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Severed's first dungeon is a compelling, artful creation

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Severed starts off a bit slow, a bit worrying.

The graphics initially feel too flat, the movement too canned, the gameplay too familiar.

But in time, those elements seem to stitch together to create something more fun, more compelling than it has any right to be.

In the PlayStation Vita title, due out most likely this summer, players take on the role of a young woman who awakens to find a bloody stump in place of her left arm and her family missing.

"Something really traumatic happened to your family and you," said Graham Smith, co-founder of developer Drinkbox Studios and producer on the game. "You're on a mission to seek them out and find them. You are trying to rescue your family from these weird mosters in this corrupted world. On a high level the idea is that you are in a limbo world, trying too help prevent demons from stealing your family's souls."

While the game is coming to Vita first, Smith said the team wants to bring it to every thing they can eventually.

"It makes sense only on touch-based platforms, so 3DS, Wii U, iOS and Android," he said.

The concept for the game was created by Augusto Quijano, the studio's concept artist and animator. He's also the man behind the characters and story of Guacamelee, so the style of Severed is both familiar and captivating.

In the game, players use their right or left hand to hold the Vita and a thumbstick or the directional pad to move. The player triggers attacks by swiping on the surface of the screen. The movement between the rooms or areas is triggered by pushing the directional pad which turns into a first-person walk into the area you're looking at. It feels a bit old-school and jarring at first, especially to players who might be used to more active controls in first-person games like shooters.

severed

Smith said the decision to create pre-rendered animations for the walk between rooms was driven the experience of the tech and art teams. Drinkbox makes 2D games, typically platformers.

"We wanted to make sure it felt like a 3D world but we have no 3D artists," he said. "So in trying to work with our strengths we came up with this technique."

The technique takes 2D art for settings and essentially wraps it around the player. When the player moves forward it creates a natural parallax effect which gives you the feel of 3D movement and creates a sense of the "old school dungeon crawlers," he said.

It's an interesting approach that I grew to like as I played the game. Icons in the top right and top left of the screen show your character's health and a basic mini-map. Players essentially explore the area until they find objects to grab or a monster blocking their path.

In combat, players have to swipe directly into incoming attacks top block an enemy. Swiping attacks that cause minimal damage also help build up your ability to stun a creature and release a powerful multi-strike attack that lops limbs from the enemy and kills it.

At it's most basic level, the gameplay is very reminiscent of Infinity Blade or Fruit Ninja.

Smith said the team was very aware of Infinity Blade while designing its game.

"Infinity Blade sets a high bar for graphic fidelity, but every enemy feels very similar to each other," he said. "We wanted more free-form exploration."

As players continue into the game's strange world they'll pick up creature parts from their battles which can be used to upgrade health, damage or the amount of time you have to land sever attacks in your special mode.

severed

The game's difficulty progresses also, both through the variety of creatures and complexity of beating them, and in the number that attack you at once.

Eventually, I found myself surrounded by enemies. Attacking and stunning one, only to quickly spin to the right or left to take out a creature about to launch an attack against me. Icons at the bottom of the screen show the location of the enemies, how close they are to attacking and what their health is.

Smith said that players will earn new weapons and abilities through boss battles. In the conclusion of my demo (the video above shows the same demo I played), I played through a shortened version of the game's first dungeon and took out the area's boss.

The helmet you acquire in that battle, Smith said, gives you the ability to unleash a flash attack on enemies, temporarily stunning them.

"That allows us to put more enemies around the player in later battles," he said. "So the idea is that you will gain a new power and we will give the player more challenging set-ups.

"That will be repeated with every boss. You cut them up and they will give you another power."

The game currently has about a dozen enemies, but Smith said the team is working to include enough to keep the game interesting.

severed

The art style and character design of the enemies is certainly a major factor in how compelling this game feels.

Smith said Quijano, who's originally from Mexico, has a natural art style that are often colorful and feature crisp edges.

"The art style of the creatures are heavily tied to the gameplay," Smith said. "We want people to feel a little uneasy when you play this game.

"When you look at Guacamelee and this, you see very colorful art. Now we want a dark undertone.

"The darkness of the story and the colorfulness of the art style create a contrast we really like. We don't think creepy game have to be sepia tones or dark."