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