Of open world games, there are those that take a bunch of different ideas and execute them all well. Games where you can go off on your own and do just about anything your heart desires. Karaoke in Sleeping Dogs? Why not. Tennis in GTA V? You could pretty much dedicate all your time in that alone. And then there are others that take one idea, one mechanic, and smash it completely out of the park. That’s where Absolver shines. Developed by Sloclap, a Parisian team made up of six ex-Ubisoft employees, Absolver is a martial arts RPG set in an open world with a heavy focus on strategic and flowing hand-to-hand combat. Players take the role of a Prospect, a masked fighter making their way through the fallen Adal Empire in the quest to become an Absolver. There’s not much focus on story and just about no dialogue. From what I could gather, Prospects enter Adal by putting on a mask, and journey through the dilapidated post-apocalyptic setting to take down the six named “Marked Ones,” before taking down Risryn and earning the title of Absolver. It’s not the most in-depth or awe-inspiring campaign I’ve ever played. It’s not the length that is an issue (if you were going ham I’d expect it to take about 6 hours for one playthrough,) but it’s that fighting your way through Adal alone often turns into a grind-fest. Let me dissect this for a bit, because it’s not necessarily a bad thing–I’ll do my best to run down how combat works here: Not all fallen empires are eyesores. Combat in Absolver revolves entirely around four fighting styles, three of which are available from character creation and an unlockable fourth, Stagger, based on the faux-drunken combat of the Chinese zui quan. Combat relies on two face buttons, normal attack and special attack. Each combatant has a “combat deck” made up of four chains of two normal attacks, and four special attacks (although I think the deck layout is different between classes, but don’t quote me on that.) In combat, you have four stances, made up of the four intercardinal directions, that you can switch between on the fly. Each stance changes the attack that your two buttons do, and most attacks and strings of attacks switch between stances in a way that can be manipulated in the combat deck. You can also switch stance without attacking. This allows players to plan out their assault in advance while building their deck, setting up long strings of attacks and strategies to make the most out of the moves available to them. My combat deck after about 8 hours of play. Moves are unlocked (“learned”) by blocking them from AI or human combatants. The more you block them, the more progress you earn towards learning them. It does take quite some time to learn them–in my ten hours or so of mostly campaign play/grinding, I’ve unlocked probably about half a dozen moves that my character didn’t start with, and I’ve found probably one useful piece of gear for each part of my body. I’ve not even started grinding the Marked Ones, some or all of which use signature moves that cannot be learned from anywhere else in the campaign. All enemies respawn when you die, including the Marked Ones, although there are some full bosses that require you to be a certain level before you face them multiple times. You also have to worry about your stamina bar, which is sapped when you attack, dodge, and block. Your opponent can see your stamina bar, and so can wear you down by pummelling repeatedly until it is depleted and you’re opened up to an onslaught of attacks before it can recover. Or, as I was doing in online battles, if you feel your opponent is overestimating their stamina, you can block until they’re tired and then execute a well timed dodge and starting hitting back before they have a chance to recover. This is an incredible oversimplification, as combat in Absolver extends far beyond blocking and stamina management, but it made up a large part of the strategy I was employing as a relatively shit player. You can also feint, trying to trick your opponent into an ill-fated dodge or parry, and unleash an onslaught on where you’ve predicted them to move to. It’s crucial to be able to anticipate and react quickly to your opponent’s moves. See them going for a low sweep? Dodge jump or perform one of your moves that lifts you off the ground. Perfect timing when you’re stringing your attacks together results in them using up less stamina, becoming a crucial tool to make sure you’re not worn out too quickly. Combat is incredibly fluid, deep, and responsive. Countless times I felt like I was in the middle of an epic martial arts movie, reading my opponents and reacting accordingly, trying to outhit and outwit my foes. Multiplayer fights devolve into corner-punching a little too often. There’s an infinite number of combinations and permutations for your combat deck, allowing each player to customise it to their heart’s content. There’s no memorising long strings of button inputs like traditional fighting games such as Street Fighter. Rather–and I loathe to make this comparison–but Absolver does have that Dark Souls feel of combat that’s simple on the surface, but incredibly deep and rewarding when you scratch below. I’ve gone on a lot about the combat. But that’s really what Absolver is here for. If you’re thinking of picking it up for a rewarding single player campaign, don’t bother. The crux of Absolver is the 1v1 online battles. Duking it out against other human Prospects, going hand to hand, each battle starting with a respectful bow before fists lock. Or, at least, I tried that–one guy bopped me in the top of the head while I was mid-bow. What a dick. Grinding is necessary to level up your character and learn the moves you’ll need to climb ranks online, but the whole point of it really is that competitive, PvP aspect. If PvP isn’t your thing, Absolver probably won’t be either. But if it is–if you really thrive on testing your mettle against other human players, particularly if martial arts tickles your fancy–then it’s a true masterpiece the likes of which I don’t think we’ve ever seen. gif from /u/lidofzejar on Reddit. Heading back to the campaign. While it can be played offline, Absolver‘s short campaign shines due to its perpetually connected state, allowing other players online to drop in and out of your world. It was hit and miss pre-launch, but since public release there’s always people in my world. Sometimes this’ll lead to a friendly tromp throughout Adal, teaming up to take out AI Prospects and level up. Or it’ll be repeated sparring; after felling their opponent, the victor will usually help them up and go again. You might run into a human having difficulty overcoming multiple AI enemies, you could help them or simply watch and offer a thumbs-up when they come out alive. It’s an odd comparison, but I’d point you towards the making-friends-with-strangers vibe of Journey. There’s no text or voice communication available, just a handful of emotes which get their meaning across just fine. I found myself repeatedly sparring against a player who entered my game; after being handily defeated multiple times, I bowed to offer my submission, after which he bowed and left the game. It’s simple, wordless moments like this that define Absolver, propelling it beyond the PvP fighting that makes up its core. I bow at my foe before we lock horns again. While unrealised, the world of Adal has a lot to offer. With the spiralling tower always lurking in the background, Adal is presented somewhat like an unfinished watercolour painting. The colours are vibrant and everything feels alive, despite the setting itself being so downtrodden and depressing. Adal captures the essence of “fallen empire” perfectly; everything feels like it used to be gold, but after years of neglect, poverty, and fighting, it’s been left to fall into ruin. It’s a truly unique and beautiful setting that left me wanting so much more; the only time I was disappointed by the PvP focus of Absolver was when I realised that the initial map we’re thrown into is the only area there is. I’m enjoying what there is on offer, and I appreciate that the small team at Sloclap likely made the right decision in limiting their scope and focusing on the combat and multiplayer. Absolver knows what it wants to do and does it to perfection. But, eventually, I’d love for a more fleshed out, bigger campaign set in Adal with the same drop-in online features that Absolver implements so well. I can’t neglect to mention the issues with the OCE servers. Apparently dedicated OCE has been introduced since launch, but just last night, after their introduction, I was having severe lag issues, making the 1v1 combat unplayable. The issues came and went–I also had successful, lag free games, so it might just be a couple of teething issues. Even before the OCE servers were introduced, I found the drop-in multiplayer surprisingly smooth, particularly considering the talk I heard that drop-in multiplayer was based on a peer-to-peer connection. I’ve had no trouble post-launch finding people to spar against 1v1, but that relies on servers being populated so as always with multiplayer-focused games in Australia, take care. End of the day, Absolver is a masterfully constructed game set in a beautiful world with a combat system that’s completely unparalleled. It’s incredibly rewarding to string your attacks together and out-play an opponent, particularly with a combat deck that you’ve spent hours meticulously planning, constructing, and testing. Issues are there–the servers aren’t particularly consistent, it becomes a bit of a grind to upgrade your character, weapon combat is lacking, and it’s frustrating to have to defend against multiple attackers in a game so balanced towards 1v1 combat (making me a bit sceptical about the upcoming 3v3 mode.) But if you’re a fan of PvP of any sort, Absolver is absolutely a must-play, and a game you’ll get a lot of mileage out of. 8 Excellent Select Start Media was provided with a pre-release review copy of Absolver by Devolver Digital for PC.