Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Switch, Xbox One, Mac, Linux
If I told you that a small indie developer with only one game to their name was creating an ambitious project that was part metroidvania, part RPG, and part fighting game, all with glorious hand drawn cartoon animated sprites, you’d probably think it was a high-concept recipe for failure.
But against all odds, Lab Zero, the tenacious team responsible for much loved yet underappreciated indie fighting game Skullgirls has made it work with their latest release, Indivisible. Another product of a successful crowd funding initiative, Indivisible stands out a paragon of innovation in the gaming world. There’s nothing quite like it, which is not something you can say about most game projects these days, indie or not.
Indivisible puts you in control of Ajna, a young girl with a penchant for punching things in the peaceful and remote peasant village of Ashwat. Of course, it’s a very well-known law of RPGs that the more peaceful and remote a peasant village is the more flammable it is, and so soldiers from a neighboring kingdom burn her village to the ground and kill her father.
Just another day in RPG land
Ajna then embarks on a quest for revenge which, in grand RPG fashion, eventually becomes a fight to save the world. It hits all the familiar story beats that you recognize from classic JRPGs of the past, but with a twist. The game is largely inspired by southeast Asian mythology and culture and it’s that culture that feels safe and familiar to the player. Meanwhile, other cultures feel as if they are invading and feel foreign and sometimes scary to the player.
It was a risky but progressive move to take, and honestly it works. It certainly shakes up the standard formula of the protagonist growing up in a vaguely European medieval town, yet it never strays too far from the traditional RPG formula to make it feel uncomfortable. Playing Indivisible feels nostalgic if you are an RPG fan, even if you haven’t seen any game using this setting or these characters before.
One of Indivisible’s greatest strengths is its quirkiness. Much like Skullgirls before it, all of the characters in Indivisible are unusual in an endearing way. Your party will be filled with amputee dancers, Kamen Rider rip-offs, bog witches wearing the corpse of a tiger whose soul they keep in a magic lantern, and big floofy dogs! There are also quite a few guest characters to recruit from indie game hits like Shovel Knight, Transistor, and Hyper Light Drifter. The locales you visit are as quirky as the characters, mixing in the aforementioned southeast Asian mythology with anime and sci-fi influences. You’ll be just as likely to fight evil spirits as you are to get locked up in a neon techno prison.
The wonderful writing and design of Indivisible is only one half of what makes it so enjoyable. The other is its gameplay, which also feels unique yet familiar.
On the map, Indivisible controls like a 2D platformer. You’ll be making small jumps and avoiding hazards to navigate from point A to point B. Along the way you’ll gain upgrades that will allow you to access new areas. The axe will chop down barriers, the spear will let you high jump, the bow and arrow will let you hit switches from afar, so on so forth. As is the case with any metroidvania, the map will slowly open up as you gain more and more items and abilities, giving you new places to explore and new enemies to fight.
You can attack enemies as much as you like in these platforming segments, hitting them with your axe, sniping them with your bow, so on so forth. However, as soon as you touch an enemy, or an enemy attacks you, the game transitions into battle mode. There’s no loading to speak of. The transition happens right on the map and is genuinely seamless. You’ll get the hang of switching between the two modes fairly easily.
In battle mode, the game plays something similar to Valkyrie Profile but for those of you who have never played that series, it’s a fusion of the standard RPG Active Time Battle system and a fighting game. Each of your party members is mapped to a button on your controller. Pressing that button makes them attack, and holding a direction while pressing that button alters what attack they use. Attacking uses up action points which then have to recover over time. Use a powerful attack and your action points will recover slowly. Use a weak attack and you’ll be able to attack fairly soon.
Your goal here is to create combos, much as you would in a fighting game. Continuously attacking an enemy not only increases your damage, but it prevents them from putting up their guard. Sometimes you’ll have to open up an enemy’s guard by attacking it in certain ways, juggling it, or alternating attacks in a certain pattern. After an enemy’s guard drops, go in for the big combos! Comboing well not only increases your damage but also grants you more iddhi, this game’s version of a super meter. You can then cash in the meter for super attacks or whole party resurrections and heals.
The enemy is working on the same system, roughly. Every so often they will attack a member of your party, at which point you can attempt to block by pressing their corresponding button. You can also block with the whole party at once, making it easier, but doing so will cost you quite a bit of iddhi meter. There are plenty of variations to this system including AOE attacks and even grapple attacks which have to be “teched” by defending just after your character is grabbed. There’s even a parry system (triggered by blocking at the last moment) which can actually heal your characters and charge your iddhi gauge, if you are some sort of Street Fighter III: Third Strike super star.
This simple system can get deceptively deep once you factor in every character’s special abilities. Do you send everyone in at once, doing a ton of damage? That might sound good, but that means you’ll be a sitting duck, taking hits as you wait for your action points to recharge. Do you attack one by one? Once again that sounds good, as you won’t be left defenseless, but you’ll never do good damage or break an enemy’s guard. Do you spend your action points on party buffs or enemy debuffs? Well that’s great but your blocking better be on point or else you’ll die and lose all that work you did. Do you spend your super meter on healing or attacking? There are tons of decisions to be made.
Indivisible even lets its platforming segments leak into its battle segments. Each new item you get on the map corresponds to a weapon you can use in battle. You can actually attack with the axe or spear, for example, as opposed to just using them as traversal tools.
Sometimes, powerful enemies or bosses will break off the battle midway to force you to engage in platforming. Maybe they will run away and you’ll have to chase them. Maybe you’ll be locked in a room and you’ll have to avoid projectiles as if you were in a Mega Man boss fight. Your goal in these segments is to do as much chip damage as possible and eventually chase the boss down to re-enter battle mode, in order to do heavier damage.
Indivisible even takes a cue from Earthbound in that you can attack an enemy on the map and kill it outright! In fact, if you manage to keep an enemy in hit-stun on the map, juggling it or otherwise continuing to damage it, you can defeat it without ever heading into battle mode while still obtaining all the benefits.
But while each character in Indivisible is delightfully complex, boasting their own specific systems and attacks, the RPG elements are less complex. Sure you have XP and levels and all that jazz, but you don’t have complex equipment systems or item forging systems or whatnot. In fact, even major strength and defense upgrades have to be earned by finding collectibles in metroidvania style. It feels like Lab Zero really was trying to find a balance between their three genre influences, giving platformer players just as much to enjoy as RPG players. They did a great job, but it’s worth noting that you might be disappointed if you were looking for a heavy RPG with a ton of numbers to consider.
While, I would call Indivisible a near perfect game, there are certainly a few nitpicks I can make. You can’t change your graphics options before you get past the prologue, which can be frustrating if it doesn’t automatically detect the settings you want. It has a habit of freezing if you alt-tab out of it in fullscreen mode. While it supports Dualshock 4 on the PC version it only shows icons for Xbox One controllers which just seems like such an easy thing to fix considering the PS4 version already has code for PlayStation buttons. I can even nitpick about the super attack animations which are awesome, but the super flash before them feels a little weak, especially compared to Skullgirls’ stylized super flashes reminiscent of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.
By far the biggest flaw is the difficulty curve which is, unfortunately, all over the place. The beginning of the game is enjoyable enough but toward the middle of the game enemies will start killing you in one shot if your defense isn’t spot on. Then, if you slog through that, the end of the game becomes a cakewalk. The rest of the game, the animation, story, voice acting, new characters, all of it keeps you playing, but it certainly feels like the difficulty in general could use a bit of tweaking.
Yes, Indivisible has some problems but they are so minor compared to everything it does right. This is a game that scratches so many itches. I feel like I’ve played the next big platformer, fighting game, and RPG all at once. If that’s not your bag, there’s something Indivisible will do for you. Strong female characters? Check. Weird anime crap? Check. Beautiful maps and locales? Check. A great cast employing talents such as meme-lord Ben Diskin? Check!
There’s just so many ways you can play this game. You can grind out your characters to steamroll everyone. You can go for the 100 percent completionist route, searching every nook and cranny for collectibles. You can speedrun the game with a variety of different movement abilities and items. I myself found endless fun just finding ways to chain map actions like dashing, sliding, and wall jumping together.
Simply put, this is one of the best indie games I have played in a while and is certainly on the radar for indie game of the year. At a discount price of $40, it’s certainly worth a look, especially if you have no big AAA purchases coming up. That’s the thing about one-of-a-kind games, you only ever get one chance to experience them.