Fireballs and swords are all well and good, but sometimes you just want to get your hands dirty with some good old fashioned hand-to-hand combat. Absolver, the debut game from Sloclap, delivers that with incredibly deep character customization. It may try to do too much at times, but the underlying combat system is rock solid and enjoyable.
- TL;DR: An interesting and fun take on fighting games with loads of potential
- Platforms: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
- Developer: Sloclap
- Time Played: 9:15
- What I Played: Cleared the campaign, reached character level 32 and combat trial level 17
Absolver doesn’t take much time before getting to the good stuff. After a one minute cut scene where your chatacter is chosen out of a group of practicing fighters and a five minute tutorial, you are thrown into the world of Adal with nothing but the tattered clothes on your back and a magic mask on your face. You’re told to defeat the six Marked Ones and three bosses in order to rise from Prospect to Absolver. With that, you are on your way.
Martial arts combat is the name of the game in Absolver. Attacking is done with only two buttons. There are no left stick movements or input button combos to memorize. Each attack starts and ends in one of four stances: front right, front left, back left, and back right. Attacks all have a beginning and finishing stance based on how your character is facing at the start and end of it. A small icon in the bottom center of the screen shows your current stance, similar to For Honor’s guard icon, but there is no such icon for your enemies. You have to look at your opponent to determine their positioning. Blocking stops all damage from all directions but drains your stamina, as does attacking. If you try to block without any stamina, you’ll be stunned and left wide open for a chain of followup attacks.
When you start Absolver, you’ll be asked to pick one of three fighting styles. The Kahlt Method is a tankier style, Windfall (my chosen style) is more agility based, and Forsaken fighters are balanced. A fourth Stagger style can only be learned after beating the campaign. Each style has its own unique technique mapped to the right stick. Kahlt fighters can absorb hits, the Windfall style gives you a quick dodge, and the Forsaken can parry strikes. Using any class technique will instantly regenerate a portion of your stamina but doing it at the wrong time means taking damage you could have blocked.
Two attack buttons and teching can only go so far. That’s where Absolver’s bread and butter, the combat deck, comes in. Combat decks are how you customize what each attack does for your specific fighter. Decks have four sequence attack strings, one for each of the four stances you start the string in, along with an alternate attack for each stance. For example, my go to deck has a quick jab as the first attack from the front right stance and a hook as the first strike from my back left stance. Any of the dozens of attacks will seamlessly flow into any other which shows a high level of character model control from developer Sloclap. If you set up your deck properly, you can easily have over a dozen different attacks in a row just by pressing two buttons. Some attacks have special properties like being able to take one hit before being interrupted, doing extra damage to guarding fighters, avoiding certain types of attacks, or being straight up disrespecful. The leg sweep I have mapped to alternate back left, for example, doubles as a high attack dodge. A summary page shows your deck’s average damage, number of stuns/guard breaks/charge attacks, and more. The level of customization available through the combat deck system is truly impressive.
Learning new attacks to add to your combat deck means watching others perform them. Any attack you don’t currently know will slowly unlock as you guard and tech against it in battle. Experience for those unknown moves is finalized if you defeat the opponent you gained it from. Using your class tech against an attack is far more efficient than guarding is for unlocking moves although it’s inherently more risky. Learning new moves through repeated dodging and blocking can get a bit grindy especially if you are after a specific move. Thankfully, higher level players can create combat schools that you can join to learn from them directly.
Button mashing isn’t all there is in Absolver, of course. You can feint by pressing the guard button right before an attack strikes. Conversely, you can keep the pressure up during an attack string by starting your next attack at the right time and canceling the recovery animation. Tension shards act as your super meter and charge up as battles progress. Two abilities can be equipped at a time to use shards like doubling your opponent’s stamina usage for a short time or pushing all enemies away from you. I always ran with the healing ability that gives you a short burst heal from the start and extra health for each hit you land prior to getting hit yourself. Shards can also be used to equip your chosen weapon of either war gloves or a sword. Weapons don’t come into play often but can be game changers. They can also be dropped if you take too much damage and picked up by your opponent, so busting out a sword isn’t always necessarily the smartest play. Weapons even have their own combat decks, doubling down on Absolver’s mantra of letting you fight your own way.
Absolver has both PvE and PvP play although the PvE side is a bit lacking. Finding and defeating the six mini bosses and three bosses only took me a little over four hours with a solid hour of that spent being lost. Random NPCs litter the landscape for you to farm new attacks. You’re almost constantly fighting two or three of these lower level enemies at a time which is more annoying than it is difficult. I had the most fun in smaller contained battles against any of the bosses. Other players can drop into your world for some added adventure and, at least in my experience, are friendly more often than they are hostile. Shout out to whoever helped me defeat the fourth marked one after I helped him turn the tide of a losing 3v1 fight.
PvP is where Absolver will make it’s mark for obvious reasons. The only mode available at launch is a 1v1 best-of-five with promises of 3v3, spectator, and other modes in the future. Roughly half a dozen different arenas are waiting for you to battle in, my favorite being a raised platform with a pit in the middle. Matches involve a lot of cat and mouse as you learn your opponent’s tendencies, how they like to punctuate attacks, what ways they like to dodge, etc. Finding someone that you are close to skill wise and learning from each other over the course of many rematches is really, really fun. I rematched with one player about eight times in a row and we split the series. It was a blast. I’d love to see Sloclap add some sort of leaderboard or ranking system, stat tracking, and potentially tournaments. The cinematic quality of duels gives Absolver e-sport potential.
The RPG elements of Absolver sound good on paper but don’t quite hit the mark. Random gear drops from enemy NPCs and level ups alter your blunt strike defense, cut strike defense, and mobility. There are nine different types of armor from masks to undershirts to shoes. Pieces of gear don’t have any rarity or passive abilities so you are left mixing fashion and statistical function. Speaking of stats, each character level awards you a point to be put into stats like strength, dexterity, max stamina, and tension shard regeneration rate. Different attacks prioritize strength over dexterity meaning you’ll have to use the attacks that fit your stat build if you want to maximize your output potential. A respec option would be great for the times you want to change up your build or swap a few key attacks. Between the random gear and not so impactful stats, the RPG pieces of Absolver fall a bit flat. Thankfully, even the limited slate of PvP options outweighs any PvE downfalls.
Absolver tries to bring a lot to the table with drop-in PvE, bosses, gear, and PvP. The real hook is the combat deck system which is a delight. Moveset customization is rarely, if ever, seen at this level in fighting games. Combine that with the ease of using just two buttons to attack and a stick to tech and you’ve got a game that is truly easy to learn but hard to master. I hope Sloclap focuses on the PvP side of things in the future because Absolver has so much potential. As it stands now, though, Absolver is a breath of fresh air in the fighting game space.