Absolver hands-on: a Jedi Knight-infused 3D brawler is E3’s surprise hit

Absolver is undoubtedly the best thing I saw during day one of E3 earlier this week. This third-person melee combat game is a furious mix of Jedi Knight’s approach to stances and duelling mixed with the combo customisation of the cult PS2 fighting game, God Hand. With precise, satisfying melee combat that offers loads of opportunities for player expression, I think it’s got the potential to become one of the next big indie hits.

This is one of those rare fighting games I can actually play. I don’t really get 2D fighting games, but 3D fighting games that are about managing your proximity to the enemy, have a slightly slower pace and 360 degree combat is right in my wheelhouse. The first ten minutes take me through a tutorial fighting AI enemies, teaching me how block, parry from both sides, and feint an attack. And that’s just the tip of everything there is to learn in Absolver.

You can customise your moveset in the pause menu at any time, using the game’s combat deck. I’m playing with a PS4 controller, so I set different moves activated by the first, second and third press of the square button in a combo, as well as an additional move for the triangle button. The only restriction is that your chosen moves have to fit within the directional framework of a particular stance, so there’s a rhythm to your combo. Experimenting with different loadouts of moves is really exciting, especially as each one has a damage, speed and range meter. You have to be mindful of the direction of each attack, particularly in PvP, as other players can figure out how to counter your own combos by tweaking their own strategy.

 

Wandering through a PvE level, I see another player in the distance duelling with an AI character. The idea is your game will overlap with other players when you’re playing online, though this is just an illustration of how it will work, rather than another player fighting in real-time. One of the developers at Sloclap was playing with me in co-op, to give me a guided tour of this PvE level, before inevitably taking me on in a PvP showdown at the end. 

Fighting in Absolver feels fantastic. There’s some more stuff to learn besides combo building and how to defend yourself. You can land additional quick attacks if you time your next attack perfectly, for example, which is indicated for you by a meter on-screen if you can’t time it by instinct. The stamina bar makes you mindful of every move you make. Using the d-pad, too, you can use a healing item, as well as a debuff attack, and in the finished game, you’ll be able to customise your warrior’s appearance to your liking. Absolver’s AI is tricky, but not cheap, and everything that enemies throw at you can seemingly be solved with the right counter combo or strategy. With a fighting system this precise, being able to parry or dodge perfectly then floor an opponent with a punch or kick feels rewarding.

I’m holding my breath a lot.

PvE offers good practice for learning how Absolver works, but PvP is where it’s at. I’m not much for competitive multiplayer, in all honesty, but last year Rocket League got under my skin because it was so immediately satisfying, with such a gratifying sense of feedback. I can see Absolver tapping into the same thing. The developer takes us into an arena for a one-on-one battle, and I’m able to hold my own based on years of playing God Hand, Devil May Cry and similar games. I’m bad at parrying, so I decide dodging is my best option in a duel. We take turns killing each other. I get progressively better when I start changing my moveset to include quicker but less powerful attacks, allowing me to dodge, slide round the side of my foe and land a solid punch before skidding out the way of his responding blow. I get better and better at doing this, and I’ve built a moveset on the fly to suit this situation. It feels pretty dramatic. I’m holding my breath a lot.

Then, as if the hand-to-hand combat system wasn’t detailed enough, Sloclap introduces swords into the equation. These too have their own movesets, and duelling with a blade feels like a cinematic samurai showdown. The controls are super responsive. I’m having a lot of fun, even though I can’t tell if the developer is letting me win or not.

I’d never even heard of Absolver before booking an E3 appointment to play it this week, in all honesty. Now I can’t wait to see more of it in the run up to a 2017 release. Outside of Platinum Games, this is some of the most fun 3D fighting I’ve sampled in a while, and I can’t wait to challenge my friends in PvP - particularly those who had an affinity for the duels in the Jedi Knight games. This may be worthy of the games it wisely takes inspiration from.