Ab­solver PC, PS4

Slo­clap’s brave new take on the RPG proves the stu­dents can be­come the masters

EDGE - - GAMES - De­vel­oper Pub­lisher For­mat Ori­gin Re­lease Slo­clap De­volver Digital PC, PS4, Xbox One France Au­gust 29

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.

Counter cou­ture

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

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