About 70% through Indivisible, I recruited a giant woman with a bow named Phoebe. While looking at her ‘how to play’ menu, I read her two featured abilities — her down attack, and her passive — which said she had “air dominance” and boasted about the power of throws. Utterly baffled, I took her into the game’s training mode that unlocks entirely too late, and messed with her for a while, finding no results with her strange jump that didn’t do anything. Where exactly is her throw? It was only after launching the enemy and doing it that she grabbed them and did a back-breaker, and I shouted aloud, “Ohhh! She has a Heavenly Potemkin Buster!”
If what I just said makes sense to you, you should definitely try to play Indivisible. It is a game that is confusing, frustrating, messy, clearly a product of mismanagement and disorganization, and yet, since finishing it, I can’t stop thinking about it.
Indivisible was pitched to the crowdfunding backers as in the vein of Valkyrie Profile, and from the jump it makes it clear about that inspiration. The first scenes shows the ending of a prior game that never existed, hinting at a plot you can’t fathom until much later, and it even has a snazzy animated intro done by Studio Trigger. The game is exploding with love for sprite-based JRPGs of the Sega CD and Playstation era, like Lunar or Xenogears, right before moving into the spunky teenage character about to go on an adventure. And thanks to the LabZero hand drawn animation style, it is gorgeous to watch move and all the designs are snappy and clean.
All promising stuff. And there’s even something glibly funny about how all the citizens in Ajna’s little village have their own sprites, and the dialogue pokes fun at how flat their characters are, such as “the guy lifting straw” and when you talk to him he tells you how much he loves lifting straw.
Once you leave the village to train with your father, the entire first hour looms before you just waiting to unveil itself. You argue with him because he’s being a colossal dick and isn’t telling you anything about either of you, and not five seconds after he leaves do you go back to your village, only to find it on fire and him dead. “There’s so much I have left to teach you!” he says, as he dies, leaving you with the final words, “Death is not the end.”
It felt like Indivisible was winking at the camera as it set up the first hours of a jRPG and promptly blasted right past everything so we can get on with it. And once you start recruiting the really likable characters, I was fully on board for the experience. It felt like I just dove into a third show in the Avatar world, with my new Avatar protagonist striking out into the world.
As a guy who isn’t big into JRPGs, the lack of items and equipment also felt like a blessing — instead, Indivisible is split between two halves; core combat and the platforming, both of which showed real promise as you seamlessly go from wallkicking and dash-jumping to a Valkyrie Profile-lite fight menu. I felt like I could comfortably sit back and not worry about resources between encounters, and just take each part as it came, having been given a full heal so I only have to worry about the tactics and timing each fight.
I even like the technical bits of the combat, where enemies take more damage the longer your attack strings are, and characters only have so many strikes before they go into standby. You get into a really satisfying flow, sending Ajna in to uppercut them, followed by Dhar’s air slash, Razmi’s ranged flame attack, and as you get more actions, newer and different characters, and more iddhi (super meter), the choices just explode out from there. It is genuinely really fun to pick up new characters, tinker with what already works, and see if it fits your style.
As I got further into the game and finished the first act, I started to feel some of the fatigue stack up. I appreciate not wasting my time with items and equipment, but after a good six hours, I started to realize that bonus was being applied to a game with RPG length, which meant the combat’s choices quickly gained a sensation of, “…is this it?” I did my best to keep it fresh by trying to actually learn the new characters as they came, but you get one every few hours, and one newbie swapped into a team of four (one of whom is mandatory) means combat starts to feel very samey.
Indivisible tries to challenge you — it really does — but nothing about the difficulty really felt like I was in any risk, and so long as you learn the block timing, health is generous. They try to introduce new mechanics like the ones who absorb iddhi magic, but it just makes your healers like Razmi or Thorani literally useless. There is no tactical decision to “I guess I just can’t use them!”
The most frantic fight I ever had was with a sidequest boss who had an instant-kill, which forced me to quickly adopt the timing or lose a party member, and then have to use my iddhi to bring them back. More of this kind of difficulty spike would have been welcome; why not abandon the RPG conventions and instead slowly increase the pace of combat until I was playing a fighting game, requiring fast reflexes and quick thinking? Why not introduce enemies that slow my team, or rob me of action points?
Furthering this lack of tactical options, the game is terrible at onboarding you to your new buddies. Remember what I mentioned earlier about Phoebe having a passive that describes throws, but never mentions what her throw is or how to set her up? That happens a lot, and in many different ways. Such as when you get the bird girl, and it says, “Up attack while flying consumes all [blue orbs].” What the fuck are those? How do I get them? Can you tell me anything about them?
It feels like a playtesting problem; either they didn’t get to it in time or nobody actually sat down and did it to get to ask these kind of questions. And as such, instead, the game seems to just imply you’re better off hopping into your tutorial mode to experiment. Fair enough, I’m not going to say no to getting my hands dirty, but you don’t even get that training mode until the second act, a third of the way through this 20 hour game, and he’s missable. I’m confused, Indivisible, and I think you are too.
Now, this might be one niggling complaint, but the whole game is rife with this kind of thing, issues that pop up and keep stacking the more of them you discover, the kind of thing that ideally would have been smoothed out at some point in a five year development cycle.
Take for example; using a character gives them experience, and levels them up (represented by hearts). But what exactly does leveling them up do? I’m not entirely certain, apparently it increases their health, but I stuck Razmi on the bench for six hours and by the time I put her back in, she had almost doubled her total HP. So…is there passive leveling up too? Do I gain more damage too? Do characters gain bonuses if they’re in my party longer?
Adding to this problem is the fact that most enemies appear to have scaling health — so if I am doing more damage, what exactly is the point? And if the enemies don’t have scaling health, then what’s going on with some of the enemies I come back to and they’re even more durable? If this game is about learning how to play your team and experimenting, not levels and equipment, why is it I can unleash my best full juggle combo and only put them at half? I am beating at Indivisible’s door, yelling, “I know you have systems in there, jackass! Open up and let me see them!”
Again, I can’t impress enough, this problem appears in every aspect of the design. The platforming has a problem with momentum, where you land with zero if you don’t do the dash beforehand, which causes you to do a standing jump. Several areas early on require the axe-slam to scale high platforms, which makes the whole thing feel even more sluggish as you have a stop-go-stop-go game flow.
This would be doable, especially as the bow and spear-fling get added to your repertoire, thus giving you more vertical height and the ability to snipe switches that creates platforms. But then the new tools just keep getting piled on — an arrow that makes spikes safe to touch, a ceiling climb, a pogo stick, the Speed Booster, a floor smash…by the time the game comes to an end, I had two completely different airdashes!
Far from feeling like I reached a point where I transcended and broke the game’s difficulty and laughed at the challenges that once vexed me, instead it just felt like I had dozens of tools that I would need to swap between, and I often forgot that I had. You know how adventure games won’t let you use the pole in your inventory, and you have to go find a really long stick instead, and all it says is, “That doesn’t work?” Well, imagine that in platforming, where you fire the safety arrow at a row of spikes and nothing happens. Why? I have no idea! But after some trial and error, you remember the pogo jump and clear the spikes. Brace yourself for the next room, where now neither of them work on these spikes and you instead have to climb the ceiling!
There’s a real lack of clarity to the design, which is obvious because the tutorial sparkles that tell you where you should be going last through the entire game, even all the way to the final encounter. Now while this does help, a game with better play conditioning or level design wouldn’t need this, so it starts to look less like a feature and more like a frantically applied fix when the game wasn’t coming together.
You do, however, have secrets upgrade points called ringsels hidden in little alcoves and behind Metroid-style breakable doors or high on obscure platforming ledges, and these are fun to find, but they can only be funneled into one of two upgrade paths — another action point for your cast, or improving damage reduction on block. I did enjoy the act of seeking them out, but the reward felt piddling since it meant even that was not connected to the character levels. Why not cut down the ridiculous level of characters to about 5–10 and give them individual upgrade trees?
The previously-praised brevity of coming to a new city and seeing the town starts to wear exceptionally thin because I had forgotten the purpose of shops and citizens in RPGs; to familiarize yourself with them and create a sense of place. Without those things, every location becomes an abstract setting and color pattern, and all the Indiegogo backer characters standing around, with their Original Character Do Not Steal designs, only adds to this problem.
And worse, you have to make a second visit to the towns in the lategame (more on that later), and this is about the point where I should mention the map and respawning enemies, both of which are the pits. The map is unclear and disorienting, with a limited number of icons and a weird color-grid that obfuscates destination and routes, which forces you to hoof it. And when I’m doubling back to check if an unclear wall is scalable or if I need a new tool, and I have to fight that fucking tank a fucking gain this is about the point where I wonder how long until I can drop the game.
Now, take a second and step back and look at all of these problems as a collective; the combat is good but there’s no variety in this 20 hour faux-RPG, each location feels like a grade school play, the platforming works but is sticky and unclear and cumbersome, and none of these problems improve over time and in fact get worse as you get more comfortable.
It is incredibly easy to suggest changes as an armchair designer, such as reducing the grotesque number of characters to a handful and giving them more mechanical and story development and have the ringsels give them more options or buffs, or do away with several of the platforming tools and instead create longer platform chains that involve just the spear, or just the Speed Booster. I’d love to hear more out of Zebei, a man with his own issues and objectives, but thanks to the limited time and bloated cast, he just slips into the back and goes unmentioned after a point.
So at this point I ask, who is this game for, and who did they think it was for? In the beginning, I pointed at Phoebe, which made zero sense to me until I thought of it in fighting game terms. How many people will be familiar with not just Marvel Vs Capcom, but also Guilty Gear, Super Metroid, and PSX jRPGs? Appeasing everyone in this way makes nobody happy, and the game suffers for it, instead turning into a half-finished mishmash of several different games, all of which could be improved by taking away one of the others.
So you might be expecting me at this point to really sharpen up my sword for the kill, preparing to execute this game and toss it into the dustbin. But having finished it, I find myself with good feelings on it.
I think I might just have a weakness to ‘well paced adventure story with likable characters and a colorful, vibrant world.’ Sure, the civilized places you go to are flooded with DeviantArt OCs because people gave the team a stack of money, but when I’m hopping up a giant tree or sliding down a dirty faux-London and bouncing on pink rubbery sludge, taking in some of the set design and getting into chats with fun characters that elicits real laughs out of me, I stop minding it so much.
And the fact is, once you get in the groove, Indivisible actually has some really decent twists to the story. Sure, it sucks to see characters dump their entire backstories and motivations on you so they can jump into your head and never speak again, and doubly so when Lord Ravanavar does it, but it is never enough of a dealbreaker to bother me and I ended up loving where the story goes.
Dhar is a soldier who killed Ajna’s dad, but due to her power, she absorbs him into her head and they’re forced to work together. Dhar is pretty conventional; talented soldier in an army, still trying to get into daddy’s good graces, finds out he didn’t give a shit about him, and once he’s out of the way, Dhar finds himself lost and confused. Ajna is not especially bright, but very optimistic, so she gives him a chance, thus setting him on the path of redemption.
And its a pretty good dynamic — you get to slowly watch as Ajna goes from outright loathing to dislike to acceptance, and Dhar’s penitence seems incredibly genuine, all of which is buoyed by good voice acting and some decently written dialogue. And Ajna is a great character! She’s hotheaded and stubborn and optimistic, and it is incredibly charming to watch her bond with goth girl Razmi or adoring and mom-like Thorani, and befriend many people and promise to help like a slightly more masculine Sora from Kingdom Hearts.
SPOILERS SPOILERS HERE WE GO DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU HAVE NOT FINISHED THE GAME YET
SERIOUSLY LATEGAME STUFF COMING THAT’S REALLY A HUGE THING
But it’s during the second act that you start to pick up that something more is going on here; beneath the goofy exterior and the charming hotheadedness, Ajna’s altruism starts to take on a more grating tone in her pursuit to kill or re-seal the god-being that her father dealt with and she awoke.
She’s happy to chip in and take out a villain making things worse in a city on the way to her goal, but some of her more emotionally savvy companions start to question the wisdom of her apathy. And she’s not exactly wrong to do so — up until now, running in and bashing things until they worked right was something she was rewarded for.
This was especially striking when Thorani decided to essentially stay in an opioid-addicted city and try to cleanse the addicts, and Ajna bullies her into getting back in line so they can fix the big bad. It has that tone to it when your friend comes up with the great idea for going camping, but when plans aren’t coming together and the deadline looms, everyone’s a bit too nice and uncomfortable to speak up about it, especially as he yells to everyone, “It’ll be fine! I know what I’m doing!”
Dhar matches the player’s instincts when he finally stops her as she ignores the advice of the monks and rushing off to fight the villain immediately. He stands before Ajna, blade drawn, shouting, “I won’t let you make the same mistake I did!”
It is a genuinely terrific moment, watching Dhar recognize himself in Ajna and do something he wished someone did to him, and what makes it work is the question of what is going on in his head. Does he truly feel for Ajna, or is this another step in his attempt at redemption? The game never answers this, and since Ajna doesn’t even like him, it makes the moment all the stronger. After blowing past him, reality finally sinks into Ajna’s head, and she slows down as the wet blanket of shame hits her shoulders, apologizing to her friends for her behavior. This is the first time this happens in the game, and Dhar doesn’t gloat or scold her; instead, he says ‘what’s done is done’, and supports her carrying through her decision.
I was excited to see Dhar truly earning his stripes as a side companion, grow closer to the daughter of a man he killed, and try to work off his sin. I love a good redemption story, and the pieces were all placed and ready to go.
Which is why I was shocked when a god-infused Ajna, fully consumed by her rage, starts leveling entire cities, and Dhar jumps in front of one, yells that he’s sorry for everything, and blocks her destruction — and is vaporized. Ajna, stunned, breaks out of her rage and says, “…Dhar…?”
I went into this game expecting a happy fun time, watch Dhar redeem himself in the eyes of Ajna, they get into a comfortable friendship, and to quote my wife, “Maybe they could hold hands a little.” But suddenly that’s all taken away, and now kooky goofball Ajna, just having come to terms with her anger issues, kills a man she once thought she was helping redeem himself.
It is incredibly satisfying watching Ajna suddenly placed in an uncomfortable and lonely place, where she has to grapple with herself, accept her flaws, and begin the long, difficult journey of redemption. And despite all expectations, the game becomes incredibly subtle as Ajna never remarks that she knows how Dhar feels, having done terrible things and working to fix them as best you can, even as you’re saddled with guilt and sorrow.
“Death is not the end” are the last words Indr says to Ajna as he passes away, with Dhar standing over his body. “End the cycle” is your goal, as you work to stop Kala from consuming her missing chunk of power that is Ajna and destroying the world to start a new one. And as Ajna fixes the places she ruined, cycles and renewal becomes on the forefront of your mind.
By the time you find yourself at Kala’s doorstep, Ajna has learned all the lessons she needed, and she decides to go alone, saying she needs to fix this herself, having decided to merge with Kala and stop her from the inside. Ajna knows what true atonement and redemption means — Dhar taught her that, even if she would never admit it.
And then, to literally close out the cycle, Ajna then gives up the violent path and imparts her newfound wisdom to Kala — a goddess tormented by her own failures, she is taught to accept her flaws and mistakes, and work to a better future, by her other half in Ajna. And they are reincarnated as one, to impart that wisdom to others.
“Death is not the end.”
You see, as much as I complain about all the niggling frustrations and how long it took, Indivisible somehow ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. I won’t sit here and lie to you that I didn’t just spend four thousand words complaining about how it plays, but by the time I was at the final encounter, dodging Kala’s attacks and watching the particle effects explode, it became very hard to stay mad at. I felt like I had just watched a really excellent animated show, one that introduced some kooky characters and told some jokes then hit me with an emotional gut punch and finally closed out strong, and now all that stands out is the good parts.
The obvious question is, “If that’s true, wouldn’t it have been better as a TV show, where you could look at the colors and the motion instead of having to play a game?” And as I’ve said, my problem has never been that the game was bad — the problem is that dozens of little niggling complaints kept stacking up along the way. I don’t hate how Indivisible plays — I hate how close it was to being great, and how it lets me down for not getting there.
Which fills me with hope; much like Dhar and Ajna, no redemption story is complete without a few stumbles, and I have high hopes to see this gorgeous style return with the lessons learned here. LabZero definitely dropped the ball in a lot of ways, but I came away satisfied thanks to the writing and visuals and a wholly unique concept, and I can’t wait to see what they do next.