Become a wandering martial arts warrior in Absolver

I’m a sucker for complex combat systems, so I suppose I’m lucky to be living in a time when deeply complex action games are pretty dang popular. This year at E3 I’ve seen several demos for games like this — The Surge, for example — but so far the most intriguing one I’ve actually been able to get my hands on is Absolver. Absolver is an ambitious multiplayer martial arts game with some really nice art, and I’m pretty surprised I haven’t ever heard of it or its French developers, Sloclap, before.

Absolver is basically a game about being a wandering martial-arts master. Players will travel across an open world and seamlessly encounter other players with whom they can team up to fight NPCs — or duel to the death. They’ll build “decks” of combat moves that link into one another in unique customizable combos, switching seamlessly from stance to stance. Players will be able to use multiple different fighting styles, and they will literally be able to mentor one another and build each other’s skill sets through through sparring. They will dodge, duck, and parry. They will have swords, sometimes. They will form friendships. They will wear cool masks. I spent about forty minutes messing around with the combat system and both PVE and PVP gameplay, and Absolver seems like it’s fulfilling a kind of video game fantasy I didn’t know I have. I honestly never before sat around around thinking, “gee, I wish I had Customizable Kung Fu Master: The Game,” but now I think I will?

Absolver has a pretty simple, accessible foundation, and it builds on that foundation with several layers of increasing complexity. Combat is based around light attacks, which can form three-hit combos, and heavier “alternate” attacks— and that’s a combat setup you’ve probably seen in a ton of other games, right? In Absolver, however, players can move through four different stances, each with its own three-hit combo and special attack, and they can assign different kinds of punches and kicks to each one of those attacks.

You could, for example, assign a combo designed to break your opponent’s guard to one of your stances. You could assign a combo meant to dodge certain kinds of moves to another stance. You can pair alternate attacks with combos that make them more effective. You can assign moves which transition your character automatically from one stance to another, then loop all your stances together in a circuit, if you wanted. The “combat deck” allows you to basically design combo trees. When you fight against someone who has a skill you don’t have, you’ll learn it too, and once you’ve learned it well enough you’ll be able to stick it in your own combo trees.

And the combat in Absolver feels good, too. The game’s visual and audio feedback do a good job of both helping you know when you’ve executed a move properly, and making those moves feel a lot more satisfying. The characters are currently pretty quiet, mysterious folks, but I don’t think they need to be hooting and howling to elevate the stakes of their fights. The thumps of fists and feet on enemy flesh are pretty dang good by themselves.

Combat in Absolver also involves dodging, blocking, parrying, move cancellation, items, temporary-use swords, and equippable special moves — it’s an incredibly robust system that seems like it offers a lot of space for learning and mastery. Sometimes you’ll be fighting out in the world against NPCs, but you’ll probably also spend a lot of time fighting against other players. The players you’ll seamlessly encounter out in the game’s open-world mode can be enemies, companions, or teachers — Jordan Layani, Sloclap’s design lead, told me that if you’re wandering the world and see two strangers sparring against one another in the distance, you’d be able to choose how to approach and interact with them.

If that kind of open-ended encounter system doesn’t sound like your thing, there will also be one on one and three on three arena modes for solo or team duels. I asked Layani if there were plans to esport-ize that mode, and he said that while they’re not currently planning to do that, they’d be thrilled if players wanted to take it that seriously.

Both the open world and arena environments are incredibly beautiful, by the way. This game has a low-poly artstyle that combines natural environments with enigmatic human constructions. I saw a sun-baked human settlement filled with NPCs, then an empty evening arena set in a blue and green forest glade. A video introduction to the demo showed a lot of forestry, too. It’s a world I want to see more of.

I want to see more of these people, too. Dang, they’re cool-looking! Players can choose a man or a woman avatar and dress them up in a variety of strange, ninja-esque outfits. During the demo I picked up a lot of equippable clothes, but the only one I actually tried on was the mask.

Every character in Absolver wears a strange, spooky mask that obscures their entire face. I started off with a sheer mask that obscured eyes, nose, and mouth and came with a large brimmed hat. I replaced it later with a completely bizarre one that turned my entire face into streaks of silver-grey something and put a bunch of floating chips with eyeballs drawn on them all over the side of my head. And this is not even the weirdest mask I saw! In the parts that I saw, these masks were one of the biggest contributors to Absolver’s weird, unique setting and tone.

About that setting: Absolver’s press documents contain references to “the fallen Adal empire,” entities called Guides who test you to see if you’re good enough to become an “Absolver,” forgotten ceremonies, and so on– so there’s gonna be a story, but it seems like it’s going to be a pretty mysterious one, and it seems like the stories players form while making enemies and friends in the game world might be the best expression of that story. Layani told me, “we want story to be part of the online, so we want the player to create their own story with the experience with the other characters, the other player. But you are in this world for a purpose,” he added. I am honestly fine with that purpose being kind of vague and secret right now, because this looks like the kind of world that I’m going to want to pick apart on my own.

I am honestly really excited to play this game. I’ve got another whole day of E3 left, so I don’t want to call it early, but Absolver has been one of my most pleasant surprises all week. I hope we see more about this one soon.

Absolver will release in 2017 on PC and console. (And if you play it on PC, you’re probably gonna need a controller.)