Absolver PC, PS4
Sloclap’s brave new take on the RPG proves the students can become the masters
Mr Miyagi said it best: “No such thing as bad student; only bad teacher.” Granted, he was talking about karate, not videogames – but we’ve recalled his words during previous demos of Absolver. This online fighting-game RPG overwhelms. There are move timings to master, loadouts to optimise, a combat deck to build and opponents to worry about. We admire, perspire and listen as patient devs explain, but come away defeated. Perhaps, we decide,
Absolver isn’t capable of teaching all that it needs to. But an extended play session at Sloclap’s tiny Parisian studio enlightens. Just like Miyagi, Absolver, in time, reveals its subtle discipline.
As with all martial arts, Absolver’s melee brawling is a test of focus, perception and skill, half-conscious, half-not. Controls are simple – there are only two attack buttons – but execution is key. The secret to success is timing: an on-screen meter pulses throughout the animation of each move, and if you perform the next attack when it reaches the indicator, your moves will chain seamlessly, stunlocking your opponent. It is a huge ask of a new player, requiring immediate precision in an era where fighting games hand out free combos like participation trophies to eager button-mashers. Absolver encourages failure at first, because it wants you to truly know
and understand your arsenal: the startup on every move, swift or slow; whether a certain kick will hit left or right; the risk and reward of a guard-breaking blow.
“I think it is actually pretty accessible, and it’s really easy to pick up and play,” creative director Pierre Tarno tells us. “You have two attack buttons, your guard, your dodge, and that’s it. And if you want to just play that way, you can. But then you’ve got different layers. Maybe another step will be to stop buttonmashing and start doing perfect attacks, and that makes you more efficient.”
The densely packed systemic layers of Absolver rise and expand in their full context, woven throughout the ruined, sun-bleached kingdom of Adal. Other would-be warriors wander, in search of their own victories. NPCs move towards us with urgency, ready for a fight to the death; player characters bow, or gesture, before launching into a sparring match or co-op requests. It’s in spontaneous fights that we start pushing ourselves. Our chosen fighting style, Windfall, is dexterity-focused, with a special ability: a unique dodge that, done in time and the right direction, lets us avoid enemy attacks. At first, we’re not sure how much it differs from a regular sideways dodge, but we soon realise we can duck high blows and jump low ones, too.
And once we’ve become confident with the ability, squaring off against different fighting styles has us hungry to learn yet again. Every time we defeat an opponent in one of our four stances, Absolver’s smart system rewards us with XP towards certain unlockable moves within said stance. We know we have potential; it’s only when we come across a player using the Khalt style, which lets them absorb the damage from an enemy hit via a perfectly timed input, that we start to consider developing it and becoming competitive. Indeed, this is exactly what Tarno and his team are after. “In a traditional fighting game, if you’re fighting Dhalsim, you know his moves. You know the character. It’s all about knowing your matchup. In Absolver, when you fight somebody else, you don’t know what their moves are going be. So there’s that permanent adaptation to the moves of the opponent that’s going be a very interesting thing in competitive play.”
Our dive into the combat-deck menu is less into clear water, more a murky sludge; seemingly vacant ‘new move’ notifications and strange layouts make an already intimidating process worse. Once we finally manage to do so, replacing the low kick at the end of our top-left stance combo with a Triangle-triggered alternative punch will now automatically throw us into our top-right stance and moveset – no more awkward thumbstick twiddling for us. When we meet the same Khalt opponent again, our swift stance-switching, combined with some practised feinting, catches them off guard. Every time we goad them into their absorbing move, and every time, we punish it. Later, in a cooperative effort versus a miniboss, we purposefully change to a stance with a thrust attack so as not to smack our partner while fighting alongside them. Slowly but surely, we catch ourselves wrapping ourselves in new layers, taking arms against a sea of troubles: parries, weapons, crowd control, and on it goes.
And when you finally feel you’ve learnt all you can from Absolver, you can turn to others. Those who have proven their mastery in the campaign are able to start their own martialarts schools in-game, founded on their own unique stance combinations. These are available from the get-go: meet a player who’s part of one, and you can also choose to join. It means even casual players can quickly find a strong playstyle. Even if you’re more experienced, but get bested by a tricky moveset, it’s worth pinning your colours to that particular mast for the time being. “Since the schools are built around movesets, we’re going to see the best ones spread virally,” Tarno says. “If we see something too powerful, we’re going to rebalance it. But mostly, I think the meta is going to balance [itself]. One dominant strategy will start to emerge, so somebody is going to find the counter-moveset.” It’s not all about high-level play, however. Tarno fondly recalls the time he and another player struck up a partnership purely on account of having the same haircut. Ultimately, he says, “it’s a combat game that’s about making friends.”
And a weird one; Absolver is certainly an acquired taste. The danger, of course, is limbo: fighting game enthusiasts turning away from a 1v1 experience they feel is too unpredictable, purposely designed to lack fixed, learnable movesets; RPG fans frustrated by the complexity of the melee brawling aspects. But with Sloclap’s school concept in place, and such an inventive and well-executed genre mashup on show, we allow ourselves a degree of optimism. Naturally, it is even harder for Tarno. “On my good days,” he says, “I’m like, ‘This could be a hit, we’re going to be okay.’ And on the bad days, I’m like, ‘People are going to like it but it’s going to be niche.’ We’ll see. One thing is for sure: I’m not just focusing on the sales of the month of release. Because I think that it’s a game that will grow.” Based on our apprenticeship with it so far, it’s not merely the game that has the potential to adapt and improve. With patience and time, like any good sensei, Absolver shows itself more than capable of teaching whomsoever is willing to learn.
The garments of
Absolver have their roots in real fashion: Croatian designer Damir Doma lent his expert eye to many pieces of the game’s gear. “We were inspired by some of his work,” Tarno tells us. “He came to the studio here, we visited his studio in Milan. They did drafts of what Absolvers’ masks could look like, sent us loads of references from their work, and that sort of inspired our work on this.” Tarno hopes that
Absolver’s fashion will even become a kind of language in itself. “There’s the whole social aspect of you meeting people and telling yourself a story when you see somebody. How does that person fight? She’s dressed all in black with a red mask. Is she going to be bad, or is she going to be nice?”
“Since the schools are built around movesets, we’ll see the best ones spread virally”
Creative director Pierre Tarno