Adal, the setting for Absolver, is large and untamed, but it fits. Overgrown ruins dot the landscape. There are cracks in the ground, ships washed far ashore. Something happened, but there’s little in the way of exposition or grand story. You play as a prospect who enters Adal to fight their way to the final gatekeeper, earning the right to become an Absolver, a master of martial arts. Absolver wastes little time on anything but the combat, its shining star.
The plot behind Sloclap’s new pseudo fighting game is thin at best. You create a character who seeks to join the Absolvers. You pick from three classes, each using their own fighting style and defensive moves, and then you’re sent out to train, battle, and eventually climb the tower of Adal to graduate. The little story that exists serves solely to urge the player forward from fight to fight. Among the ruins and fauna are other prospects, lost in the wild, fighting anyone who crosses their path. At the height of the combat pyramid are the bosses and Marked Ones, difficult enemies who must all fall to your hand for you to earn passage to the tower.
Absolver’s combat system feels reminiscent of many different games, from God Hand to Dark Souls, but it adds its own influence to develop something fresh. There are only two attack buttons in Absolver, mapped to a regular attack and an alternative attack. What kind of attack those two buttons deliver changes based on the fighter’s stance, changed by holding the right trigger and rotating the right thumbstick. A backwards-left attack could be a jab, while forward-right could be a spinning elbow or hammer kick. Each strike moves you to a new position, forming a stream of attacks that links together into combinations.
Most of my time was spent re-arranging the order of my attacks, laid out in what the game calls a combat deck. Your deck is your move-set, and it can be as unique as you want. While I had a primary combo I relied on, I also laid in outs, alternate moves to throw at my opponent when they started to figure out my routine. Hidden away in my back-right stance was an infinite combo, a flurry of elbows that kept me in the same position, hammering away. It was a useful trick against turtling opponents, and when used in combination with certain abilities I could wear down defenders with ease.
You can rearrange and practice your combat deck in the meditation screen, where you also level up your stats and arrange your equipment. While gear is often a trade-off of protection for weight (which affects your stamina regeneration), stats fall into basic categories. Three different categories increase the damage a specific class’ moves do, while the others increase health, stamina and tension. It’s very light on management and customisation, but these elements add a little bit of personality to your playstyle.
Abilities add wrinkles to Absolver’s combat. As fights go on, tension builds up in shards, displayed as yellow fragments on a fighter’s back. Shards can be expended to use abilities, like a quick heal or a shockwave. Additionally, you can use shards to summon a weapon, such as a blade or special war gloves, which open up a completely different move set. Add in class skills, like the Forsaken class’ parry or Windfall’s avoid, a Bloodborne-esque side-dash, and the litany of options available at any given moment could become overwhelming.
Absolver never quite gets to that point, though. At its core is a complex but refined system that makes mastering the martial arts intricate but natural. Each move is individual, with its own unique properties and characteristics, but the deck weaves them together perfectly. Like any good fighting game, you could likely just button-mash and still have fun, or you could dive deep into the systems and mechanics, searching for the most optimal stats to boost and the best punches to chain into and out of. The game’s constant struggle to better yourself by besting others lets you move forward at your own pace, with progression metered only by your skill. Absolver is a constant climb, spurred onwards by continued mastery of its combat, learning the ins and outs of every option until you’ve crafted a deck that feels like your very own style of kung-fu.
It’s good that combat is so solid, because your primary—really, only—interaction with the world is to fight. Occasionally random characters will be neutral to you, offering advice or possibly a tidbit of lore. But the crux of the single-player campaign is navigating a world filled with many antagonistic prospects, Marked Ones, and bosses who impede your way.
Encounters against Marked Ones are mostly one-on-one fights against specialists who use abilities that you can gain by beating them. The sectioned-off bosses have cutscenes and proper introductions, along with special mechanics for their fight. Each of the three bosses brings a unique twist to the game. It’s hard to vary up the difficulty without just throwing more fighters at you, which Absolver tends to frequently do, but the boss battles feel unique enough in their own way. One sends a horde of weak shadows at you, another is a tag-team sibling match, and the climactic fight atop the tower was probably my favorite against a non-player character in Absolver.
How fast the top of that tower is reached is entirely dependent on the player. I was stuck on my first Marked One fight for a good half-hour before finally beating him. It was a challenge that forced me to adapt to the game, learn its systems and frankly, to stop punching until I ran out of gas. Overcoming that opponent was a joy, but what I really got out of that fight was comprehension of the tools necessary to beat the game. I breezed through the rest of the story with little trouble. After about two hours and change, I had gained my Absolver cloak, earned my title, and seen the final title screen pop.
Given the game’s short running time, the bulk of its staying power is likely to be its multiplayer content. Multiplayer is either cooperative or adversarial, and special boss challenges flesh out old encounters. Unfortunately, the versus options have their own issues to deal with—several arenas have insta-kill bottomless pits, and matchmaking queues often didn’t pair me up with players of the same level or skill.
But when I found an opponent who challenged me but wasn’t miles ahead, multiplayer really clicked. Absolver is at its best when it’s pitting two opponents against each other, hand-to-hand, intimately learning each other’s arsenals and tendencies. In only three rounds with a random stranger, I’d learn so much about and from them. I come at them with a jab, elbow, spin-kick, hammer-kick. It works, the first time, but the third or fourth, they’ve read it. They respond, and I adjust. Instead of a spin-kick, I use my alternate attack, only they guard-cancelled and wind up for a big hit. Avoid, dash, heal, strike. The cadence of Absolver’s combat is unique and compelling. Developer Sloclap has said plans are in the work to build upon multiplayer with ranked matchmaking, spectating, and three-on-three combat, but for now, duels are the main attraction.
By the end of my time with Absolver, I was left wanting more excuses to keep playing. The combat is unlike anything else, and honing my combat deck with new attacks and styles was incredibly engaging. But the game does little to offer more goalposts for players. From the outset, your meter for progression is bettering yourself as a fighter, and by the end, the only way to do so is through duelling player opponents or hunting AI fighters who might have the few skills you’ve yet to learn. Most of my time past the campaign was spurred on by my own desire to spend time with the combat system rather than the game itself offering me any reward for doing so.
Right now, much of Absolver might feel small, but it has plenty of room to grow. Its foundation is solid: a well-designed combat system in a distraction-free world. Whether you spend a handful of hours seeing the sights or days delving into meta-discussions on the best builds, Absolver’s fresh approach to hand-to-hand combat is a welcome addition to the pantheon of one-on-one fighters.