I first got my hands on Absolver back at E3, and 15 minutes wasn’t nearly enough time for me to appreciate everything the combat system was doing, much less the 20 or so hours I’ve put into it since. Twenty hours, however, is enough for me to say this: Absolver’s combat system is probably the best melee combat system in the history of games. What this means for Absolver, a frequently brilliant, occasionally frustrating, and all around singular game, is that it could be responsible for the next series of video game clones, in the vein of Dark Souls. Or I’ll eat my words.
Absolver takes place in the fictional post-apocalyptic world of Adal, where the player must fight a series of enemies called The Marked Ones to become an Absolver, a peacekeeper of sorts. There are some hints at other aspects to the game’s world and story scattered throughout, but most of it is in flavor text or environmental details. The story takes a back seat for a number of reasons. One, this is a player-vs-player/player-vs-environment online experience before it’s a narrative driven game. Two, where Absolver really shines is in the combat, and everything else about the game is in service of it.
The combat deck governs combat in Absolver. The combat deck is essentially your move list from which you build your suite of attacks. You have four separate stances that you can choose between, each can hold up to two (eventually three) separate attacks. You then have four alternate attacks that move you to a new stance instantly. The four martial arts styles can be used in hand-to-hand, sword, or brass knuckles combat, each with its own massive moveset. You learn new moves and new styles by fighting enemies who use those new moves on you, or studying under a master and borrowing their deck. You also have special abilities that can arrange from a small shock wave, to a minor regen, to paralyzing an enemy briefly. These are used to turn the advantage in a battle or maintain control of situation—but are not overpowered by any means. Most importantly, you mix and match all of these elements until you build a fighting style that’s all your own. This customization is the crux of Absolver’s appeal. It’s an incredible feat to create a combat system that supports the kind of variety that Absolver supports, giving players the opportunity to make a style all their own. But this only scratches the surface of what makes the combat system so good.
Absolver’s moves vary greatly, and you need to be intimately familiar with those moves to succeed. You don’t choose the low attack, or the high attack—you set the low attack in your arsenal of moves because it’s the most effective there, or maybe it’s weaker but quicker and contrasts nicely with the high, slow, strong attack from before. Maybe you place an attack in your set as a devastating alternate attack so that you can catch the enemy by surprise and launch into a separate combo after changing stances. The attacks are only as successful as they fit into your deck, and only if you employ them at the right moment. There’s no devastating killer move, nor is there any move that is useless. Every single move has its utility, and it’s about understanding how each move fits into the larger scope of your deck. But it’s not as complicated as it sounds.
Now, bear with me: One reason we even have video games was a response to the limits of pen and paper role playing. Gaming evolved from pen and paper because computers can do all the tedious score keeping, stat maintenance, and dice rolls for us so we can enjoy the experience of an adventure in a simulated world. Absolver's combat system is a logical extension of this idea, making fighting thrilling and intuitive and making the game do the tedious work for us in a way no fighting game I’ve played has before. In Absolver, you only have two attack buttons, but those buttons contain multitudes. Like Dark Souls, Absolver cares about the weight of your attacks and movements, and uses a stamina bar to install a more tactical element into the proceedings. Unlike Dark Souls, Absolver has countless different attacks, with different weight to them, with different discrete effects, power, and speed. Absolver understands that there are levels of nuance in games, like space, weight, and time, that can be digested more easily than any complex move set in Mortal Kombat will ever be able to express. These intangible elements work flawlessly in both PvE and PvP. I’ve had some incredible moments in the PvP combat mode where I’d pull off a perfectly timed attack and feel a deep, deep satisfaction when I connected the blow. The genius of Absolver is it understands that you don’t need some whack “X, X, A, A, B, Up, Down, Left” combo to make your moves feel impactful. In fact, Absolver understands that the controller is always in the way, and the more it can free the player from caring about whether or not they performed the combo correctly, while maintaining a complexity in the combat that can only be mastered through play, the better. This game is all about accumulating power, growing stronger, and being the best fighter you can be—I can’t think of a better combat system to encourage that end. I don’t know if I can think of a better action combat system. Whew. Some high praise there.
Now, for the rest of the game.
Absolver’s color palette and design has more in common with comic books than anything else. I am frequently reminded of the graphic novel Wasteland, the animation behind the Gorillaz music video, or Fiona Staples’ work in Saga when I look at the design. The lines that define the characters are striking, realistic, but not too realistic, giving it a really refreshing look. The frequently breathtaking scenery—with its crumbling towers and coliseums, decrepit, swampy temples, and sunset docks—creates some memorable backdrops for your many fights. Adal is a really absorbing world to look at, even if its size is a bit underwhelming, and exploring it could be frustrating.
I’d find myself wandering for hours to find a single Marked One, the map being no help, only to discover they were right under my nose, clumsily tucked away. This is honestly a complex gripe. The game does a wonderful job understanding the need to create levels that are favorable to the game’s main focus, the combat, but consequently, it drops the ball in some key areas regarding level design.
By allowing for winding paths with no enemies, followed by a litany of open spaces, strategically punctuated with enemies and obstacles to set the stage for the most satisfying encounters, the game permits its level design to support its most vital feature, without completely sacrificing its functionality. My singular gripe in terms of the game's design on a truly rudimentary level is the way the camera behaves if you get stuck in smaller spaces. One of the ways fights in this game are epic is because of the camera angle the game chooses to emphasize, which is a cinematic third-person view that reminds me somewhat of For Honor, or sprinting in Mass Effect 2. What this means is getting stuck in a corner makes the game's camera behave in a way unbecoming of the game's strengths. It's a mind boggling oversight, but the level design ensures this doesn't happen frequently, which is nice. However, the level design also takes away the possibility of opening the game up in a way that encourages exploration rather than stifling it.
Every area for combat is functionally the same in that they are all arenas doubling as grassy knolls, swamps, towers, and docks. While traveling between these areas involves walking through some corridors, these are few and far between. Since you can’t do any sort of play in between the fighting areas, no climbing, very few “hidden chests” (the contents of which have little to no bearing on your character), and even fewer, largely meaningless NPCs to chat with. The world is beautiful, but it is thoroughly dead, and the game isn’t interested in you taking in your surroundings in any meaningful way.
Likewise, if you aren’t diligent about where you are traveling, the game will send you in circles without you even realizing it, as you travel from plain to plain, with a vague map, and no delineated structure in the environment to make that map make sense. Finding the Marked Ones will become weirdly hard, and eventually somewhat maddening. The saving grace, again, is that this is all in service of the game’s breathtaking combat. If the combat were even a little bit worse, this game’s level design would be hard to excuse. Instead, it will just require a kind of diligence in examining your surroundings to get through the initial quest of defeating the Marked Ones. Navigating the world will be a pain, but a beautiful pain.
Absolver is quiet. The only truly striking musical moments are during the fights with the Marked Ones and a couple other special encounters. Otherwise the most you’ll hear in Absolver is the sound of combat. The lack of music gives the combat a meditative feel. Absolver uses its faint score with the occasional audible melody to allow the fights to dictate the larger soundscape at play. The score, by getting out of the way, gives each encounter more weight. The stamina bar forces those quiet moments to come out, as your character backs away from a devastating combo to find their footing, strategize, and enter once more into the fray. Entering into the game’s Meditation menu and working out new movesets and combos with the serenity afforded by the score is paramount to what makes Absolver different from other fighting games. Fighting is this game’s religion.
The RPG elements of the game are interesting, even if they fail at being as robust or worth exploring as the combat system. The game invests seriously in the inverse relationship between armor and speed, and that’s absolutely to its strength. If you have more armor, your lack of speed will hurt you, but vice versa, should you go the light armor route. Interestingly, the game ties attack power to speed as well, emphasizing that the speed of an attack effects how devastating it is. This effect is only marginal, which is key to maintaining the delicate balance between having armor and not having armor. The game succeeds at expressing this idea, but leaves a lot to be desired in terms of variety in this area. There’s nothing special or particularly impactful about raising any of your stats, and your armor, at the end of the day, has more impact aesthetically than practically, though the aesthetics are nice. Still, in combat, the small differences do count between victory and defeat. Perhaps there’s just something less romantic about trying to keep a combat system like that so balanced.
The game has a Journey sort of feel, where you communicate through small gestures. I loved helping someone out in a scrap with some enemies, bowing to them once the fight was complete, and parting ways. I partnered up with someone for 20 minutes. When I died, he waited for me to respawn, and fended off enemies while I made my way back to him. There’s something beautiful about this aspect of Absolver, and the silence contributes to the vibe the game so exquisitely pulls off.
Once you beat the game’s main quest, you can engage in arena combat and PvP modes. Learning from these players who were far better than me was a trip, and seeing how fully realized the combat system was once entering into more PvP battles is what got me head over heels for this gem of a game. There aren’t any hiccups, no cheap tricks, no moves you can spam. You win matches if you’re better at the game. Later, you can even develop your own schools to teach people your particular combat style. It's a smart, smart mechanic that makes getting stronger and mastering the combat engaging, and keeps you coming back for more. The various PvP modes are each worth diving into and getting to know, but it doesn't really get much better than 1v1 combat. The purity of that experience is remarkable.
Absolver is a frequently brilliant and occasionally frustrating game. It has a flawless combat system that sucks you in and won't let go.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.