Lab Zero Games brings us yet another artistic feat with their gorgeous hybrid platformer/ RPG, Indivisible! But will the unique gameplay match up be in harmony or will it just be a pretty game to look at?
A Nexus of Artistry
If you’ve ever questioned whether or not video games are art, then you’d just have to look back on the rich history of the medium! Although many may consider video games to still be in their infancy as an art form, creating a game requires talents from many different traditional artistic disciplines. From illustration, animation and cinematography, to storytelling, musical composition and even performing arts, it’s a culmination of all of those things that make video games what they are. With the core differentiation being their interactivity and, of course, the technical wizardry required to put it all together!
However, it requires more than just these things as well, as it takes a unique viewpoint to rise above the passive nature of most traditional artistic mediums, and it can also require innovations in each field to make your work stand above the rest. Well Lab Zero Games, of Skullgirls fame, has spared no artistic expense to bring us their latest and greatest entry, Indivisible. But does its hybrid approach to its gameplay compliment its visuals, or are we just left with a mediocre experience that’s pretty to look at?
Following the relative success of their first game Skullgirls, a 2D hand drawn fighting game most notable for its impressive character design and animations, Lab Zero Games really wanted to broaden their horizons and make a larger, more story focused experience. So in July of 2015, they announced that they would be working on a new title named Indivisible, which featured 2D side scrolling action and exploration mixed with turn based combat similar to that of the classic JRPG Valkyrie Profile from Enix. It would also feature a story based loosely on southeast Asian mythology and of course their trademark character designs and animation.
Later that year, Lab Zero Games would launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project asking for 1.5 million dollars and teaming up with 505 Games with the caveat that if they reached their funding goal, 505 Games would fund the remainder of the development. Unfortunately, the project was unable to reach its funding goal come the end of the Kickstarter campaign, but because it was able to raise just over 60% of its budget, Lab Zero Games was able to extend the funding period for another 20 days on Indiegogo. After all was said and done Indivisible exceeded its fundraising budget requirements receiving just over 2 millions dollars in pledges. Granting Lab Zero Games the ability to continue its development!
Nearly four years after the close of the campaign, we would finally be graced with the completed product and Indivisible would appear on all major consoles as well as PC in late 2019. Delivering with it everything Lab Zero Games promised, including their fantastic art style, music composed by Hiroki Kikuta (Secret of Mana, Koudelka) and animation talents from Studio Trigger (Kill la Kill, Little Witch Academia) and Titmouse, Inc. (Metalocalypse, The Venture Bros.). Or so backers hoped.
Brash Yet Humble
In Indivisible, you play as Ajna, a brash young girl who, after her village is ransacked and her father killed by the Imperial forces, seeks out the Emperor Ravannavar to exact her revenge. Chasing him to the storied Sumeru Mountain, Ajna quickly discovers that she is in over her head and that Ravannavar was only the tip of the iceberg to a problem that could mean the end of existence as we know it. The resurrection of the Goddess Kala, who has grown tired of the imperfections of the current world and wishes to erase it to start anew. Ajna must embark on a journey of self discovery, enlist the help of a ragtag group of friends and seek out a solution to the root of the problem. The only question is, will her own stubbornness stand in her way?
Charm and Character
An interesting concept to be sure, with the tropes of saving the world from a great evil being a bit tired, but considering its mythological inspirations, it suits the source material quite nicely! You’ll also find that as you dive deeper into the story, it’s the characters that make it stand apart, including the protagonist Ajna who brings a lot of charm to the game and its narrative. She’s bull headed and doesn’t take lightly to criticisms, but seeing her grow throughout her journey is heartwarming. The characters she meets along the way add a ton of levity to the game as well, with their silly dialog and intermingling. And the fact that you can add them to your party and use them in battles really helps you grow an attachment to your favorites.
The theme of growth and discovery also adds a sense of intrigue as you see the characters dealing with situations they must eventually overcome by shedding old habits, but from a gameplay perspective they can at times be at odds. The seemingly endless waffling of Ajna has you visiting and revising areas which can quickly become grating. However, once you reach the latter half of the game, the objective is clearer and the gameplay and story align much more adeptly.
The Waffling Adventurer
Truly that’s where I waver with Indivisible the most, its gameplay. Honestly, I absolutely love the concept of a metroidvania style platformer mixed with a turn based RPG. But when it came to exploring, it always felt like I would discover a new ability which only had limited usefulness, run into an impassable obstacle which forced me to backtrack and move on to a whole new area. Where I would once again find a new ability, etc, etc, etc… Rinse and repeat those steps a few dozen times and that pretty much sums up the experience of exploring in Indivisible. Now, I know this just sounds like your typical metroidvania, but with a lack of fast travel (at least until the very end of the game) it made the platforming sections tedious, especially when you know you have to make another 10-15 minute trek back to the hub world. That and it felt like I was leaving things unfinished and I don’t like that feeling. Throw in a bazillion character requests that force you to revisit each area again a bazillion more times, that honestly have little to no payoff, and you’ll be asking yourself why you keep doing this to yourself.
Having some abilities, like your party’s strength, tied to the story’s progress also rubbed me the wrong way. That’s because it meant you could grind as much as you wanted but until you hit the next story event you wouldn’t be strong enough to fight some of the enemies. Meaning certain quests could not be completed and specific areas couldn’t be completely explored, which really defeats the point of giving the player the ability to explore at will. Nevertheless, I will admit that once you do unlock the majority of your movement abilities and the world starts opening up because of them, the fun I was expecting to have while playing a metroidvania style game started to reveal itself. The platforming still wasn’t perfect, but having more options to get around made all the difference. I especially liked that you could use Ajna’s axe to grab ledges or use her spear to spring herself higher. Unfortunately, as you get closer to the end of the game, you’ll learn new abilities that negate the usefulness of these earlier abilities, but I wasn’t too sad about that. I just wished it didn’t take you most of the game to get them.
The State of Battle
The battle system in Indivisible on the other hand, was much more consistent and probably the biggest draw to Indivisible’s gameplay. Like I mentioned earlier, the combat is performed during pseudo turn based battles, like a standard RPG. Well, more precisely the combat system has mechanics similar to the game Valkyrie Profile. So when you encounter a monster while exploring, you’ll transition to the “battle state” and enter commands to deal damage and/or defend yourself. Each active party member is then assigned one of the four face buttons, and in order to attack with them, you’ll need to press their corresponding button. You’ll also be able to mix and match which characters attack and when, to perform combos. As you level up, you’ll acquire the ability to attack more times with each character, which in turn will increase your combo hit count as well as your damage output. Additionally, each action while in combat can be altered by holding the up or down buttons for high, low and mid attacks! Finally, as you attack and defend yourself from enemy attacks, your Iddhi gauge will fill up. Once there is enough energy stored, you can then perform a character’s Iddhi attack. Which is unique to each character (at least for those who can use Iddhi), and can further be altered based on the number of bars that are filled on the gauge.
Honestly, the funnest part is that each of the 23 characters that you can recruit has their own unique set of abilities. Meaning, you can play off each of their strengths and weaknesses to make truly formidable teams! For example, you can have primarily aerial based characters matched up with long range characters to juggle enemies in the air or to ground flying enemies. That being said, with so many characters, I found it overwhelming and alway struggled with which characters I wanted to swap in and out. Although there were situations where using specific characters would have been more beneficial, I found that I stuck to a core group through most of the game. Only swapping individuals out when I acquire a new character or was forced to use a specific one.
All in all it was a fun and dynamic combat system, but I did find it a challenge to get used to. With enemies constantly attacking you, and having to remember which characters were assigned to which buttons so you can defend and/or attack, I found I would more often than not press the wrong button and expose myself to damage. This of course, just took some time to wrap my mind around, but once I got the hang of it, I was pulling off fancy high damage combos left and right!
One thing I don’t waffle on though is Indivisible’s presentation! I mean, from the moment you launch the game and see the first few seconds of the intro cutscene (which is fully animated by the way), you know that you’re in for a visual treat. I mean the game is absolutely gorgeous! The enemy and character designs are charming, and each new character you meet adds something unique and visually interesting to the overall experience! Even the NPCs, although not quite as detailed and fleshed out as the main characters, give a sense of a varied and diverse world. And that’s even before you factor in the fluid, natural and flashy animations! Which are only exemplified when you enter a battle!
Speaking of visually interesting, the environments are colorful and varied as well, with each new area having its own theme. Even though you may be revisiting each of them more than a few times, the sheer size and artistry keeps them fresh time and time again. The only real issue I had with Indivisible’s visuals was at times the 2D characters felt out of place against the 3D backgrounds, which led to awkward poses against the environments that broke the immersion. Nonetheless, that’s a minor gripe when taking into account the masterful design of the entire game! Which is added to and enhanced by its wonderful soundtrack. Hiroki Kikuta fits each track to each environment expertly and pulls the experience together as a cohesive whole. That and the whole soundtrack reminds me of classic JRPGs from the 32bit era. You know, basically a comfy blanket in audio form.
You know the more I think about it, the more I realized that Indivisible was a rollercoaster of criticisms and praises. At some points I was awestruck both with its presentation and gameplay, while at other points I was on the verge of calling it quits due to the tedious and long winded backtracking sessions. One thing is for sure though, regardless of how you look at it, Indivisible has truly left an impression on me. It may not have been perfect from top to bottom, but it shows Lab Zero Games’ ability to create engrossing interactive experiences! It was an artistic feat in all aspects and despite some imbalances, Indivisible demonstrates that with a deft hand a video game can represent the harmony between all disciplines.
Be sure to check out the video review as well: https://youtu.be/D1NaWKbGASE