The Vita is dead. It’s a proclamation that’s been sung from the rooftops many time, and every time I’ve rejected such claims, grown angry at those who made them, and argued the cause for a bright future for my beloved handheld. But the Vita is dead. Or at least, it’s dying; this is a depressing truth that I’m going to have to learn to accept, and it’s thanks to a little game called Severed that I’ve been able to acknowledge this. It’s not because Severed is so bad that it makes me lose faith in any future of the console; it’s because Severed is so good and such a celebration of the Vita that I can’t think of a more fitting send-off.
For starters, it’s one of those rare games that has managed to use the system’s unique control scheme to great effect. It’s a first-person dungeon crawler, essentially, and you navigate using using the Vita’s buttons as you’d expect, but your interactions with the world – combat, examining objects, opening doors, and so on – all happen on the touchscreen. In fact, the four face buttons that any other game would bind to actions to simply double as movement controls here, letting players of any handedness approach the game in comfort.
This setup lends itself to one of the most exhilarating combat systems I’ve seen in a game, which combines a frenetic energy with the need for a more tactical approach. It starts off simple: you have a sword, and you can swing it by swiping your finger across the touchscreen. Easy. Then you have to start parrying attacks, which means swiping in the opposite direction when a foe launches their strike – a bit more tricky, but not too bad. Then you get a special metre that fills up as you build up combos by striking accurately and repeatedly, but be careful, because hitting the wrong parts of enemies will break the charge. Filling this gauge is key, because you’ll do more damage and, more importantly, it’s the key to upgrading your character.
As you progress, new enemies will show up with new tricks. By the end of the game battles are a mad rush as you swipe the touchscreen as furiously as possible, while also trying to pay attention to where the weak points are right now, where they will move to next, and which enemies are about to hit you and need to be parried. Because enemies will attack from all four sides, you still need to be aware of your positioning and be ready to turn (using the D-pad or buttons) at any moment.
I wouldn’t say it’s the type of game that could only work on Vita, as it could theoretically be ported to any touchscreen-based device, but it certainly works better on Vita than it would on any other platform because it’s so focused on using the touchscreen and buttons in tandem. It could work on 3DS or Wii U, I guess, but then you’d miss out on the Vita’s beautiful screen, which makes the brilliant art of Severed pop.
Far more than just a clever use of the features of what we’ve been told repeatedly is dead, Severed is itself a game about death. I don’t just mean in terms of killing, as is so common in games, but Severed is, at it’s core, a story about grief, bereavement, and coping with loss. It follows Sasha, a girl who finds herself in a strange, hellish land in search of her missing family – she’s lost an arm, but that won’t stop her from cutting down any fiends who get in her way.
Plenty of monsters do just that, only to end up strengthening Sasha as she adorns herself in dismembered giblets, which morbidly frames the game’s upgrade system. The particularly powerful demons that have captured Sasha’s family also come with particularly powerful improvements – the bones of a giant bird serve as a helmet; the jaws of the many-mouthed Cryptolith are used as armour; a stolen spine reinforces Sasha’s sword.
Severed is itself a game about death.
I’m going to go into some pretty spoiler-iffic territory now, because without doing, that, I wouldn’t be able to talk about the best part of Severed: Sasha’s journey as a metaphor for the process of grieving. When you find them, each other member of her family is dead, and I would say that they’ve been dead from the start. Despite this, Sasha is initially hopeful that she’ll find them alive, even though she knows that they aren’t. As the game goes on, she becomes angry and depressed until finally, with the defeat of the final boss, she reaches acceptance.
The stages of grief are reflected quite brilliantly in the upgrades Sasha finds along her way. The first is the bird mask, which gives her the ability to temporarily freeze time and deny an enemy’s movement - denial. Next, she gets the spine that reinforces her sword and unlocks powerful charged attacks – anger. Third, the jaws that let her steal buffs from enemies – bargaining. Fourth, the sky potion lets her walk the clouds, but this comes with a constant risk of falling to her doom – depression. Anger, denial, and bargaining all come rushing back when she discovers her severed arm and its Rage ability, which makes Sasha stronger the longer it’s activated, but carries the risk of leaving her completely open and vulnerable.
Finally, acceptance. This isn’t a power-up, but rather, in order to defeat the Dragon who rules over the land, Sasha must cut off her reattached arm – she must set aside her anger, her denial, her depression, and accept that her family is dead and it’s time to move on. All these things that she’s relied upon so far, that have kept her going, are now a weight that she must sever if she wants to beat the dragon.
On top of all this, you have the brilliant artwork that breathes life into the game and its themes. It’s a heavily stylized and brightly coloured, drawing heavily on the imagery of Dia de Muertos, which is, of course, a celebration of the deceased in Mexico and an important part of the lifelong process of grieving one’s lost. In keeping with the game’s themes, it’s morbid and grotesque – bones with fungi growing out of them adorn the caverns and forests you explore, for example – but in a beautiful way. The art style, as with Dia de Muertos, is as much a celebration of the lives of lost loved ones as it is a mourning of their passing.
It’s this that makes Severed such a perfect swansong for the Vita. As sad as it will be when the Vita really is dead, it’s great to be able celebrate the life of such a great little console.