Absolver hands-on: a fun and complex fighting system in a sad, sad world

I never knew I how much I loved cheesy flavor dialogue until it left me. Absolver's complex and interesting fighting system (a great one, in my short experience) exists within a solemn, hushed world inhabited by masked opponents who can hardly even muster grunts when I sock them in their faces. Absolver is so quiet and placid—even the docks are absent of seagulls' guttural calls—that if it weren't a multiplayer game, it might feel too lonely and sad to enjoy.

But after playing several hours of an unfinished preview version, Absolver did pull me in, largely thanks to the two players I encountered: one a friend, and the other a foe. We'll have a review of the final version late next week, but until then here are my observations on, again, a not-final version of the shared-world brawler.

Smiling faces

When someone started emoting at me, waving me over, I was relieved to feel a little warmth.

Absolver's ascetic world is clever in one way: rather than modeling players' faces, it covers them with opaque masks which can be found throughout the world. Perhaps it's a way to sidestep complex character customization—you pretty much just choose a sex and hairstyle—but it creates a more immediate visual ID than any mouth or nose shape could with Absolver's conservative polycount. My matte, black mask (the only one I've found to replace the default starting mask so far) is a strong look.

Still, playing Absolver makes me long for the goofy excesses of Street Fighter. The brown, flat-looking ruins are messy and largely inert, and combined with the voiceless characters it's all a bit depressing. And so when someone (I assume a developer) started emoting at me, waving me over, I was relieved to feel a little warmth.

The most interesting thing about Absolver, aside from its customizable fighting system, is how players interact. We're all warriors in training, dropped into this maze of ruins to whack away at NPCs and each other on the path to mastery. If you find another player (when in online mode, Absolver creates peer-to-peer connections on the fly) you can silently emote at them, and they might group up with you to wander the open world fighting AI enemies. Or they might kick you in the jaw. Players can spar at will, whether or not both are willing—the lack of any real punishment for losing means Absolver can get away with such a loose PvP sparring system without causing too much grief. (Competitive 1v1, which will eventually have a ranked mode, is separate from the open world sparring, and is voluntary.)

Above: Did I not make it clear that I didn't want to fight?

I made an enemy not long into my first session. A far better, higher level player decided to chase me in circles, insisting we do battle despite my obvious reluctance. My friendly co-op pal beat him down, with a tiny bit of help from me. I looked at my opponent's body and saw I had the option to revive him. I thought it was curious that I could revive a foe, so I did. He immediately started punching us, and my hero friend knocked him out again. I didn't help him back up that time.

Later, the bully found me alone and got what he wanted, kicking the snot out of me. I can't call it griefing given that Absolver fully supports PvP sparring whether or not both combatants are willing (and I could've gone offline if I wanted), but it was a pain in the ass to be hounded while I was just trying to learn how everything worked. Still, it did at least give a mini-story to my early adventure, and a rival to one day beat one-on-one.

The first rule of Absolver, then, is to find a friend quick, both to ward off other players if you're not ready to spar, and to help you grind through the early leveling and gear acquisition without giving in to the loneliness of the world. I ultimately ragequit sometime after midnight last night after repeatedly losing a battle with NPCs with no other players around to push me forward. The completed game, should it prove popular, ought to have more players to spar and team up with—it'll need that healthy population to cut through its melancholy piano notes and listless crystal bowl music.

One of the more colorful moments I've experienced so far.

Fighter maker

Whatever the backdrop, the fighting system is Absolver's crown jewel. If you're playing with a mouse and keyboard (the devs recommend a controller, but I was feeling rebellious) the control scheme is not unlike those of other action RPGs: timed clicks of the left mouse button chain light attacks into combos, while the right mouse button executes alternate attacks. Pressing the scroll wheel locks onto an enemy, WASD moves, Space dodges, and Shift blocks. Attacking, blocking, and dodging deplete stamina, which recharges when you're on the retreat. If that were all there was to it, Absolver would be a methodical, high-skill brawler.

Above: A new friend and I team up on an NPC.

The possible combinations appear to be just about endless.

But there's also a complex meta layer to the fighting that I could tinker with for hours. Each fighting style includes four stances, which can be toggled with Q,E,Z, and C. Crucially, though, each attack also ends in a stance, and it may not be the one the attack started in. Using a simple flowchart, you can choose which attacks you want to chain together in each stance—if you want, you can set up your fighter to auto-cycle through all four stances by ending each moveset with a stance change.

For instance, my Q stance could contain two moves, a punch and a kick, the latter of which ends in the E stance. My E stance moves could then end in the Z stance, and so on. So if my timing is on and I can keep a combo going, I'll eventually cycle through all my stances.

For a more methodical approach, and probably a better one, you can use light attack sequences that all end in the same stance they started in, and only switch stances with alternate, right mouse button attacks or by pressing their associated letter key (or, sometimes, by not following through on a combo and letting the first attack in a sequence set the stance). The possible combinations appear to be just about endless, creating an experimental layer to Absolver's fighting that's really appealing.

Above: Customizing and testing out a Combat Deck.

At first, the selection of moves is pretty puny, but you learn more either under the tutelage of a mentor—something I haven't experienced yet—or by blocking or countering unknown enemy attacks, which trains you in them over time. How you counter attacks depends on your chosen fighting style. I chose Windfall, which gives me extra dodge moves activated by flicking my mouse left, right, up, or down to sidestep, hop, or duck. It's a novel control scheme, and though I'm still shaky with its application, successfully hopping over a leg sweep is a precision thrill I've never quite experienced in a 3D fighting game. It sometimes feels too choreographed to have really happened, and any game that makes me feel like Jackie Chan, even for a brief moment, is onto something.

Like a card game or Pokemon, the urge to collect new moves and then try out new fighting decks is strong, but as I continue to explore Absolver's open world, I hope its mournful fog starts to dissipate. A vibrant and cheerful fighting game is a lot more appealing to me than a tale of sad mask people who can only communicate in emotes, though I do get that it's going for Journey-style mystique and it's possible I just haven't been in the right mood for it. Before I dig into the final version—which releases on August 29th—I'll light some candles and pre-game by listening to Gregorian chants. We'll have a full review of Absolver next week.