If you’ve played Dark Souls before, then you already know the drill. Absolver‘s level design is open with interconnected paths, hidden areas, shortcuts littered with enemies that respawn when you die. The combat is similarly tough, forcing you to maintain stamina, block, dodge and parry incoming enemy attacks without getting overrun by multiple enemies. But Absolver does something new and fresh in its admittedly brief run that adds something more to the Dark Souls formula.

It gives you a fully customizable move set that you can set up however you like. To begin with, you will have a small set of moves and four stances to stand in. These stances, front left, back right etc. each have their own move-set with an alternative attack button that switches stance during the combo. Fighting opponents who have different attacks will eventually lead to you learning that move, adding it to your arsenal of kung-fu moves. If you parry or dodge the move then you can learn it much quicker. It didn’t take long until I had an assortment of moves and set up my combat deck so that I had devastating combinations of attacks that would lead directly to others, making the combat feel smoother and more fluid. Despite this, I still found myself simply mashing buttons and hoping for the best. Which certainly isn’t the best strategy, especially when facing more than one opponent.

Exploring the world of Absolver, you will find equipment for your character. Choosing your armor always feels like a trade-off. Rather than finding something much better than the equipment you already have you will often find items that, for example, have more stats on the armor, but affect your mobility. Meaning one thing isn’t necessarily better than another, you just have to decide which stat is more important. There are also weapons, some come in abilities that you have to charge up throughout combat, and some disposable weapons are found within the world. The found weapons are largely useless, dealing less damage than your fists, only breaking through an enemy’s guard. I found myself rarely using the abilities, as the same charge for weapon use is the same as the healing ability, again making it a tactical trade-off between what you decide to use. Although every enemy defeated grants you a health boost.

The combat in Absolver is, of course,  the big pull here. There is little else to do in the beautiful world of Absolver other than explore, find loot, take in the sights and kick-ass. Although you can get through most encounters with a single enemy by mashing buttons, the combat is often unforgiving, enemies will attack you in groups forcing you to constantly change your position so as not to get flanked. Some camera hiccups and lock-on issues plague the more narrow parts of the world, but retreating to somewhere more open is usually the best tactical move anyway. This is still the biggest flaw of the game. A lot of the quality of life and interactions feel janky at times, and the game constantly throws two or more enemies at you at once, which only highlight the problems with switching between who you’re locked onto, dodging quickly and positioning the camera to a comfortable position.

On several occasions, I died simply because I couldn’t lock onto the right enemy or face the camera where I wanted it to be. But death is much less punitive than in a Dark Souls game. You simply respawn at the last checkpoint or Altar; the game’s take on bonfires, which are never too far away. The Altars aren’t needed to level up, and serve offline almost exclusively as a checkpoint or somewhere to fill up your health.

At the beginning of the game, you are given the choice of three classes, each of which gives you an ability and a boost to a certain stat. These abilities are a parry, a dodge and an absorb ability which lets you absorb incoming damage. The dodge ability, which I used through my playthrough, is pretty tough. Dodging in four different directions, you have to watch and learn enemies move to know whether an attack is coming high, low or from either side. The parry seems a little easier as the only variable is the timing, and I am yet to try to out the absorbability. Although many enemies I have faced seem to use it to great success, often being the trickier of foes to best. The difficulty is obviously always going to be an issue for some people who simply want to play a game, experience the story and get a quick escape. For me, it’s a challenge that I want to, no need to overcome. If some low-level grunt takes me out, as infuriating as it may be, I feel the need to jump back in and make sure he knows who’s boss. The satisfaction in defeating a powerful foe is something to revel in. Although the bosses are all humans and they never feel like they’re much harder than the standard enemy, finally defeating them after getting your ass handed to you several times is a feeling that most games simply cannot deliver, even when ratcheting the difficulty all the way up.

The world itself is open-ended, every location you go to leads to several more. The beginning location gives you three different paths to go down, which then leads to more, eventually circling back on themselves. You are given the freedom to go whichever way you choose from the get-go. You are given a simple objective; to take out some bosses before you can battle the main boss and finish the game. Which may seem overly simplistic as the main objective, but I found myself often not knowing where I was or where I was supposed to go. The map is accessible through the Altars and without a compass or waypoints it’s very difficult to know where you are or which way you’re heading. Which led to me being lost, running around areas I’d previously visited for chunks of time, before eventually finding a new location. This was often frustrating, but I mostly chocked it up to me not paying enough attention to where I was or where I was going. Especially in the opening hour of the game, where I simply sprinted in a direction looking for enemies to try out the combat and get the game moving. That’s not to say it’s slow in the opening of the game. It throws you right in, giving you only a simple tutorial of the buttons and sets you on your way.

Given that your objective is ostensibly simple, the story itself is vague and ambiguous, but unlike Dark Souls it is very light on lore and the backstory of the world you inhabit. Simply put, this is an action, if you’re looking for a deep story or characters then you may be disappointed. Just like Dark Souls, Absolver has an online component, both co-op and PvP. Although you aren’t getting invaded by unwelcome visitors like in the Souls games, you get a choice of how you want to experience the online.

I don’t especially like drawing too many comparisons to Dark Souls, but they’re simply unavoidable considering that the Souls’ games practically created their own genre. Although there is plenty to set it apart; the similarities are undeniable and thus throughout my playthrough I found myself, as I did with Nioh and Lords of the Fallen, comparing it to one my most beloved series. And while I must judge the game on its own merits it is impossible to ignore where the game’s core tenants are derived from. As a Dark Souls clone, it does a great job in creating a distinguishably different experience in terms of its combat and customizability. But as an action-RPG it falls short in many ways due to its longitude, or lack thereof and accessibility, as well as being wrought with technical issues.  

Being a budget game developed by an indie studio, don’t be expecting the 40-plus hour slog through the main campaign. It only takes around 4-6 hours to blast through the campaign while exploring most nooks and crannies. But there is so much depth to the combat system that it would be easy to spend hours simply working on your style of fighting. And although I feel satisfied in finishing the game, I do intend to jump back in at some point and try out the other classes and creating another style of fighting. As well as delving more into the PvP modes to see if I’m actually any good.  

Overall, SloClap have created something unique, among the recent burst of Souls-like games over the past year, Absolver creates a deep and complex combat system in a beautiful but ultimately shallow world that lacks the lore and mythos to keep me hooked long enough to master the deep school system or try and learn every move.