.
There’s a lot to breakdown with what Absolver puts forward. You’ll feel the spearing jab that slams into your chest. Every enemy will approach you with a calculated stance that you can then breakdown with abandon. A system like this feels inherently more visceral and snappy, creating a big ol’ need for accuracy to a sniper’s degree.
Absolver falls down and snaps a femur in this category. I mean, look, this is a video game that you want the average player to be able to win. Understandably, the development team threw in plenty of ways to game the system. It’s just slightly heartbreaking that the sacrifices at the altar of player acceptance have broken one of my favorite new fighting systems to pieces.
Of the three styles that you can grab at the outset, Forsaken is the only real option to me. I’m fully aware of the various strategies many have found with Windfall’s acrobatics or Kahlt’s stat boosts but Forsaken is just a powerhouse. That’s because Forsaken focuses on strength and parry. So not only can you bash through blocks but you can counter those that come in. It’s not even close on paper nor in practice against one-on-one CPU enemies.
That argument of mine is rendered nearly moot because of Absolver’s complete reliance upon a woeful amount of stamina. Moves and battles are too quick while dealing little damage and your stamina bar will never, ever keep up. If you lose your stamina, you’ll rarely get a chance to catch your breath before a death screen. You’re in a button-tapping race against other players as well in battle. Those that joust first usually end up jousting last.
Absolver’s multiplayer is a grey blob because of the facile nature of the battles. The arenas are large and battles one-on-one, which is grandly appreciated. When entering, you immediately hit that Dark Souls flash of honor and valor the will see only those truly righteous and glorious warriors seize victory on this day. Too bad that breaks down to high-level players that have pumped life and limp into endurance always winning the day. Nothing ever feels on the level because there is such a clear and simple road to victory – time – that will never be on your side.
The Absolver single-player offering isn’t too much better despite some intrigue early on. You are tasked with battling your way out from under the title of initiate by taking on a couple of bosses and some Marked Ones. Gangs of 4 or 5 CPUs take you on at the same time more than a few times to create impossible tesseracts of death as you hunt. The map and land are nearly featureless, creating looping headaches when nothing points you towards the exact faceless jerk you need to beat up. The discovery aspect doesn’t work so well when you’re stuck in a circle of lacking environmental storytelling and faceless enemies.
Absolver is not the doomiest or gloomiest game ever made. It’s not even the most negative nor even in the top -500. The ominous title it may hold from me is that no other game has squandered so much potential in my eyes. Even as a singular, dynamic system of hand-to-hand combat arenas, the game never evolves enough to stay fresh. Absolver sadly misses step one in that quest, making it a head-shakingly dubious example of phantom potential.