Genre mashups are always a risky venture, as there is always the likelihood that you might alienate one fanbase due to the mechanics of another, or implement specific mechanics that don’t necessarily gel. The end result can be utterly unique and fantastic, or perhaps a bit too problematic for its own good. If there’s one genre that is particularly unfriendly to newcomers, it’s that of competitive fighting games, where even the presence of training or tutorial modes can fail due to a bare bones set of instructions and mechanic explanations. When Skullgirls developer Lab Zero Games decided to take on the challenge of creating an Action RPG Platformer, they decided to draw upon their original genre of expertise, at least, in terms of the combat system. The result is a game that is very much divisive, which is the most unfortunate pun that a game like this could possibly have.
Indivisible is half Metroidvania and half sort-of turn-based RPG. While it’s fairly easy to explain the former part, the latter is complex in ways that are complex and frustrating – the perfect mix for an unenthusiastic newcomer. Even as a Metroidvania, Indivisible is fairly basic, with incremental upgrades being used to expand parts of the map and make previously inaccessible areas reachable. There are a number of very specific traversal mechanics you’ll need to utilize, though many of them often feel like updates to previous skills that then feel superfluous, except when they aren’t. The developers have made usually complex inputs like wall-jumping not much of an issue, but frequently require combinations of traversal mechanics in order for the player to progress further. There’s a lack of momentum in the way protagonist Ajna moves, with the inclusion of a dash button feeling like an afterthought despite being the primary method of actually building up speed for difficult jumps.
With how frequently the game hands out shrines as save points in between platforming challenges, it seems the developers were aware of how stiff and non-intuitive these mechanics tend to be. Platforming is used as a means of complicating boss encounters and giving players something to do in between battles, as the actual rewards of exploration feel somewhat inconsequential. These come mostly in the form of side quest fights with recolored enemies, power ups needed to boost your attack and defense values, and story progression. Ultimately, Indivisible seems more concerned with telling its story than anything, at least until towards its conclusion, during which it tasks the player with retreading previously covered ground. It’s an odd balance, and hardly one that feels even.
The other portion of gameplay is Indivisible’s unique, but poorly explained combat system. Aside from the protagonist Ajna, you’ll bring three other playable characters into combat with you. Each character has their own face button that activates their attacks, of which there are neutral and combination types. Pressing up and the character’s respective face button, for example, will do something very different from pressing down. Many characters possess gimmicks to their attack styles which can further complicate things – the early-game healer characters Ginseng and Honey, for example, can heal using their up combination. While this can become problematic for when you need to guard break enemies, which requires an up and down combination input, it remains a reason you’ll want to diversify your cast, if possible. And boy, if you want diversity, you won’t find any game with a more diverse cast than Indivisible. With twenty-something playable characters, you’ll likely find it difficult to settle on one group of three to use, as Ajna must always remain in the party. Not all of these characters will join you through narrative progression, however, so the primary reason for returning to previously visited locales is to see if you can recruit one of the many colorful characters stationed there.
There are a number of mechanics, such as perfect bounces after taking damage, combo counter optimization, juggling, and action input recharge that are not explained anywhere in the game, but are ideas that should be evident to seasoned fighting game players and are rather important for newcomers. Utilizing the same inputs over and over will actually cause a character’s inputs to recharge more slowly. Some enemies absorb magic attacks. Grabs require extremely precise timing, and hardly in the way you’d expect. Of course, the combo meter itself, a staple of the fighting game genre, is barely touched upon at all, though its usage is crucial to the way you dole out damage. Sometimes.
Narrative and Aesthetics
The Eastern inspirations of Indivisible are palpable from the very start of its narrative, and though it draws upon culture and lore that is likely unfamiliar to most Western players, there’s more to a narrative than just setting and backstory. Many of the game’s cast are fully voiced in cutscenes, and though the performances are mostly well done, the character writing can drag on due to the amount of characters and mirthless scenarios. While Ajna’s journey towards betterment feels fairly well-paced throughout the length of the game, many of her friendships do not. Everyone in the world of Indivisible seems relatively trustworthy and willing to be held captive. Too often, the game attempts to use humorous scenarios to wave away its strange plot contrivances, but the character interactions don’t always come across as human. The game’s writing will very much be “love it or hate it,” leaning more towards superficial, episodic-structure characterization rather than giving much depth to its characters.
This feels particularly wasteful due to how inventive and delightful many of the character designs feel. There are so few characters that feel similar to one another in design and mechanics, that the amount thrown at you within even the first few hours of the game can feel dizzying. The amount of detail in each playable character’s appearance and animations is staggering, but sometimes this can result in so much visual splendor on screen that action feels difficult to follow. This also can elongate the learning curve for some fighting styles, as other mechanics can stack and get in the way of things. Despite all of this, Indivisible remains a feast on the eyes in its cutscenes, in-game dialogue, and general animations. Not enough can be said about the excellent effort and ultimate triumph of the game’s artists. Similarly, while not every track manages to worm its way into your head, Secret of Mana composer Hiroki Kikuta lends some excellent atmospheric tracks to the game. While it doesn’t reach the heights of a certain other Square Enix Mana title released recently, it communicates the gravitas of set pieces and the mood of each biome well enough.
Impressions and Conclusions
It is frustrating to see a game attempting to wear so many hats and not succeed expertly at any of them. A quick look at the game’s Indiegogo campaign reveals a strong focus on what it is that Lab Zero does best – present a unique premise and world, while “expanding” on the combat of the cult favorite Valkyrie Profile. The former is a promise – the art and style of Indivisible is unique and delightful, as might be expected. The actual gameplay of Indivisible is a mixed bag that doesn’t seem to possess much synergy at all. The RPG mechanics are fairly shallow, all things considered, with only collectible trinkets boosting attack and defense capabilities. There are heart icons next to characters that indicate very little in regards to how effective they are in battle, and the limited amount of encounters in the game world means there’s little to no opportunity for a player to practice with different styles. For a game with such variety, it feels as if much of its potential is wasted on characters with far more impressive abilities than others.
Indivisible often feels like a game still in its conceptual phase – a narrative plotted out, environments crafted, and platforming challenges abound, but with very few of these elements fully realized. Though there are very few other products like it out there, it feels as if that is the case for a reason, as Metroidvania-style platforming and turn-ish based combat don’t work together all that well. Ambitious in scale, I can’t help but feel that the effort was put into the wrong places. While there might be something here for everyone to enjoy, the parts of this game you end up finding fun and problematic are sure to be divisive. Unfortunately, that’s anything but what Indivisible hopes to be.