Released at the end of August, Absolver is an unusual, finessed take on the beat-em-up. Where stalwarts of the genre like Street Fighter have long relied on the hackneyed memorisation of button combos and animation frames to simulate mastery, Absolver takes an altogether more fluid approach. Instead of button-mashing this game presents the player with a set of four directional stances and a customisable deck of attacks. Each stance allows access to either the start of a combo or an alternate attack. Each attack in turn starts in one stance and (often) ends in another, allowing the player to construct nefariously complex patterns and loops from the attacks they have learned out in the world. Rather fittingly, this ‘learning’ takes the form of getting punched in, or near, the face until the move you’re trying to learn really sinks in. I’m reliably informed that this is a remarkable parallel to how learning actual martial arts works.
Layered on top of this are a set of styles that allow the player access to a quick dodge, parry, absorb damage, or the dodge-and-strike of Stagger style – Absolver’s languid interpretation of Drunken Fist (Zui Quan) Kung Fu. I’m not usually one for describing mechanics in such detail but I hope it as at least somewhat apparent that Absolver’s developers – Sloclap – have created a system of dazzling depth and complexity.
“The level of respect within the online community is endlessly endearing.”
Engaging with this system in single player is freeing. The relative simplicity of the game’s AI leaves much more room for personal taste and is far more forgiving than the multiplayer scene when it comes to move selection. Multiplayer really is where the game takes off though – players are matched seamlessly as they roam through the world, allowing ample opportunity for ad-hoc sparring, or co-operation against some of the game’s tougher mobs and bosses.
The level of respect within the online community is endlessly endearing: watching a competent player obliterate a newcomer, revive them, bow courteously and go off on their merry way will bring a spark of joy to my cynical heart every time. Players can also engage in arena-based 1v1 ‘Combat Trials’ – matches where all that time spent honing a deck that ‘looks cool’ or ‘feels right’ inevitably falls flat in the face of some asshole that has picked two good kicks that loop back on each other and is now spamming you into a corner.
Which sounds bad, right?
WRONG – obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have thrown in that trite little one-two would I? While I suspect the aforementioned cheese-mongering may (rightly) put off some players, it is also a bizarrely compelling challenge. The immutability of the player’s deck mid-fight means that any reasonably effective deck needs some serious prior consideration. In short, it requires strategy. How a deck will fare against cheap tricks, fast linear punches or lethal circular attacks is of central concern, and players engaged with the competitive community will frequently proselytize the importance of countering every eventuality.
Creating your perfect deck is easier said than done, and when you do finally come across a player who has one hundred percent internalised the flow of Absolver – that knows your mind better than you do – they will strike you down in a flurry of ambrosial strikes like the warrior god-king they are, while you flap uselessly into the path of their fists. I’m reliably informed that this is also remarkably similar to learning actual martial arts.
There is a niggle though, which is Absolver’s setting. It follows the now strangely familiar post-cataclysmic-event mould of world-building, though arguably is more tight-lipped about its chequered past than even the most obscurantist titles of the genre. You know who I’m talking about. In general, I have no problem with a game demanding a little archaeology from me, but Absolver’s problem is two-fold. Firstly, that there isn’t that much worth digging up, and secondly that the histories of its subject – martial arts – are almost always histories of oppression and repression, which makes this superficiality seem especially egregious.
“The histories of its subject – martial arts – are almost always histories of oppression and repression.”
Take a relatively innocuous example like Taekwondo, which has a whole plethora of its moves scattered throughout Absolver – though you will find little mention of the astute Newtonian physics that inform them. Neither will you find mention of its role in re-establishing Korean martial arts following the end of Japanese colonial rule, the difficulties in maintaining a unified style in the face of the Cold War period, nor any fictional analogue. Never mind that brutally-effective combat-system-du-jour Krav Maga was created by boxer-wrestler Imi Lichtenfeld in response to his experiences defending the Jewish population of Bratislava from anti-Semitic gangs. Or that – despite a myriad of folkloric uncertainties – Wing-Chun is probably a system originally designed in part by a woman to help women defend themselves against a much larger opponent, probably a man. I know, topical punches from the 1800s.
“A set of movements that have deep historic meaning for a group of invariably oppressed people are reduced to set dressing.”
Frustrating obfuscations don’t stop there though. Absolver’s post-modern apocalyptic approach wreaks havoc with Capoeira’s history – a martial art created by escaped slaves to defend themselves against the heavily armoured Portugese dragoons sent to round them up, a martial art that was still illegal in Brazil until 1940. Capoeira’s arguably most famous move – the Meia Lua de Compasso – does appear in Absolver, but utterly displaced from its past. It’s most commonly seen performed by non-player characters wearing a mixture of light ceremonial garb and heavy armour from two of the game’s fictional regions. The kindest interpretation of this mash-up – assuming it is remotely intentional – is that in the convolution of time the oppressed peoples that this move originates from have adopted the heavy metal shoulder pads of their former oppressors. But the game does nothing to support this interpretation – despite my searching for it – and so a set of movements that have deep historic meaning for a group of invariably oppressed people are reduced to set dressing.
That really is the core of the issue: these movements are more than violence, they are a form of culture. How many black lives were saved from the grip of slavery by the Meia Lua? Which particular fascist faces loomed in the mind of Imi Lichtenfield as the imagined targets for his forms? These movements encode people’s lived experience, and propagate them forwards in time. They represent, almost without fail, the lives of those resisting oppression. Absolver’s unwillingness to explore those depths results in a world that feels shallow and adolescent – that plays on the action-movie fantasy of martial arts rather than engage with the complex, troubling realities that gave birth to those techniques.
I don’t want to be too hard on Absolver, partly because I love the game’s mechanical complexity, partly because that deck-based strategizing does capture something interesting about how martial arts have split and entwined across time, and partly because the developer’s dedication to the arts they are representing is – at least at the level of animation – unparalleled. Unfortunately, it is that last point that makes the shortcomings of Absolver’s world so glaring. Despite myself I hope Sloclap keep developing Absolver, if only to prove my flagrantly cast aspersions wrong – I desperately want there to be more here than meets the eye.