Severed is a world of gruesome body horror, from your own missing limb, to the pulsing growths blocking dungeon gates, to the assorted organs you collect to upgrade your abilities, to the monsters themselves — terrifying otherworldly creatures with dangling eyeballs and explosive fungal growths. It’s grim, for sure, but Severed excels in building a convincing, consuming atmosphere that’s also aided by its calm post-rock soundtrack and realistic sound design.
Severed begins within a nightmarish purgatory awash in dreamy purple hues as you run into the burning ruin that was once your home. Playing as Sasha, a young girl, you glance into a gilded mirror, shocked to find that your arm has been severed at the elbow — what’s left is wrapped in bloodied bandages. Suddenly, a cloaked figure appears behind you in the mirror. Full of dread, you turn around to see that its body is made of heaving blood vessels or nerves or something equally unsettling, its rib cage beset with a toothy maw drawing in ragged breaths. It presents you with a sword that gazes at you with a single eye, and your quest to find your lost family begins.
The game’s combat is also beautifully suited to the 3DS touch controls. Rather than using your fingers as in other versions of the game, Severed on 3DS requires you to use the stylus to slice and dice your enemies. The added prop makes you feel like you’re actually wielding a tiny sword. Short swipes of the stylus do quick damage, while long deliberate slices cut through monsters with extra power. Enemies act on a timer, a red circle at the bottom of the screen, which is gradually ringed in yellow until the enemy raises an appendage to attack and you’re forced to parry or take damage.
This swords dance truly shines in the diverse strategies you’ll need to apply to each monster. Some monsters will shield one side of their body with their arms, while others will jump around the battlefield, causing you to shift focus. Others still might explode in a mist of blood, causing significant damage if you ignore them for long enough. Add in the fact that you’ll be facing off against three or more monsters at a time, forcing you to switch between them to keep their attack counters at bay, and you’ve got a frantic battle of time management on your hands. I mean hand.
Each battle requires a fresh strategy. You’ll quickly find yourself falling into a rhythm with each battle, deciding between parrying a particularly vicious attack or slicing away at squishier enemies just to get the monster numbers down. There are a number of ways to approach combat, which makes for great fun. Adding spells into the mix improves on that, as you can eventually stun enemies temporarily while you worry about other monsters, or steal buffs from your opponents.
Sasha’s sword also features a focus meter which fills up each time you pull off a successful attack. If an enemy blocks, though, you’ll lose focus. Killing a beast with a full focus meter gives you the opportunity to “sever” them, lopping off as many of their limbs as you can before time’s out. You’ll need to harvest this viscera to upgrade your abilities, and killing off a monster without full focus means you’ll be missing out.
These upgrades let you customize Sasha into the warrior of your choosing, putting points into added damage or defense, or improving your magical skills. The tree is small, but it has enough depth to keep you hooked and on the lookout for more body parts to feed your skills.
While the monster battles gradually build on themselves, presenting new abilities and new beasties in equal measure, the “Metroidvania” dungeons, while eerily beautiful, can feel like a slog at times. Movement also takes a bit of getting used to, as you can move left or right on a 360-degree plane, but there’s no backtracking, and you move from room to room, rather than in incremental steps. Fortunately the innovative combat system, and the game’s pacing and relatively short playtime should keep players from tiring of the grind.
These are all minor complaints when critiquing Severed as a whole. Its gorgeous yet macabre world decorated in Aztec and Mexican motifs is one well worth exploring, and the wholly unique combat system is one of the few that truly takes advantage of touch controls. With minimal dialogue and haunting visual clues, Severed quietly tells a story of life, loss, and family, and it’s not one you’ll soon forget.