EDGE - - GAMES - De­vel­oper Slo­clap Pub­lisher De­volver Dig­i­tal For­mat PC, PS4 (tested) Re­lease Out now

At first, help­ing hands seem few and far between. A brief tu­to­rial brushes over the ba­sics of fight­ing: one but­ton for a quick blow, a sec­ond for a guard-break­ing at­tack, and other com­mands pro­duc­ing a block, a feint and an eva­sive dash. There’s a chance to prac­tise your Prospect’s spe­cial class abil­ity – a parry, per­haps, or a multi-di­rec­tional dodge – a scuf­fle with a gate­keeper, and then you’re free to roam the ru­ined king­dom of Adal. Un­for­tu­nately, so is ev­ery­one else. Jog­ging about in starter gear is an open in­vi­ta­tion to groups of high-level thugs who might like to bat­ter you silly for sweet XP. There is lit­tle de­fence against it. Thank­fully, such at­tacks are infrequent – and are even some­times fol­lowed by an out­stretched palm, as an of­fend­ing player pulls your fighter to their feet.

Fight­ing is de­fined by your com­bat ‘deck’, a set of four cus­tomis­able chains of moves that you can switch between for un­pre­dictable flur­ries of blows. Press­ing but­tons in prac­tised rhythms and dodg­ing, one eye on your stamina bar, will get you half­way, but the key to ad­vanced play lies in the Med­i­ta­tion menu. En­ter­ing it al­lows you to spend earned at­tribute points, edit your deck and test out the changes in Prac­tice mode. Each move leaves you in a par­tic­u­lar stance, mean­ing you can al­ter things so you flow au­to­mat­i­cally into an­other se­ries of moves, cir­cum­vent­ing man­ual stancechang­ing. Adding ‘al­ter­na­tive’ moves to the sec­ond but­ton is the next step when op­po­nents be­gin to pre­dict your flow: throw­ing out a low sweep in­stead of the ex­pected jab, for in­stance, can make all the dif­fer­ence.

It’s a vis­ual tool­kit break­ing down what sea­soned fight­ing-game play­ers have been do­ing in their heads for decades: Ab­solver’s brawls just re­quire ad­vance prepa­ra­tion. The prob­lem is that the sys­tem is never quite ex­plained. In­tro­duc­tory fights are un­in­tu­itive: ex­per­i­men­tal presses of the same but­ton yield­ing dif­fer­ent re­sults ev­ery time, an unin­spected deck throw­ing you into a palm strike or guard-break­ing kick seem­ingly at ran­dom. All you can do is put up your guard and block, and wait, and try to learn. But this pa­tience is a me­chanic. Suc­cess­fully defending against cer­tain blows raises a me­ter: win the fight, and you keep XP for that move. Fill the me­ter en­tirely over time, and you’ll add it to your reper­toire. Wait­ing for an op­po­nent to use up stamina on your block can be­come a grind, as you drag out brawls with AI foes to farm moves. Nonethe­less, dis­ci­pline is tan­gi­bly re­warded, and the spoils en­cour­age you to ex­per­i­ment fur­ther.

The four class abil­i­ties add fur­ther depth. Fol­low­ers of Forsaken can parry at­tacks left and right. Khalt can ab­sorb a blow and coun­ter­at­tack for a slight health boost, while the dex­trous Wind­fall can avoid at­tacks from four di­rec­tions. Pol­ish off the cam­paign – six mini­boss Marked Ones and three bosses, a cou­ple of evenings’ work – and you can learn Stag­ger, a drunken- box­ing style of de­fen­sive ma­noeu­vres with fol­low-up at­tacks at­tached. In truth, all are hard to truly master: hu­man foes are so volatile that coun­ter­ing each isn’t ex­actly rock-pa­per-scis­sors. The tim­ing on par­ries and ab­sorbs is un­for­giv­ing; the con­tex­tual knowl­edge needed to use Wind­fall’s di­rec­tional dodge con­sis­tently against Ab­solver’s hun­dreds of moves of­ten feels fu­tile. Tech­ni­cal is­sues don’t help. At the time of writ­ing, servers are strug­gling to sup­port the weight of an al­ready healthy com­mu­nity, fram­er­ates plum­met­ing when new play­ers en­ter the world zone you’re cur­rently in. If you’re mid-fight then, well, good luck. When things are work­ing as in­tended, how­ever, the bat­tle sys­tem shines. All abil­i­ties are pun­ish­able when they fail, giv­ing you acres of time to coun­ter­at­tack when bait­ing them out of NPCs or spam-happy play­ers. Suc­cess­fully us­ing yours charges en­ergy shards float­ing at your hip: use them to heal slightly, cast de­buffs or pull out a break­able weapon with a new moveset for a slight dam­age ad­van­tage. As such, fights aren’t al­ways the pre­cise, con­sis­tent clashes na­tive to the genre, and some will find the un­cer­tainty too much to bear. Yet ev­ery one-on-one ex­ists on a knife edge between skill and luck, plan­ning and in­stinct, clum­si­ness and el­e­gance – with sat­is­fy­ing weight be­hind ev­ery blow.

Fight­ing groups is ir­ri­tat­ing: at least non-hu­man op­po­nents will take turns, although an un­wieldy tar­getswitch­ing in­put isn’t much help. But Ab­solver’s more in­ti­mate in­ter­ac­tions are joy­ful men­tal dances, whether you’re fight­ing or mak­ing friends. Find­ing weak­nesses in a spar­ring part­ner’s build is tough, but a unique chal­lenge lies in silently com­mu­ni­cat­ing that a pal should use less hap­haz­ard moves so they don’t hit you when you fo­cus an en­emy to­gether. (Demon­strat­ing the move, fol­lowed by the “No no no” emote, proves ef­fec­tive.) This word­less com­mu­ni­ca­tion can de­light: be­ing led to a check­point by some­one more savvy than we’d thought, or a friend sac­ri­fic­ing them­selves for our gain by us­ing a move send­ing both them and mini­boss over a cliff. It says ev­ery­thing that the player who has just taken apart your care­fully con­structed deck in the post-cam­paign Com­bat Tri­als will res­ur­rect you, ac­cord­ing to the un­spo­ken hon­our code de­vel­op­ing – reach­ing down, hand out­stretched, to help you up again.

The re­sult is a mar­tial-arts game whose theme feeds pos­i­tively into how peo­ple play it, where ful­fil­ment comes not just from win­ning, but also from the learn­ing process. The pu­rity and qual­ity of Ab­solver’s vi­sion has pro­vided an in­no­va­tive, con­struc­tive take on an of­ten im­pen­e­tra­ble genre. It’s a chal­leng­ing yet friendly space that em­bod­ies the old adage, ‘fall down seven times, get up eight.’ We’ve fallen down many more times than that in Ab­solver – but there’s al­ways some­one on hand to help us up, their fists un­curl­ing like flow­ers.

The re­sult is a mar­tial-arts game whose theme feeds pos­i­tively into how peo­ple play it

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