Severed establishes its setup with devastating economy. A thin plume of smoke draws you down a wind-buffeted, twilit path towards its source, a small fire amid the ruins of a collapsed home. Heading inside, you catch your reflection in the mirror. A young woman, Sasha, gasps as she sees the bloody stump where her right arm once was, sparking a disturbing vision. Suddenly a tall, cloaked figure is standing behind you. He hands you a sword and a mission: find your family, and bring them home. A minute in and you’re ready for whatever awaits. Eight hours later, as you listlessly swipe at what feels like the 50th giant bat you’ve faced, you’ll wonder how it all went so wrong.
There’s one good reason to keep plugging away. This universe is extraordinary, a desolate netherworld painted in lurid purples, pinks and greens, and populated by Dia De Los Muertos enemies, from ragged crows to chattering skulls with jagged protrusions poking through their sockets. Everything else has too many arms, tendrils, claws or eyes; sometimes all four. Your only ally in this place appears to be a bird with two necks, each supporting a toothy maw in lieu of a head.
Though a handful lie down optional routes, you can’t avoid the rest. At first, you won’t want to, as encounters present an enjoyably hectic plate-spinning act: with simple swipes, you’ll parry incoming attacks and respond in kind, slashing at weak points. Tells and vulnerable parts are easily read, so the challenge comes from prioritising threats when surrounded. Icons will alert you when a poisonous growth is about to pop, or the swing of a club is imminent, and unlockable abilities let you freeze enemies, debuff later variants, and trigger a rage mode that empowers every swipe but renders you inert if overused. Alas, DrinkBox struggles to develop it; battles never get deeper, simply more attritional. It gets shallower as you progress, with strict time limits promoting rapid scrubbing rather than precise strikes.
With the combat losing its allure, the focus shifts toward exploration, and the sense of disappointment grows. The map presents the illusion of intricacy, but navigational puzzles are simplistic. Question marks let you know where secrets are, and with your interactions limited to rudimentary swipes and taps, the solutions present themselves in seconds. Gating is somehow even less subtle than in DrinkBox’s previous game, Guacamelee, which had colour-coded blocks obstructing your path. There’s something in the vivid strokes of a sparse, single-minded narrative that compels you to see Sasha’s mission through to its strikingly bitter end. Otherwise, this is a frustrating step backwards for a studio that can do better.
Three optional mementos are the only secrets requiring any real thought to locate; collecting them shortens the final battle and makes a minor cosmetic difference to the ending. Which is as worthwhile as it sounds