When we spoke to Sloclap’s Creative Director Pierre Tarno last week, he talked about building Absolver into a game that reflected the beauty of martial arts. We spoke about a fighting system designed to be flexible and creative, a world in which you could teach or fight those you ran into, and the difficulties that came with balancing an online experience.
Absolver delivers each of these things by turning you into a prospect, pitted in a constant battle against other prospects in the world of Adal. The goal? To become an Absolver, one of the strongest fighters in Adal. In doing so, you have to overcome other prospects, marked enemies and eventually, a final hurdle.
Roaming through Adal
At the beginning of Absolver, you create your character. You get the opportunity to choose some cosmetic options and — more importantly — a fighting style, deciding essentially how your character looks and fights. You are then chosen as a prospect, and flung into the wild open world of Adal. It’s not a particularly huge map, but it’s densely populated, full of equipment, altars and encounters. You’re almost constantly fighting, against either the lost prospects that serve as basic PvE units, or against other prospects roaming the world. Absolver is more than happy to throw you in the deep end, offering little more than a brief tutorial before setting you loose to fight or die.
You don’t have to fight the other prospects you run into, however; you can interact with them in any way you choose, or you can ignore them. On several occasions during SRK’s first playthrough, we got the opportunity to team up with others on the fly to defeat difficult opponents, or to get through a particularly tough boss unit. Communicating is done entirely through basic emotes or, should you choose, your fists. There’s no chat to be found in Adal, and it makes running into other prospects simultaneously fun and slightly worrying. You can, after all, never be sure what they might be planning.
One thing you can be sure of is that they are hoping to kill marked enemies, a selection of named units that you need to take down in order to prove worthy of ascending the tower of Adal. That’s the goal of each prospect, as doing so is the last step in becoming an Absolver — and more importantly, in unlocking the end game.
That’s not so easy a task, as Absolver’s lost prospects are no easy prey. You’re not likely to overwhelm them with a flurry of attacks, which turns every encounter into something of a mini duel. It’s tough, and you should expect to respawn more than a few times on your journey through Adal. Because it’s so difficult a battle however, victories are intensely satisfying, and you’ll soon be fighting almost everyone you come across, just because it’s so rewarding to win.
During your travels, you’ll also pick up armor and equipment of various shapes and sizes. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to wear it as, although it might offer extra protection, armor also weighs you down. Certain styles and moves do more damage the lighter you are, so you’re constantly forced to judge and evaluate exactly what equipment is worth the extra weight. With so much to choose from, it can often be a difficult decision.
Creating your perfect style
And it’s even harder to choose which moves you’d actually like to use. Absolver‘s combat is built on decks — sets of moves that you can use in one of four stances. Each stance has its own deck, and you can’t share moves between them, so each functions entirely separately. Given some time roaming in Adal, your prospect begins to learn new moves — the same moves that have been used against you in fact — which you can then put into one of your four decks.
To learn a move you have to block it or, as we realized later in the game, perfectly timing a dodge through it. The more you do so, the faster you learn that particular move but there is one caveat — you only lock in that knowledge if you defeat the prospect you’re fighting. Lose or run away, and you’ll lose it. This makes fights against even the weakest enemies tough, as you’re not just trying to beat them, but also to learn.
There are hundreds of moves to learn, and each of them has their own pros and cons. Some, for example, come with armor that allows you to take a hit in dealing your own, while others could be particularly effective in shattering an opponents guard. Finding and designing a style that fits you personally is one of the most fun and creative aspects of Absolver, and eventually became the activity we poured most time into.
Particularly interesting is the ability of some moves to switch stances, essentially starting in one stance and finishing in another. Certain moves can only be used in a specific stance, which means that flowing between stances is key to opening up your most damaging options as well as to keeping long combos going. In fact, mastering your combat decks and the options it provides is key to success in Absolver, as well as being the mechanic that will keep us coming back for more.
But what does combat actually feel like?
The best deck building system in the world would be useless however, if the combat wasn’t up to scratch. Thankfully, Absolver brings a thoughtful, deliberate take on fighting games to the table. It lacks the frantic pace of a Guilty Gear or Arcana Hearts; the slow, spacing-heavy style is far more reminiscent of the deliberate pace of Street Fighter II, though the free movement is more suggestive of Pokkén Tournament, and the stamina system wouldn’t be out of place in a game like Dark Souls, dictating all of your actions as it does.
The stances are the foundations of Absolver’s combat. There are four to choose from, each based on the position of your hips relative to your opponent. You can move between these freely in combat or, once you’ve started digging into your combat decks, change stances by using a specific move.
Each stance gives access to, in essence, a light attack and a heavy attack. The light attacks are faster and give access to strings while being light on stamina usage, while the heavy attacks take longer to start up, but have generally have better range and are devastating on both hit and block. Using a heavy attack when your opponent is low on stamina can often lead to a crushed guard, and the opportunity for big damage.
Despite the deliberate pace, combat in Absolver is immensely satisfying. It is without a doubt a test of skill, and the ability to play footsies and understanding your opponent become hugely important the further you progress. More skilled players will rise above the rest, and the ability to roam freely will force them to rely on strategy as well as raw ability.
In time, you’ll also gain access to weapons and special skills, which require tension to use. Tension is the super metre of Absolver, gained when performing a skillful action like a frame-perfect dodge, and used to draw your weapon or unleash a power. Weapons act something like Juri’s Feng Shui Engine, giving you access to a high-damage, high-on-plus-frames option for a brief time, while the special powers can do everything from creating a shockwave to healing yourself. As you’ll quickly realize is the case throughout Absolver, you’ll have to choose which works best for you, as you likely won’t have enough tension to use both.
Proving your prowess
Once you’re comfortable with the system and have built yourself the perfect deck, you’ll want to test yourself against more than lost prospects — despite how tough they are to beat. Taking on random prospects while wandering Adal is a risky proposition however, as you never know quite how much heat they are packing. Taking on a player that is a higher level than you is risky, as their high stats and larger decks could leave you dazed and defeated before you get the chance to mount an offence.
Thankfully, Absolver offers a more traditional matchmaking option, which comes in the form of altars. As you travel through Adal, you’ll be making use of these to heal, meditate and save, but once you’re confident enough to dive into battle against human opponents, they’ll also serve as your portal to PvP.
When you search for opponents through an altar, you’re put through a more traditional matchmaking process. You’re matched against other players on the strength of your level, your gear and your skill level. You’ve got a duel specific Player vs. Player level, which is dictates who you are matched up against, but also factors into some aspects outside PvP — like starting a school, which you can only do at a certain PvP level.
Becoming the Sensei
Absolver’s end game allows those fighters who have proved themselves the best of the best to form schools, where they can pass on their knowledge and fighting style to other players in the world of Adal. Not only does this provide a great way to learn even more styles and ways to play, but also fuels an incentive to do well in the multiplayer battles. Becoming the head of a school is intensely satisfying, especially when your students show off their new skills.
Becoming a student is fun too, as it allows you to see how other people have designed their combat decks, and get a taste of styles different to your own. You don’t have to have the moves your master teaches to use them, so it’s a great to open up your horizons quickly, and in the late game it can serve as something of a try before you buy so you don’t feel as though you have wasted effort in learning certain moves.
Over time, you learn moves and styles from your master, which opens up further customisation options of your own and makes it even simpler to create a character that works perfectly for you. Once you do, there’s nothing stopping you from creating your own school, and proving that your style is the very best there is.
And in the FGC, is there anything better?
- Deliberate, thoughtful gameplay
- Endless creativity in combat decks and styles
- Satisfying progressing in both single and multiplayer
- Can play in teams with your friends
- Not the best netcode, even if it’s not the worst
- Always-online-style single player
- Somewhat anticlimactic storyline