World design is one thing that has kept me coming back to video games for years now. From early days spent pouring over maps of Link’s Awakening and Super Mario RPG in magazines, to hours exploring the likes of Lordran in Dark Souls and Bloodborne’s Yharnam.
There are now countless articles written about the wonderful world design and architecture in games, such as Ewan Wilson’s excellent analysis of Piranesi and infinity in games. Overall I feel like games don’t get weird enough with architecture and world-building, which is why Shattered – Tale of the Forgotten King is both a real treat, and incredibly frustrating.
Developed by French studio Redlock Studios, Shattered pits you as a mysterious hooded character wandering a strange, abstract world that appears to be inspired by the works of Jean Giraud, Moebius and Tsutomu Nihei. Mechanically it’s a soulslike with a regenerating healing item, stamina bars, and bonfire style checkpoints. Unlike a souls game, there’s a much bigger emphasis put on platforming, and to aid your exploration your avatar can double jump and dash in mid-air.
Narratively, you are thrust into a strange, dead world of digital essences and demiurges, with a plethora of names thrown at you in short succession, and a strange white sprite on your back who speaks in esoteric riddles one minute and pithy fourth-wall-breaking asides the next. The rapid switching between both styles is quite irritating at times, endemic of a story that really expects you to be heavily invested despite never really coalescing its ideas meaningfully.
The whole setup of the story with its portentous declarations of apocalypse and god-kings abandoning the universe feels blow for blow like the plot of Tom Parkinson-Morgan’s wonderful webcomic Kill Six Billion Demons, but he’d be the first person to tell you his comics ideas come from a mishmash of countless mythical sources, so rather than suggest its plagiarism, I want to highlight that it’s the kind of lofty, celestial drama that is very hard to feel attached to without good, well-written characters. Unfortunately Shattered is bereft of them.
Thankfully, Shattered has canny art direction in spades, and a world design to die for. I hit the screenshot button relentlessly whilst exploring the strange, desaturated landscapes of the game. As you explore the strange limbo world of floating rocks and dimensional doorways early on, the game will shift its camera to present platforming sections from unique angles, which whilst lovely to look at, comes at the cost of accurate jumping.
Early areas mimic typical fantasy areas with a bleak, surrealist edge, and you’ll go from strange mountainous areas to an old fashioned fantasy village fragmented into floating segments. The game is populated with a small range of enemies that are styled similarly to your main character, all oddly shaped limbs and masked visages.
Unfortunately, combat is as floaty as the platforming – parries are based on some oblique timing that I could never quite get the hang of despite hours of practicing. Impacts lack meaningful feedback, and hitboxes never feel like they match up exactly with the animations of enemies, leaving combat looking and feeling like two awkward marionettes clattering against each other until you end up dead because you didn’t notice that two thrusts wide of the mark had taken off half of your meagre health bar.
After fighting through the early areas, including a neat side-scrolling section set in a moody aqueduct, you’ll eventually break through to the Ancient Lands, which is where Shattered transitions from dingy, abstract dungeons to a vast, sweeping open-world full of strange and impossible structures looming ahead.
It is a superb moment, and if you’re keeping a keen eye out, you’ll also grab a wonderful hoverboard you can boost around on. As the old adage goes, if you can see a mountain, you can go there. Therein lies the rub. Just as that old sentiment turned out to be impossible to do justice to in games at the time, so too does it fall flat here.
You can go anywhere, but you’ll have to be aware that dying will send you back to a checkpoint that is usually a long trek from where you died. You’ll also be able to go and see all the strange unfinished nooks and crannies in the world, which clearly need a polish pass. Giant locked doors will halt progress, and there is never any clue how to get past them. Burtalist monoliths will give you items you don’t know what to do with, or demand items you have no idea how to get.
Exploring is at times magical: going through a valley to find a huge, crimson walled palace defended by a boss, that you discover is actually a labyrinth of claustrophobic corridors – it has an inherent appeal. Other times you will discover a network of floating platforms that you have to navigate with your awkward controls, failing over and over, only to find a bizarre tableau of frozen NPCs on the other side, or a mile high gate locked, and with no features letting you know what or where the key might be.
Not knowing where to go is anathema to enjoyment in games like this, and obfuscation and abstraction does not gel well the great yawns of time between each scant morsel of progress. It’s unfair to compare a small indie project to Breath of the Wild, but Shattered appears to ape some of its design cues with a smattering of enemy camps.
Unlike Breath of the Wild’s emergent playgrounds, these enemy camps are copy and paste enemy encounters that reward the same upgrade materials which you likely can’t use until you forge fragments that let you upgrade the forge back at home. It’s wonderful to see ambition and scale from smaller studios, but the review copy of Shattered I received feels unfinished, and no number of vast brutal monuments to dead kingdoms can mask that.
The mysterious, abstract nature doesn’t marry with making progress either. Combat is lethal at best, uneven and buggy at worst. Whilst exploring, you’ll occasionally stumble against a boss or an enemy that obliterates you without warning, with no indication if the reason you have failed is because you were unprepared, under-geared, or simply on the wrong track.
It seems fitting that when you die, the phrase Aeons Lost comes up on screen, because frequently it feels like the only penalty to dying is wasted time. Not knowing which path to follow, which areas to explore, and which enemies you should be taking on isn’t coherent, or logical. It might mirror the confused aesthetic of the world, but it’s just not satisfying to slog through.
Some more time spent hammering out the flaws and bugs, giving some way to indicate direction and progress without robbing the game’s feel of wonder in the face of its sepulchral grandeur, and tightening up the combat will make Shattered a worthwhile experience, but currently it’s a hollow joy.