Absolver is a game about martial arts, but it also follows many of the philosophies inherent to martial arts — especially the concept of focus.
Developed by Sloclap, a team composed of former Ubisoft Paris developers, Absolver has received early comparisons to recent popular action role-playing games, such as the Dark Souls series. While there’s no denying some shared DNA in Absolver, it also has a feel and a tone that are very much all its own.
That tone is, above all else, focused. Directed. Though ambitious, Absolver doesn’t let itself get caught up in trying to shove in too many details or make things too complicated. It’s about one thing — proving your hand-to-hand skills by beating up other “prospects” — and it does that one thing incredibly well.
There’s very little plot and almost zero dialogue in Absolver, but here’s the story as I was able to figure it out: You take on the role of a prospect by putting on a bizarre mask that transports you to another world. Once there, your job is to explore the strange ruins of this space and hunt down a number of challenging boss and miniboss encounters.
That’s pretty much it, and as with a great kung-fu flick, I didn’t find myself wanting any more. Here are your targets, go take them down, and if you do, you can fight the final boss. It’s clean and easy to digest.
The plot is just about the only thing in Absolver that’s easy, though. While it only uses two buttons for combat — a primary attack and a more powerful special attack — both of those attack types can be modified by selecting one of four stances. A primary attack in one stance might be a powerful haymaker to the face, while in another it’s a low sweep of the legs. Each attack you perform sets you into a new stance, thus helping to determine the next attack in a regular combo string.
This stance system takes some getting used to, but it’s incredibly satisfying and strategic once you learn it. Each fight in Absolver is a test of will; you’ll be severely punished if you’re impatient in your counterattacks, or if you don’t pay close attention to your opponent’s movements. Even battles against random enemies were a struggle if I didn’t take them seriously. And taking them seriously also provided opportunities to learn new moves and modify my approach between bouts.
Absolver’s complex combat system allows you to put together your own “combat deck” of strung-together moves. Your starting deck is determined by your initial choice between one of three combat styles, but you can unlock dozens more moves as you progress. You unlock these moves the same way you might learn them in real life: by watching other people perform them. The more you see (and successfully defend against) someone performing a flying kick to your face, the closer you are to being able to use that move yourself.
This system is a fun way to reward skillful play, but it’s also extremely grindy. There are dozens of individual kicks and punches available to learn in Absolver, but by the end of my nine hours with the game, I had only picked up a few beyond what I started with. If you really want your combat deck to feel different from anybody else’s, you’ll have to put some work into unlocking everything.
It might be worth that time just to compare and contrast with others, though, because Absolver is deeply invested in online play. As long as you’re connected to the game’s servers, each area you enter will automatically populate with other players running around the same zone. I never saw more than three or four players in an area, but even before launch there were enough people checking out the game that I ran into others regularly.
How you choose to interact with those other players is up to you, and this is where Absolver is at its most intriguing. For example, the first real player I saw walked up to me and immediately started fighting me. They were clearly more experienced with the game, at a higher level and with better equipment; they made short work of me. Then they revived me on the spot, helping me back up before running off. It was a dizzying experience that left me unsure of what to expect from the community.
Most of my subsequent run-ins with other players were more positive. In numerous cases, I walked onto the scene of a player surrounded by three or four enemies. Rather than watch them get demolished, I was able to jump in and take out a couple of the opponents on my own. This once led to an impromptu, 20-minute co-op session where a new pal and I took on a particularly challenging mark and celebrated together before one of us died and the other moved on.
The most brilliant aspect of Absolver’s online functionality is that it allows for all of these experiences to take place without the need for written or spoken communication. A single button press allows you to access a quick wheel of emotes such as bowing or giving a thumbs-up, perfect for offering up thanks to someone who just helped you out with a tricky fight. That same menu allows you to invite someone to a co-op group or to a friendly sparring match. It’s elegant and feels ahead of the curve compared to similar action RPGs.
If the potential for running into aggressive players scares you off, you can play Absolver offline, but I feel like the joy of off-the-cuff co-op more than makes up for the occasional bad egg. There is one frustration I ran into a few times that seems to stem from online play, though. In a couple of instances, I approached one of the game’s “marked ones” — minibosses who hang out in certain areas — and was ambushed by multiple versions of the same enemy. A single marked one on their own is tough; when the game bugs out and throws two or three of them at you, there’s not much to do beyond accepting your inevitable death.
For those who want to stick with Absolver for the long haul, the online functionality provides plenty to do beyond the initial challenge of defeating your nonplayer character targets. Once you take out the final boss and become an absolver, you’re able to form your own school and mentor other players. This will allow less experienced players to pick up new moves faster, among other bonuses.
The game also offers combat trials — a more regulated player-versus-player mode with matchmaking. Completing trials unlocks harder versions of Absolver’s three main boss encounters, as well as the chance to earn better gear and more experience points. Sloclap has promised free updates after launch, including a three-on-three mode, the ability to spectate PvP matches and a full-on ranked mode.