When Absolver opens, the player character puts on a mask. The mask is featureless, and apparently binding—a magical means of tying the protagonist to a new identity and task. They are to become a Prospect, a warrior on a mystic quest to become the eponymous Absolver, a being dedicated to bringing balance and order to a barren world. When you put on the mask, you lose identity, individuality; the worldless heroes of Sloclap’s martial arts epic are vessels for combat. They don’t have faces; they have fists. They don’t speak; they strike.
Absolver is sort of like that as a whole. The story here is not particularly clear, or particularly emphasized. It takes place in a beautiful, empty world of ruins. After a few hours with the game, my understanding of what’s actually happening in that world at large is limited. Suffice it to say that the broken-down cities and harbors you wander through are not what they once were, and have in their desiccation become training grounds for Prospects. Lost and failed Prospects amble about the area as enemies, striking randomly at anyone who passes by. A few helpers provide advice or a bit of information, but it’s contextless and vague. Sloclap has built a beautiful world—neo-Venetian ruins and wuxia grandeur all stuck together—but it’s a fuzzy one. Everyone talking to you seems to assume you already understand what’s going on, or don’t care.
But Sloclap’s design suggests that none of that storytelling is really important to Absolver, a title primarily about fighting. It has the core emphasis of a competitive fighting game, placed in an open world where other players move in and out as you explore. Each player picks a fighting style and customizes their moveset, then uses those abilities to challenge non-player characters and bosses as well as other players. It’s a system as winding and complicated as mainstream fighting games, but made easier to comprehend by the depth of its customizability. Each fighter has four stances, and each stance has set moves and combos within it. Each move, and with them the combos they build, can be manually switched out by the player, and by fighting you learn even more moves. The result is a system that lets you essentially build your own fighter, piece by piece, memorizing combos by virtue of having created them yourself. You can be a relentless brawler, or an agile striker, or any combination of any style you see in the world.
And while Absolver‘s fighting is surely fun, it contributes to a game that is hyper-focused to the point of feeling not quite finished.
The combat built upon that flexible foundation is, admittedly, stunning. Every move feels sinuous and alive, a duel straight out of a Bruce Lee masterwork. My best experiences in Absolver have been lengthy, one-on-one duels against player and AI alike, weaving in and out of stances, mastering quick dodges and careful parries, learning when and how to hit back. Flashpoints of violence move suddenly around you, other players becoming enemies, then friends, then enemies again, as you oscillate between tackling the artificial intelligence and tackling each other. It delivers a precise articulation of a warrior fantasy.
And yet, like its heroes, it lacks a real identity. The world is smaller than it appears, and the single-player campaign is only really a training ground for later multiplayer skirmishing. And while that fighting is surely fun, it contributes to a game that is hyper-focused to the point of feeling not quite finished. It’s lacking in fullness. It has an illusion of grandeur, but it reveals itself as surprisingly tiny, and while what it has is beautifully refined it can’t shake the feeling of being not fully there. All winning aesthetics and precise moves, but no journey to take them on. Absolver‘s masked heroes are, it turns out, the game itself. Full of vigor and violence but with no identity to speak of.