Severance, that’s a name that was visceral before marketing decided that “visceral” was a neat buzzword. It was known in its full name as Severance: The Blade of Darkness, or Blade: The Edge of Darkness, depending on where you’re from. With such a title, you get the sense it had a lot to do with darkness and blades, and it did. Oh boy did it have a lot of blades and maces and… well, maybe not as much darkness. But most of all, Severance was something special.
It was the Dark Souls game that was actually good.
Now that I have your attention, rotten tomatoes and death threats, allow me to explain. Either through the magic of symmetry, or common inspiration, Severance is a lot like a Dark Souls game, and I mean a lot. It is scary how similar they are, and I don’t meant that they’re both action-RPG games. I mean they even have the same awkward slow falling animation. Now, Severance had an excuse, it is almost ancient by modern standards, dating back from the year 2002, back when motion capture had… interesting results.
It was the only game ever released by Rebel Act Studio. The company folded not long after, Severance not being a commercial hit. Why? Maybe Codemasters fumbled the marketing. Maybe it could have used a console version. Maybe reviewers back then weren’t on the “OMG, this is so hard, it must be brilliant” trend they are now.
The Blade of Darkness told the story of four characters, at your choice. A noble knight, betrayed and left alone to defend the land from evil. A brave amazon, out to explore the land and rid it of darkness. A strong barbarian the size of a house… something something, ancestors. And a dwarf, who I believe was drunk most of the time. It didn’t have a very well developed plot, side effect of it being released before it was totally finished.
There was very little direct storytelling, with few cutscenes, not a lot of dialogue, but with the odd level decoration which hinted at details about the events unfolding. A tale of gods and darkness, a tale of a sword that weeps blood, a tale of how I once used the head of a goblin to bludgeon to death another goblin.
Make no mistakes, Severance was not an easy game.
It had no difficulty settings. You were dumped into a brutal world that expected you to learn or die, pay attention or pay the price, achieve of perish, kill or be killed, succeeded or… you get the idea. It was downright brutal at times, that 18+ rating wasn’t there for show, but it had something the Dark Souls game didn’t. Fairness. It was never an unfair bastard that hid traps all over the place. O, sure, there were traps, but you’d get hints, like a metallic clang in a corridor up ahead, or a room filled with blood and what seem to be piles of crushed bones.
But most of all, this game allowed you to save, at any time, anywhere. When doing so, none of the enemies respawned. The game didn’t punish you, make you slog through the same fight a thousand times just because you had the audacity to play like a normal human being, and not some animal chained to their gaming machine, trying to prove they’re hardcore. That’s not hardcore.
You know what hardcore is? Trying to review Elite Dangerous while you’re quickly becoming paralyzed.
However, Severance, instead of punishing you, was very judgmental. While there was no difficulty level, every time you saved, your awesomeness rating would go down. It had no bearing on gameplay, but if you got to the end with the best rating possible, odds were your friends would either think highly of you, or not talk to you because you kept bragging about it like you had just solved the Anti-Life Equation.
I’m not ashamed to say I saved a lot in that game. A heck of a lot, for the very simple reason that I suck at jumping in games, and Severance had awkward movement controls. As stated before, it was made in the age where good 3D was a new thing, and control in 3D action done right was also a new thing. The motion capture didn’t help much, in that aspect.
It had a lot of glitches in the physics department, which you could abuse for fun and profit.
There were things such as running up walls, break-dancing, and the ever popular climbing in mid-air. Some glitches were downright hilarious, like snatching a weapon one of the later bosses threw, mid-flight, so he couldn’t use it in melee combat anymore. Reading all this, you’re probably thinking: “Man, this game sounds like a glitchy pile of crap.”, and when it came to wandering around, it wasn’t that great, though it did encourage exploration to find weapons, armor, potions, and so on.
But you know where it wasn’t crap in any way shape or form? Where it grabs most other games by the collar and slaps into next year? Where it thunder dunks the baby Jesus through Mary’s halo? Where it high fives Kyle Katarn while riding a shark, on fire?
You haven’t lived (in the gaming sense, not the normal sense) until you’ve played a certain games focused around melee combat. One of those games is Severance. The others I’ll get to later on. So what made this Blade of Darkness so great in the combat department? Well, you know how every game in the last decade substitutes tactical combat for dodge roll abuse?
Well, there was only one character in Severance that could do a dodge roll, and she had a reason to do so.
That was the amazon, light, nimble, specialized in wielding pole weapons, with virtually zero defense. Her fighting style was quite different from the other characters, because rolling away from her enemy actually meant she was in optimal range for her spear. The others weren’t so fortunate. Oh, no, they couldn’t roll away, they dodged. And not in the sense that you pressed a dodge button, and you were instantly safe.
You had to watch carefully in which direction the enemy was about to swing, and dodge in the other direction. I’m not talking about huge leaps here, the character would duck and move slightly in the direction you pressed. Because, well, a knight in chain mail can’t roll that well, let alone one in full plate.
Without being able to tumble around all the time, you actually had to fight tactically in this game. And the combat system allowed you to execute a lot of moves that enabled you to play smart. You couldn’t spam attacks because you had a limited amount of stamina. Once you used it up, your characters would move like sloths and tried to catch their breath for a moment, otherwise known as imminent death. This wasn’t about getting behind the enemy for a quick back-stab.
The game was about timing your attacks, blocking and manually countering for the second the enemy was staggered.
You had to maneuver your enemies around, to make sure they didn’t crowd you from all sides, because that meant certain doom. My favorite thing to do was to try and get them all bunched up as close as possible to each other. Now, this did mean there was a good change I’d hit one of their shields when attacking, and leave myself open to a head-chopping experience.
But – and here’s when the fun starts – Severance isn’t just a cool sounding name. It best describes the dismemberment mechanic in this game. You could chop off hands, feet, usually killing the enemy if they weren’t undead. And most of all, no one was immune to a sharp blade hurdling through the air, no matter who wielded it. So when one of those goblins got too twitchy and decided to swing his sword at you, ignoring his allies, there was a good change one of them would lose an arm. Some of you may pass that off as poor AI, I prefer to think of it as goblins being morons, and the game being fair about it. And also, quite “metal”.
I wasn’t kidding about bludgeoning an enemy to death with the head of a fallen comrade. You can do that in Blade of Darkness. You can pick up the severed hand of the enemy and throw it in the face of their peers. Why? If you have to ask, you just may be a bit too innocent for this game, and I apologize for mentioning dismemberment several times without warning you. Though, with a name like Severance, you should have clued into what the game is about.
And if beating someone with a severed leg, MK4 Quan Chi style, wasn’t enough, there were the combos. You didn’t have a light attack and a heavy attack. You had one attack, your directional keys, and a whole bunch of level based and weapon based special moves you could pull off by combining the two. There were dozens of them. Oh, sure, not the crazy “skateboard on an enemy” DMC spectacle fighter combo, but more sensible ones. They ranged from the standard increased damage strike, to the supernatural “drain your enemies of health” affair. Though this required a certain vampiric sword. There were a lot of weapons in the game, each character having their own set. A bunch of shields as well. A few potions. And a lot of cheese to eat.
Combat is the heart and soul of Severance.
The RPG aspect is way too linear, to the point where it barely qualifies as one. Statistics go up automatically, there’s just two of them, and apart from weapons, shields and three sets of armor, there are no other items you can equip. It’s just there as sort of an unlock system for your special moves. They may as well have made it stage dependent.
But, on the other hand, finishing off an enemy at 10 hit points, only to have a level up bring you back to full health, ready to take on the next big threat, is very satisfying. That’s more or less what you can call fighting in this game, satisfying, and it is superbly done. It even allows you to cancel attacks. Sure, the animation is a bit abrupt there, but it kinda reminds me of fighting games that have the same mechanic, like the EX version of Noel Vermillion in BlazBlue. Simply put, button mashing would sometimes leave you with unfinished attacks and shorter legs.
The exploration aspect wasn’t bad either. Sure, the movement was clunky, but the levels were well made and dotted with secrets. Some required the precision use of a bow that didn’t have an aiming reticle, but had a limited supply of arrows. I remember saving before taking every shot, for a while. When enemies started using bows, arrows were plentiful, I’d usually run around with a dozen of them stuck to a shield.
With so much praise for how well the game works, in terms of combat mechanics, and comparing it to a fighting game, you’re probably wondering why it doesn’t have a multiplayer mode. It did, it does, the Arena. And it is awesome. It even has mod support. People have made basically new campaigns for it, more weapons, more combos, more characters, more of everything, because they loved it, and the only way to get more of it was to make it on their own.
I’d very much like to tell you to go grab this game and give a try, because it is superb.
But, sadly, it was pulled off GOG last year, after Codemasters lost the distribution rights. Who has them now? Well, Rebel Act isn’t around, and its members split into two different studios, one of them being MercurySteam of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow renown. Do they own Severance now? Hard to say, and probably not. Whoever it is, they never bothered in the past year to call up GOG and tell them to put it back on sale. But if you do manage to find it, then, oh boy, are you going to like Dark Souls less after playing it.
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