The second I traded blows with Jinn Mesca, so-called Prime Disciple of the Golden Bottle, I knew I wanted to be like him. Absolver’s “drunken master” warded off my blows and landed his own while swaying like a man fresh off a bender, punching me lightly even when I thought I’d successfully dodged. I returned to Jinn several times at his perch beneath a large tree until I’d learned all his moves and, in time, could beat him at his own game. I became the drunken master, and if Jinn had been a player instead of an NPC, I know I could have taught him a few moves myself. This master/apprentice relationship makes each fight in this action-role playing game a learning experience, and the idea meshes well with the surreal martial arts vibe woven throughout Absolver.
These punchy battles unfold in the lost province of Adal, a stunning landscape that’s long ago fallen into ruin, where a Babel-like tower looms over surrounding plains that look like a watercolor painting come to life. It’s not a large open world, but it’s a varied one with multiple biomes, and it’s big enough that I sometimes got lost in the absence of a minimap. It’s a little dreary at times, and that’s not just because of the ruin. Celebrated composer Austin Wintory (best known for his work on Journey) may be responsible for the music, but his powers are used all too sparingly for this saga of fisticuffs and kung fu, with the minutes between fights largely passing in eerie silence.
As to what, exactly, you’re “absolving?” Absolver is unfortunately as unclear on that point as it is on the specifics of the fascinating calamity that befell the land. Its spartan single-player campaign, which involves unlocking some doors, beating a few instanced one-on-one bosses and assorted mini ones in the open world, never really gives you much of a hint. You know only that you’ve been selected to venture into the ruins to beat up fellow “prospects,” all of whom, like you, cover their faces with hockey-style masks that conceal emotions (and likely save some facial animation costs). When it ends after a brief four or five hours you’re simply told to wait until you’re needed again, which sounds like the placeholder text you might see at the end of a demo.
But while it lasts, the campaign provides a training ground for Absolver’s wonderful combat. It’s so fluid and beautiful in action, punctuated by the satisfying sounds of cracks and thwaps as each blow hits its mark. If For Honor is all about the brutality of melee fighting, Absolver is about its finesse.
Nothing sets it apart from its competition as much as its customization. Absolver is the Pokemon of fighting games, relying on an addictive “gotta catch ’em all” approach to learning new moves rather than memorizing complicated finger acrobatics as you might in Street Fighter V or For Honor.
The meta is complex, but, with some trial and error, it makes sense in action. (I had to restart a few times before I got it.) There are “classes” of a sort, in that you can choose between three out of four schools at the character creation screen. Windfall, my initial favorite school, is about evading every time you nudge a gamepad’s left thumbstick just as a blow is about to land. Kahlt is tanky, focused on absorbing enemy attacks, while Forsaken emphasizes parrying. Stagger is the fourth, fully unlockable only by learning from “drunken master” Jinn Mesca.
While Absolver never really locks you into any of these styles, every move you pick up will complement a specific school. Windfall, for example, is all about quick jabs, while Kahlt focuses on devastating slams that crush your enemies’ stamina bars. Consider the styles the canvas on which you paint, drawing from a vivid and violent palette of moves you learn from foes.
Meet an NPC or player in combat, and you can learn their individual moves by blocking them (which causes no damage, at least from bare fists) or evading them with your style’s special defensive ability. As you do, a progress bar for learning a move creeps up until you unlock it. The system rewards skill, but also presents a risk in that you’ll lose all progress toward a move learned during a fight if you’re defeated.
Once unlocked, you can arrange these moves in a “combat deck,” as Absolver calls it, with the individual moves represented as cards of sorts. You then mix and match the moves into combat strings of up to three successive moves, with each string being paired to four separate stances based on your position in relation to your foe. Set up your deck carefully, letting one stance flow naturally in another, and you can launch into a brutal ballet where you pummel your opponent through all 12 moves by merely tapping a single button. (It’s not an automatic win – if your enemy’s competent, they’ll figure how to break through this.) Nor is that the end of it. You can still catch your opponent off guard with single alternative attacks for each stance, and you can change stances as needed with a squeeze of the right trigger. Lootable gear figures in, too, with lighter gear allowing more speed for styles like Windfall and heavy gear providing resistances for Kahlt. Further customization comes in the form of the abilities you map to the D-pad, which let you slow down your enemies, heal, or summon weapons that break and disappear after using them for a bit.
Weapons (mainly swords and fist weapons are available at launch) require an entirely separate combat deck that activates when you pick one up or summon one with “shards” earned by taking or dodging enough hits. It’s a great system, in part because there’s a risk to using weapons. Take too many hits and you could drop your mighty sword, leaving your opponent to pick it up and slice you with it – provided they’ve got a decent weapon combat deck of their own.
There’s a good chance they won’t have one, at least in the earlier portion of Absolver’s 60 levels. In practice, unfortunately, the learn-by-blocking system slows down the fast pace implied by the martial arts aesthetic. When I tried running through Absolver speedily, living a Jackie Chan fantasy by kicking constant butt, I found myself getting crushed as I leveled when enemies started hitting me with harder skills. So it’s best to plod along at first, learning every move you can. Against NPCs, just blocking and dodging, this takes forever. I probably sparred with Jinn Mesca for over an hour. It was dull, frankly. And swords take even more time since weapons break easily, thus severely limiting the chances you have to learn the associated moves.
It doesn’t have to be this painful. Picking up new moves happens much faster when you learn them from another player, either through duels with people you encounter in the open-world zones (which are limited to three players each) or in the 1v1 arenas. Absolver thus heavily encourages fighting against players rather than NPCs, and its success likely depends on securing a dedicated player base. These are quiet alliances, though, with our masked heroes’ communications being limited by a set of emotes as in Dark Souls, a decision that nixes toxic chat but also pushes the already dreary ambience to even sadder extremes.
Make a friend, as I did, and they may be willing to teach you their moves and invite you to join their own “school,” which they can create after playing through many arena matches. Social play also makes miniboss fights in the open world more exciting, as grouped players can pick off NPCs that are accidentally pulled into the fray while trying to avoid punching each other with friendly fire.
For that matter, I’ve yet to tire of the three-round 1v1 arena matches which, especially after I’d learned many skills, feel more dynamic and unpredictable than matches in many other fighting games. I felt I was playing as a person, not a class or a build. And, of course, random fights with other players in the world are always thrilling, and the population limit so far appears to keep players from griefing excessively. I do wonder, though, how much that’ll change once Absolver gains a wider audience.
And that’s why I wish there were more to Absolver. Its combat is fun, but it still feels like a work in progress. The nebulous story, such as it is, ends as abruptly as a punch. I finished at level 36, well below the level cap of 60. I was first attracted to Absolver by concept art showing a fighter with a bo staff, but no such weapon currently exists in the game. You can’t even respec your attribute points, and I worry that oversight has severely handicapped my fighter as I now know – too late – which stats work best with my fighting style. Plans are allegedly in the works for a 3v3 arena, but it’s currently not available. And I’m still enduring crashes, particularly when I hop into the Matrix-like training room where you can experiment with combat decks.
The catch? I still couldn’t stop playing. Absolver is one of the most unique and satisfying fighting games I’ve played in a while, and its social aspects and personalized characters keep me coming back for more.