Uncertainty has no place in Severed. A brief opening scene shows a blood-red shadow-play of carnage before you take control and wander through the destroyed remains of a family home. It isn’t until you stumble across a full-length mirror that you see yourself, a maimed young woman, her left arm sliced off at the elbow in the attack that killed her family. The wound is still fresh but already bandaged. When a demonic figure appears in your reflection to gift you a sword he claims will aid you in recovering your family, you take it without comment. What is there to say? There is no uncertainty. You have tended to your wound and your family must be found. All that remains is the doing of it.
Severed, like its hero, Sasha, is a quiet and confident game, a mature evolution from developer DrinkBox’s previous release, Guacamelee. That game was a boisterous affair overflowing with talking chickens and undead luchadores named after Mexican foods. Severed cuts away all that excess ornamentation to discover what is fundamentally important, and it finds a sense of economy that permeates every aspect of the game. While the world you wander—perhaps the land of the dead or some other unexplained realm wracked by cataclysm—retains Guacamelee’s neon-hued Mesoamerican influence, here it is simplified into brighter, basic geometric shapes. But despite the intense color palette, this is a dark place. It is grim and forgotten and the only creatures that remain are mutated aberrations swollen with polyps, fungus, or too many eyes.
Severed also has little use for exposition and explanation. The story and the specifics of how you’ll fight and explore during this journey sometimes go unremarked upon, as Severed trusts players to intuit what has to be done. Combat begins simply enough. You slash your opponent by swiping your finger on the Vita’s touchscreen. They deploy some defensive maneuver, and you have to change the angle of your swipe to bypass it. Before long, you begin to face multiple opponents. You are always surrounded and have to constantly pivot to deflect incoming strikes. Each beast has a gauge that shows you when they will attack, and each breed of monster uses a different timing, so you have to remain vigilant and switch between attacking and defending. When you’re fighting without rhythm or strategy, a fight can feel like a bad day at middle school, where you get whacked in the back of the head by a spitball and turn to confront the jerk who did it, only to get whacked from a different side by one of his friends. But when you do figure out the proper strategy, you become a merry-go-round of death, constantly twirling and swinging your sword.
Severed’s title comes into play when you defeat an enemy. If you’ve performed well in battle, the fallen foe will briefly hover in the air, allowing you to carve off select portions of their anatomy. What was done to you when the game began is apparently de rigueur in this forsaken place. Limbs must be sacrificed with the solemn regularity of a Star Wars movie. You gather the dismembered arms, jaws, wings, and colorfully named giblets as raw material that is used to strengthen Sasha and imbue her with new abilities. It’s a morbid route to self-improvement, and Severed embraces it completely. On top of the smorgasbord of viscera, you also find hidden pieces of heart and brain that, once fully assembled, grant more health or mana you can use to power special abilities, such as freezing a single enemy in place. But in order to gain the healthful properties you must eat the organ, each tap of the screen representing another chewy bite as Sasha consumes the thing. In Severed, everything is meat and transformation—the Eucharist by way of David Cronenberg.
It may be a consequence of the Central American art style combined with the frequent transubstantiation, but Severed has a distinctly religious tone. Playing a hero who is so obviously broken engenders the same grisly fascination as the tortured images of Christ that illuminate a Catholic church. Sasha is a martyr who trudges on, not despite weakness, but because she’s able to gain strength from it. That image of a young hero, bloodied but resolute in her mother’s armor and wielding a demon sword, is so fundamentally badass it can’t go unremarked. And that core theme—the loss of limb, the idea that you have to do more with less—is much like Severed itself. It may not reach the same scope as Gravity Rush and Tearaway, but it refuses to be diminished and is worthy of standing alongside them as one of the Vita’s defining games.
Developer: DrinkBox Games
Publisher: DrinkBox Games
Platform: PlayStation Vita